Colour Blindness and Optimism

There are a lot of comments going around the internet that sound like a sort of backlash against the Ferguson and I Can’t Breathe protests. It’s white folks taking umbrage, maybe feeling left out, like ‘who’s protesting the fact that my life sucks too?’

I think comments like that can be viewed as somewhere on a spectrum, the extreme bad end being racist, but it’s probably usually best viewed this way: a lot of white folks aren’t aware of their racism. It’s all part and parcel of the beliefs around social things – Original Sin, Nature over Nurture stuff, a pedestrian disdain for psychology and social science generally. It seems to me to be rooted in some sort of idea that despite the bad things happening in the world, still, somehow we need to see everything as being all right.

Everything is OK, we’re not screwed up or racist, we’re just dealing with the screwed up people in the poorest communities the best way and the only way possible. It’s the world that’s bad, not us.

This “colour blindness” is at it’s core, optimistic. Of course, optimism isn’t always a good thing.

Ignore that “Tiger Mom” – She’d Eat Your Kids

– And here’s the text:

Being an ‘Elephant Mom’ in the Time of the Tiger Mother

It’s okay for parents to nurture, protect, and encourage their children, especially when they’re very young.

I still remember the first time someone spoke to me about grit. It wasn’t when I lost my dad and saw my mother fall apart.

It wasn’t when my mother died, and I felt like I was falling apart.

It wasn’t when people who I believed would invest in my business didn’t. It wasn’t when the great recession hit our advertisers and my business had to stop publishing a magazine.

It was when I was thinking of pulling my 3-year-old out of a preschool in which she clearly wasn’t thriving. She was anxious, frozen, a shadow of the child she used to be before she started there.

But it was a co-op preschool, meaning I couldn’t just turn around and leave. When you sign up to join a co-op, you also sign up to work various jobs around the school and to commit to being an active part of a larger community. In other words, I had to talk to the other parents at the co-op about my decision. One of them cautioned me: “What about grit?” she said. For a minute, I was taken aback. Was she talking about me or my 3-year-old?

She wasn’t talking about me.

It shouldn’t have shocked my system. I’ve often felt like a misfit around parents when they talk about how kids have it too easy these days or how important it is to inculcate a sense of independence in them as early as possible.

This is the story of my struggle to allow myself to be the kind of parent I want to be. I grew up in India, but moved to the U.S. in my 20s and became a mother here in my 30s. I had never felt like an outsider, ever—until I had a child.

I read a lot of books so that I would be the best mom I could be. And I suddenly found myself wondering, did the Indian parents I saw in my parents’ generation—and many in mine—get it wrong? My father was a big believer in the importance of a child’s first five years. I often heard him tell people how he couldn’t scold me until I was five. He reprimanded his younger brother for raising his voice at his kids before they turned five. Raised voices or not, we didn’t have any concept of time-outs anywhere around us. I can’t recall a time when I cried and a grown up didn’t come to console or hold me. They always did. I slept with my mother until I was five. My father would tease me and say I was my mother’s tail, but neither of them did anything to get me to sleep alone or in a different room with my siblings.

My parents weren’t the only ones with this kind of approach. The phrase I would hear in almost every home we visited during my childhood was some version of’Let the kids enjoy themselves.’ They have the rest of their lives to be grown up.And the social fabric of our world supported them. We would go to the fanciest of restaurants with our parents and run around and play tag. No one would stop us—not the managers, not the other diners. It was normal. Soon enough, the servers would join in. It was lovely.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that my parents and their friends necessarily had it right. Some of them produced kids who were happy, some of them didn’t; some of them raised CEOs, some of them raised stay-at-home moms. I’m justsaying that it’s okay to be an elephant mom, an elephant dad—an elephant parent.

If you’re wondering what ‘elephant parent’ means, it’s the kind of parent who does the exact opposite of what the tiger mom, the ultra-strict disciplinarian, does. Here’s a short video clip that shows how real elephants parent. And that’s what I’m writing about here—parents who believe that they need to nurture, protect, and encourage their children, especially when they’re still impressionable and very, very young.

My elephant mom was a doctor with infinite patience. I failed a Hindi test when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and I remember going to her, teary-eyed, with my results—and hearing her tell me that it didn’t matter. There were many more tests ahead. As I sobbed in her lap, she stroked my hair, hugged me, and told me there would be another test, and I could pass that one. (I did get the annual proficiency prize for Hindi a year later at the same school.)

My grandparents were doting parents, too. On both sides, the families lost everything in the partition of India. They had to flee to India from what is now Pakistan. My naana (mother’s father), originally a doctor from a wealthy family, began saving every rupee to educate his girls. He stopped going to the movies, his favorite past time. Both he and his wife stopped buying new clothes and began stitching them at home instead.

My father knew grit. He came to Punjab in India on a train with bullets flying around him—and people dying in front of his eyes. (Riots accompanied the 1947 partition that divided India and Pakistan.)

After his father died suddenly, he looked after his mother and brought up his four siblings in India. He and my mother paid for them to study in school and college and funded their weddings. Yet, my father never talked to me about grit. If anything, my parents protected me from pain; perhaps they knew that life would eventually have some pain in store for me, sooner or later. They learned how to raise their kids from their parents. And I learned how to raise my kid from them.

But my husband, who is also Indian, and I are raising our daughter thousands of miles away from where we were grew up. There aren’t any families of Indian origin at my daughter’s preschool or even in our immediate neighborhood. “Our way” isn’t a way that everyone around us understands. When she was a baby, we wouldn’t let her cry herself to sleep. It wasn’t a judgment on those who followed the sleep expert Marc Weissbluth’s advice. It was and is a cultural belief. Even now, our four-year-old will often ask us to put her shoes on, and feed her, much to the consternation of many fellow parents. But we do it because it connects us to our uncles and aunts who would have said she has the rest of her life to do it herself.

To make sense of the world where I was raising my child, I went to meet Angela Jernigan, who runs Parent Connect East Bay in Berkeley. She helps people find and build a support structure in their parenting journey. “We don’t have the village anymore,” she said. “It’s very hard for parents to be connected (to their kids), to give their kids the experience of being felt and heard.” For that to happen, parents need to feel connected and supported themselves, which in our fragmented world can be hard to do, she explained.

Jernigan has heard words like grit and resilience thrown around in her own child’s elementary school. “I explain that us having adult-like standards for children is the wrong way to build resilience. Parents have to be nurturing to build a core of strength with children,” she said.

Nurturing. Vulnerable. Empathetic. That’s how parents need to be, she suggests, when kids are having a “big feeling” (in other words, a meltdown).

I heard something similar in a TED talk by Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, who studies the human connection. “You can’t selectively numb those hard feelings,” Brown said. She was referring to emotions like guilt, vulnerability, and shame—emotions kids and adults feel. In an uncertain world, Brown said, we like to make things certain. “We perfect, most dangerously, our children.”

And why we do that probably warrants an entirely different discussion about our cultural fears and insecurities. Have we failed as parents if our kids aren’t the most well-behaved, toughest, and smartest kids in the neighborhood? Jernigan’s clients are more often than not people who are trying to be the perfect parents, raising perfect kids.

Literature, discussions and forums about parenting abound. As we look for the best ways to raise our kids, we gravitate toward what makes sense to us. After meeting Jernigan, I couldn’t help but think that if there were so many parents flocking to her group to learn how to better connect with their kids, maybe many of the differences I’d noticed weren’t as fundamental and deep-rooted as I’d believed. Perhaps parents, regardless of where they’re from, have more in common than not. The mom who spoke to me about grit also, on a separate occasion, spoke to me about wanting a slow separation from her child.

Studies and facts indicate that, regardless of what parents might say about being tough with their kids, they are spending more time and money on them than previous generations have done. A 2012 study by sociologists Sabino Kornrich and Frank Furstenberg that was published in Demography found that parentsspent more on their children’s education and care than on consumer goods from 1972 to 2007. Studies out of the University of California at San Diego show that college-educated parents in the U.S. have dramatically increased the time they spend with their kids over the past twenty years.

Nature VS Nurture and Twin Studies


First, sorry for the first post, it’s gone. I’ve just learned something about ‘Link’ posts.


This isn’t the most comprehensive article about all the separated twin studies that have been done, but it’s new, and typical enough. Here’s an excerpt, a link to the article and the author’s data, then my comments:


“To explain this close bond, psychologists frequently look to environmental factors: Identical twins, growing up in lock step, share most of the same experiences (they are often even treated the same by others) and therefore develop their unusually strong connection. But my research on reunited twins challenges this theory. I have found, for example, that reunited identical twins report feeling greater closeness to each other than do reunited fraternal twins. And I have found that a reunited twin generally reports feeling closer to the twin he only recently met than to a genetically unrelated sibling with whom he was raised.

Given that reunited twins were not reared in the same environment, genetic factors are surely relevant to these bonds. But how do shared genes result in an immediate sense of connection?”


Nancy L. Segal, a professor of developmental psychology at California State University, Fullerton, is the author of “Born Together — Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study.”


How different are the environments really? Don’t we all raise our kids the same way, with the same methods? And even in the case of these ladies, isn’t American culture and therefore American child-rearing simply a continiuation of the British version? Aren’t the apparent differences from household to household superficial? For this, I offer the relative ubiquity of parenting books and discussions where the basic premises are nearly universal while only the details of how and when parental control is exercised differ.

Which makes me wonder that we are not looking at the correlation of genes in interaction with different environments, but genes in correlation to environments that are actually also very similar. Again, within a given culture, how different are the environments provided for children? This idea would have to extend to the sorts of personality tests that the twins do so similarly at: are the described personality traits and types not also visible only in contrast with a fairly uniform background? If so, the power of our genes, and so of the Nature over Nurture argument, is going to win every time, considering that there really be very little variation in the environment children are raised in anyway.

Nature VS Nurture – the Full Version

It is my contention that the nature VS nurture debate is often framed in a bad way. I wish to make it clear that it is not an inverse relationship, not an either/or kind of thing; we have natures and we have a lot of nurturing to do, it’s not one or the other.

When discussions of behaviour take place, when crime is studied, it very naturally leads to talk of the ‘nature VS nurture’ debate, and understandably so. Both principles play huge parts in our lives, and determining what is in our natures and what we are actively creating in our lives would seem to be an endeavour the importance of which really can’t be overestimated. Many believe that we really might benefit greatly if we knew which aspects of humanity, which aspects of ourselves are “hard-wired” and which are or can be learned. Why that is, why so many of us find this dichotomy important may be an interesting query, but not just yet. First, let’s look at the present state of this old debate.

Genetics is a fast maturing science, and is taking many other branches of science to new levels of complexity and understanding. I believe the present state of the ‘nature VS nurture’ debate is that some things may be all one or the other, but that in many behaviours, many instances of predisposition as well as many illnesses are brought about or not, as the result of some interaction between the two. Genes have been identified to correlate with many of these things in people, but many cases show that environmental factors can act as switches for these genetic occurrences, that is, have the effect of turning genes on or off. This is not remotely my area of knowledge, but as an example, there are genes that have been identified as making certain cancers more likely, but of course, everyone with the particular cancer gene doesn’t get the cancer. I’ve even heard of a “psychopath” or “warrior” gene (the MAOA-L allele) that requires abuse or neglect in childhood to activate it; again, not everyone with the gene actually displays violent behaviour and not every abused person with the gene does either. (Again, the disclaimer: this is not my area, but it shows the interaction of genes and environment.)

The existence of such a gene is certainly a useful piece of information, an important type of contribution from the ‘nature’ side of the conversation, perhaps a couple who possess the gene could be counselled to either adopt children, or at the very least, to be educated in a gentler method of child-rearing. This would be a practical thing resulting from this scientific discovery, the first, a ‘nature + nurture’ problem with a ‘nature’ solution, the second option being a ‘nurture’ solution for the same problem. I think I’ve made no secret of which side of this debate I feel to be the more important. Suffice to say, a major improvement in human nurturing would render the scientific discovery of the ‘warrior gene’ moot. If no-one abused, no ‘warrior genes’ would be activated.

I thought this topic needed mentioning, but honestly, I only bring it up to pass over it. For the record again, I am a ‘nurture’ guy, and that may be genetic: the apparent determinism of the ‘nature’ argument doesn’t sit well with me. I’ve read some stuff about the ‘twin studies’ – twins separated and adopted out at birth have been studied specifically for the unique value the resulting information would bring to the ‘nature VS nurture’ debate, and apparently some of these twins have lived amazingly parallel lives, giving support for the ‘nature’ side. Strong as that and some other things are on the ‘nature’ side of the conversation, I can’t seem to accept it; to me it seems hopelessly counter-intuitive. And so, I have developed a philosophy that simply ignores it, but consciously. I have made great efforts not to base my musings upon on the idea that my side has won the debate, which is certainly not the case. An argument for the ‘nurture’ side would be the many studies, some of which I have included here in this project that show the negative consequences of childhood abuse and corporal punishment. Those are very strong, well vetted arguments for the ‘nurture’ side, at least in terms of ‘negative’ nurturing. That may be an important thing in the ‘nature VS nurture’ conversation.

Positive nurturing seems not to be in evidence, at least not as clearly and obviously as it is in the case of negative nurturing, or abuse. It would appear that the power of nurturing is seen and felt most strongly when it’s all gone wrong. Partly, influences on us have their greatest power when we are younger; every year we age things get less influential on us, so the damage of early abuse is rarely completely resolved later, even with many years of positive nurturing stimulus. This usual arrangement of things makes it difficult to separate it, but it doesn’t prove that abuse isn’t just plain more powerful than positive nurturing. It may be. If so, that is very important in the discussion. Positive nurturing may be losing the debate, but negative nurturing can win it – again, if it were a debate, if information from one side negated the knowledge gained from the other.

That, however, is not the case.

I cannot imagine in what way a complete understanding of our natures could ever negate the importance of nurturing. How can a full map of the human genome, all labelled with predispositions for behaviours, even for brain disorders or psychoses ever mean that we don’t need to be careful and nurturing with one another, with our kids? Conversely, how could improvements in the nurturing of human beings invalidate scientific inquiry? This is an apples and oranges sort of thing. The only way there is a ‘debate’ here is in the most negative extrapolations. ‘Nurture’ folks may legitimately worry that the ‘nature’ people wish to institute some program of eugenics, mandatory sterilizations and such. As a member of the ‘nurture’ crowd, my worst fantasy is that the ‘nature’ folks are looking for a way out of any responsibility that is implied by the importance of nurturing, that they want to believe their parental roughness isn’t hurting their kids. Obviously, science should march onward, I don’t caution against any learning, but I am having a hard time imagining a good, moral reason for any argument from the nature side if it is intended to detract from the importance of nurturing.

Having chosen sides in this false argument, I simply choose to exempt my arguments about punishment from the ‘nature VS nurture’ issue in this way:

In terms of behaviour, nature is what it is. The time may have come when we have difficult policy decisions to make regarding exercising control over our genetics, but to date, eugenics has spoiled the enthusiasm about it, morally. The spectre of total control over our lives that way, total control over our breeding habits is not a pretty one, and we know that the efforts made throughout our history, and our long pre-history to fit our actual breeding into a scheme anyone thinks it should follow have failed spectacularly. Even in societies that exercise extreme control over their females, still the behaviour of the males ensures that breeding remains nearly as random as that of our primate cousins. This may be a sort of genetic imperative, providing randomness in the gene pool.

So, to repeat, nature is what it is, and not to sound anti-science, but it probably should be. So even if we develop a workable plan to start breeding in a far more conscious and scientific manner, I think we should direct a large portion of our effort to nurturing issues.

When approaching any problem, Occam’s razor – the simplest explanation is probably the truth – is probably the first tool to apply. One interpretation of this idea can be to first test the things we do know, before searching for more information. In the case of the problem of human misbehaviour and crime, we should look first at what we do regarding these problems now, and wonder what effects the things we know that we do are having – of course I am referring to punishment. Punishing is certainly a part of the phenomena we are investigating, so considering that abuse is known to damage people, causing defiance and misbehaviour, and corporal punishment does the same, perhaps Occam’s idea should be applied to punishment in general. Although difficult to consider for most of us, for a variety of reasons, purely logically, this is a simple question: is it possible that the very thing we do – the only thing we do – to cure crime and misbehaviour is actually the cause? Again, emotionally challenging, but logically simple: is it possible that the only thing we do is the thing we’re doing wrong? I think Occam’s razor demands that we at least test it somehow. Otherwise we are probably doing the equivalent of running around town searching for our spectacles while they’re right there on our face.

In summary, then, advances in the understanding of our natures, brought about by genetics and other disciplines are not in any opposition to the human need for nurturing. The present state of the science of the debate is that there is an interaction between genetics and environment. Nurturing can affect our natures. The power of nurturing is most visible in its negative form, the damages of abuse, where we know that nurturing can affect our natures. We have natures, yes, and to learn about them is a good, useful pursuit, but we have nurturing to do. There is plenty of room for improvement in the human administration of nurturing. Nurturing is what we do, what we can do, and where we should be concentrating our efforts to solve the social problems of crime and misbehaviour. It may be exactly the things we do in the area of nurturing, and not our natures, that cause these sorts of problems.