A question of character?


  • Social brain

The long awaited Demos pamphlet on character is causing much debate. The think tank’s argument is that parenting, through the way it shapes character, is the most important determinant of a child’s life chances. The parenting style which Demos characterises as ‘tough love’ is the one most associated with good life outcomes, while both ‘authoritarian’ and ‘disengaged’ styles are much less successful. 

When it comes to policy recommendations, Demos argues for greater clarity, investment and evaluation in relation to parenting and early years services.  In particular, the authors argue for services to target resources at the psychologically vulnerable children who, research shows, would benefit most from the right form of parenting.

This is interesting stuff and it is hard to disagree with the findings. Those on the left will like the recognition that socialisation is vital to shaping life chances, which justifies investment and intervention in family life. On the right there will be enthusiasm for the idea that it is parental responsibility not just socio-economics that shapes children’s outcomes (although the Conservatives will not be pleased to see the pamphlet rejecting the suggestion that the marital status of parents is an important independent variable).

While welcoming the report and the debate it has opened, I have some reservations.

I am not sure how useful is the concept of ‘character’. It implies, first, that all the good personality attributes the pamphlet links to successful outcomes always go together in a single bundle: you’ve either got it or you haven’t. Second, while correctly highlighting the importance of our psychological predispositions and early-years socialisation, it is not clear to me whether character is an attribute of our programming or our decision making. If you are born happy, have great parenting and then go on to live a life of self interested middle class complacency, do you have better or worse character than the deeply troubled and disadvantaged individual who manages to survive or even to use their own experiences to help others? As my grandmother used to say to me ‘only cowards can be truly brave’.

No one can deny the importance of parenting and the early years; indeed over its twelve years in office Labour has dramatically increased investment in this stage of life. But we mustn’t move from this to a kind of individualistic determinism in which each person’s life chances are seen as laid down for ever by the combination of their psychological inheritance and experience of parenting.

In my annual lecture I quoted American scientists Nicholas A. Christakis and James Fowler, authors of ‘Connected – The Surprising Power of Social Networks’:

social influence does not end with the people we know. If we affect our friends, and they affect their friends, then our actions can potentially affect people we have never met. We discovered that if your friend’s friend’s friend gained weight, you gained weight. We discovered that if your friend’s friend’s friend stopped smoking, you stopped smoking. And we discovered that if your friend’s friend’s friend became happy, you became happy’.

Just as research on the impact of the early years builds up, so does evidence of the importance of social networks and norms in shaping behaviour.

Perhaps the most interesting question, and one only touched on so far by Demos’ work, is how can social networks support parents in doing a better job? This takes us into some difficult issues about cultural norms. Effective intervention will be as much about community development as public service provision. But unless we are to have an incredibly intrusive state, communities themselves will need to find better ways of encouraging and supporting good parenting.

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