22 Comments
Jan 21·edited Jan 21Liked by Rob Henderson

I worked as a school counselor at a High School where the socioeconomic divide wasn’t drastic. Less than 3% were on lunch assistance, most of the kids were middle class with a few outliers.

The kids who struggled in school did so because their home environments were inconsistent. They usually came from single-parent or divorced/remarried households where parents were usually disengaged and only responded to their child when the child stopped going to school and failing classes. Kids didn’t graduate at that high school because they didn’t show up. Any kid that showed up, even if he/she didn’t test well or do homework would pass.

I would get kids who were habitually truant and the parent would come in and ask me, a young 20-something with no kids for parenting advice. One thing I learned was how important setting up consistent behavioral boundaries for teens was and also how difficult that task was when teenagers turn sour. The parents would “lose the battle” with their teen who was naturally pushing boundaries (some are much more extreme than others) and would just sort of wash their hands of their child. The teen then engaged in risky behaviors, missed school, started failing classes, and then we would call in the parent and all of the sudden the parent would become strict for a week or two, the student would freak-out, and the parent would lose again and fail to follow-through. And when I would talk to the student about this, the students in these scenarios would typically blame their problems on a lack of money. “We got into a fight because she wouldn’t give me money to go to the movies or mall.”

For my Master’s degree I got some funding from the school to incentivize these kids who claimed that money would solve all their problems. I created a variable-ratio incentive structure with gift cards ranging from $5-$20. If the student showed up at school and sent me a text, he or she would have basically a 50% possibility (variable) of earning a gift card. I did this with a dozen students, and by the end of the program, I had hundreds of dollars in gift cards left over. I couldn’t financially incentivize them to come to school. On the other hand, I had a parent meet with me weekly who was trying to help their child after a series of life setbacks. The engaged parent was able to get her child back into school and pulled failing grades to a 3.3 GPA and they were on the school lunch assist program.

Parenting matters a great deal, and any attempt to thwart parenthood is ultimately detrimental to the child.

Expand full comment
Jan 21Liked by Rob Henderson

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of parental involvement and a stable home life. It’s unfortunate that even the mention of this fact has become right-wing coded.

I work in a huge, largely middle class Texas high school counseling office and the students that have discipline issues mostly, if not all, come from broken homes. The single moms that remain often don’t have the bandwidth or a support network to parent a rambunctious teen.

My mom was an addict and left the family when I was 6; eventually becoming my hero by finding sobriety with 26 years in the program. Although sober and holding a steady job, she had a terrible time handling me in high school and couldn’t find the strength to set boundaries or even minimal expectations. I was happy to oblige. Single parenting is like picking up a feral cat that doesn’t want to be handled; sure you can do it, but it’s going to be painful. I’m still paying for it at 50, learning skills on my own through books that I should have figured out decades ago with stable role models. One thing is for certain though, I’m a good mother. I found a good husband and we’ve stayed together now for 27+ years raising two wonderful young men. It was my life’s work to offer stability to my children so they could have an easier time in life even when my subconscious wanted to create the chaos in which I was moulded.

Stability can feel boring if not used to it.

Expand full comment

Excellent article. Useful information clearly articulated.

Expand full comment

Like the floor and ceiling image, increasing the number of female fortune 500 ceo's seems to have little to do with the rest of us. I would think increasing the length of maternity leave or making a single income household more manageable (I believe Rob included an article one week in which the number of women wanting, but being financially unable to be at home with their infants was much higher than the chattering class would have you believe) would do much more for many more women than who's sitting in the corner office. Perhaps if there was some data on whether or not companies of that size run by women are more female and family friendly. This is certainly not commentary on the merits of male versus female run 500 companies, but it is an argument that perhaps it doesn't further the cause in the way it is painted to.

Expand full comment

You’re an inspiration to me Rob, I’ve been mentoring foster boys for the past 4 years here in Arizona. It’s the hardest thing

I’ve ever done, and it has changed me in significant ways for sure. 2 years ago I started mentoring a 14 year old kid who came from a very rough childhood and was considered “unreachable.” I met him at a boys behavioral academy, and

I had no idea what I was about to get into. From the start, we seemed to develop a bond, he went from having all red days to mostly green, which meant I could take him off campus for all day outings, we had a blast, and the trust continued to grow. I was able to get him to look at other ways to deal with problems, issues, difficult feelings. At the weekly CFT’s I advocated for his interests, sometimes conflicting with people on his team. His adoption advocate used to always ask what my secret was,

I had no idea until one day he blurted it out. I was calm, and even keeled, and I made him feel safe, easy to be around.

I threw a birthday party for him to celebrate 15, asked him to invite a friend, he invited his best friend who we’ll call Dillon. The three of us hit it off, and I got permission from their Case Manager to take them both on outings, Dillon was on his own in the world, unlike the kiddo I was the mentor to who was going to be rejoined with his bio mom.

About a month in, Dillon asked if I would consider fostering/adopting him. My answer was absolutely, this kid was my dream kid, polite, a bit formal from being in a military school and was into the outdoors and baseball as much as I was. Dillon was a sensitive kid, the kind who would give you the shirt off his back even if it was at his own expense. The day

I brought him home was one of the best of my life. I never had my own kids, so this was my dream come true.

Things went well until they put him into another Behavioral high school, I was given no choice, we’d have to make the best of it, he would need to show them a consistent track record of progress in order to get into a regular high school. With no good options, he got involved with some bad apples who introduced him to vape. For a while I was unaware of what was going on, then things went south. I tried to get him into Catholic School, but we were turned down. He ended up disrupting from my home and the team put him into a psyche/rehab facility.

I stuck with him the whole time, nothing was going to separate us, I made sure that kid knew he was loved and supported, and our bond grew stronger. Dillon had a lot of trauma, and if someone triggered it, he’d respond in self-destructive behavior. The goal was to get him stabilized, and for him to come home, and for my adoption agency to support that. Unfortunately, the worst happened instead. One evening something triggered him at his group home, and he ran away. They contacted me around 9:30 pm to let me know what happened. At 11:30 pm he was found unresponsive in front of a QT station. He had been smoking vape laced with Fentanyl, a week went by before I was notified. My whole world collapsed, this was my kid, and I did everything I knew to do, but it wasn’t enough, the trauma he experienced before age 5 by his bio mother, along with the rest he experienced inside the Foster Care and Juvenile Detention system was too much to overcome. I met his bio dad and aunt at his funeral, and have developed a bond with the aunt. It has helped us both in our grief. The learning process continues for me. I hope you get your book signing events, and if you come to Phoenix, I’ll be there for sure!

Expand full comment

It’s pretty clear that genetics creates a ceiling but not a floor. Chaos can always make a person worse, but there’s only so much that even a perfect environment can do to overcome some kind of inherent limitation.

Expand full comment

For me it gets back to that Joseph Campbell 3-step concept of required development progression of mother's-child, father's-child and then adult. Skip any of the first steps, of have them materially deficient, and the last step is likely to be more challenging to obtain.

Mother's child is the one of unconditional love and nurturing. Father's child is the progression to tough-love and the lessons of consequences for behavior.

Divorced parents can do a good job with these things, but it becomes more of challenge if there is material conflict and resentment between the parents that result in inadequate attention given to the children. Single parents can sometimes to a good job by recognizing the need to shift roles based on the age and needs of the children.

It seems to me that the biggest deficit in our modern society is the lack of father's child development. Some kids enlist in the military and get the equivalent. They get the discipline... the consequences for behavior... and they get a sort of tough-love from their commanding officers and peers that serve along with them. Team sports in school can also help supplement what is missing in the father's-child parental experience.

It is the mother's child link that is the most difficult to replace when lacking. How does a person go back in time to get reinforced with the emotional self-confidence of being loved unconditionally? In some cases the luck of finding a partner/spouse that patiently builds up this feeling of being loved is healing, but even that can be destructive as a partner relationship should be of equals and not so needing of one partner to be so reassured. It takes a special partner to navigate that minefield.

In my view of a more perfect society related to childhood development I would favor all public policy that both encourages two-parent households and provides financial support for the early years of childhood so that more mothers can be stay-at-home. I would also like to see grade schools teach more life-skills that help improve family stability as these students launch into adulthood. Lastly, I would expand team sports and military service access, especially for males... the gender in most need of a robust father's-child experience.

Expand full comment

I admit from the start I'm biased and believe about 95% of who we are intellectually and behaviorally is nurture. The other 5% is our genes. Also consider each person's genetic makeup, while inheriting from each parent is different from the parents, so the combination of genes one inherits from each parent make up a new genetic environment. To give an example, imagine parents that each have a boat with an engine. The dad's boat is designed for fishing on calm lakes. The mother's boat is designed for driving around fast in open water. A son inherits his dad's engine but the boat he inherits from his mother. The setup is not going to work on the lake or open water like the boats did for either parent as it's a new kind of boating setup. We will probably see behavioral similarities most of the time, but we are also prone to see what we expect. If I just see the mother's boat and not the dad's engine, I will think the boat can still go out in a bad sea state. The brain becomes less and less plastic as we progress through childhood. I believe the number one early influence on life trajectory is stability (learning to trust) and whether or not a parent or parents read to a child and help them explore and learn from infancy, whether that's math, music, mechanics, language, etc. There are outliers, as you demonstrate. I'm assuming you weren't read to or taught much by the adults in your orbit, except for perhaps teachers when you started school, yet you were able to make the lost time up yourself. I often hear from other adults about one non-related adult who had a big influence in their life. Your caseworker seemed to be your lighthouse in your foster years.

Expand full comment
Jan 23·edited Jan 23

The Los Angeles County foster care system is the largest in the world. It boasts 35,000 kids and an annual budget of $2.8 billion. Each year CPS in LA County receives over 265,000 referrals for abuse and neglect, which fund the beast. During the COVID lockdowns the referrals dipped down and funding was threatened. DCFS and LA Sheriff were in talks to knock on random doors to check if kids were being abused and neglected. Clearly a violation of the 4th amendment. While some children do grow up in abusive and unstable homes, some are being ripped away from their parents and stability unjustly. Children are being traumatized in the name of corporate liability created from the 265,000 referrals. In court CPS has an over 97% conviction rate. Only 3% of parents accused of abuse and neglect get dismissals. Over 60% of all cases involve referrals from police on domestic violence calls. It is the ultimate parent trap. It is not all parents faults that children end up traumatized in foster care. It is so wonderful to see that you care about these families and kids.

https://www.foxla.com/news/dcfs-shoots-down-sheriffs-plan-to-check-on-children-at-risk-for-abuse-during-lockdown

Expand full comment

Thank you for this insightful post. It has shed light on a question that has long puzzled me. Specifically, I've been trying to reconcile the apparent contradiction in social science research. On one hand, there's a claim that children's development is not significantly influenced by their family environment. On the other, there's an emphasis on the importance of two-parent households in reducing social issues in inner-city areas. Your article has provided much-needed clarity on this topic.

Expand full comment
Jan 21·edited Jan 21

I have pre-ordered your book and also as a subscriber read the chapters you posted which took your story through high school. It was interesting to me that the environment you depicted in foster care seemed far more chaotic than the environment after you were adopted. The foster care environment was nothing like what I see as a (non-elite, divorced) parent among my children and their friends. However, the environment in the small California town after your adoption was recognizable to me as somewhat similar to what I see among young adolescent males in “normal” families today - yes, worse in some ways, and somewhat more violent, but still recognizably similar.

Expand full comment

"The researchers measured environmental unpredictability by number of changes in residence (e.g., moving to a different house/apartment), changes in cohabitation status (e.g., whether and how often male romantic partners moved in or out of the house/apartment), and changes in employment status.

In short, how often the kid moved, how frequently the adults in the kid’s life appeared and disappeared, and how frequently his mom changed jobs.."

Yeah, that's me. My parents divorced when I was about 2, maybe three towns in, with an unreliable dad and a working mom rushing through jobs. We moved across the country, I was left for childcare with whoever were the neighbors at the time, we moved out of the country, moved around there, moved back. My first memories are car camping across the country - the smell of a tent under my face - fear of the neighbor's son, head trauma, babysitters not understanding my completely legitimate words: a pastiche of dislocation. This might be part of why I enjoyed your book so much despite the fact that I was never a foster child. It's also the polar opposite of the life I've provided for my children.

"Age at first intercourse

Number of lifetime sexual partners at age 23

Criminal acts

Aggression (e.g., “I deliberately try to hurt others,” “I destroy things belonging to others”)

Delinquency (frequency of lying/cheating, breaking rules, setting fires, stealing, drug use)

Well... let's just say I'm over it now. Though I still break rules.

Anyway, thanks for the insight, Rob.

Expand full comment

Perhaps the genes did change depending on the timeline. Yes, culture matters, but if you have poor genes in the mix already and grow up in a individualist culture already influenced by earlier generations of those with poor genes, then negative cultural incentives will influence those with poor genes in a bad direction and those with good genes will able to resist the negative culture. https://youtu.be/IjjvNEHPl7Q?si=tN0y6tvJk9NpqnUf

Expand full comment

Meanwhile people like Travis Scott and Kylie Jenner go on popular magazines talking about how the age of raising kids in a family is over, and that traditional stable kid-raising is old and overrated

Expand full comment

After some years of prison ministry, I understood that the prison system it is an industry that has replaced the metallurgical or other industry gone abroad. I was reading, a while ago, how a town in KY was looking forward to get prison nearby to offer a solid employment for the town folks. On the other hand, Rob is right that, in just the last 30 years the educational and socioeconomic environment has changed so much to become more and more chaotic. There will be more and more destructive consequences coming soon.

Expand full comment

This tracks with everything I know from my great-grandmother born 1906, grandparents born 1935, parents born 1962, self late 70's, and my kids born latest 90's. Very strange how it all follows a somewhat perfect model like that, including some major instability in parts.

Expand full comment