Class, culture and intelligence

Posted by rosanne on Jun 14, 2009 in Developmental Milestones, Educational |

Following on neatly from the last post on language acquisition and screen time, I encountered Richard Nisbett talking on To the Best of Our Knowledge about his book on intelligence (listen to the podcast). Does social class impact on the development of intelligence? Can we as parents do anything about that? And does it matter any way?

Now let’s be quite clear: any time you start talking about cultures, it’s a delicate task. It’s very easy to step from measuring something that’s occurring to projecting it or assuming it, and biological determinism (where you assume that outcomes are inevitable given certain genes or race or gender) is a common trap. People get edgy when you talk about measurable social effects because they assume you are being prescriptive rather than descriptive and people who recognise the social background you are referring to as theirs are easily offended by generalisations. This is as much true as those defending a place of privilege as it is those touchy about their perception of themselves as having come from an underclass.

It reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell‘s discussion in Blink where he talks about the effect of survey questions before tests. Ask a child if they are black before the test and the child will perform more poorly than if you do not ask. And also of the discomfort Gladwell evinces when he reveals that he, as a person of colour, shows up as prejudiced against black people on the Implicit Association Test. People don’t like talking about race and class. It’s a touchy subject.

With all that in mind, the phrase that caught my ear was Nisbett’s comment that a three-year-old child of professional parents using a qualitatively more complex lexicon in speaking to their parents than a “welfare mother” uses in speaking to her three-year-old child. There are many caveats here: note that this is America he is speaking of and so welfare is something very different than here in Australia where just about everyone has used government benefits at some point in their lives; note that he does not say that the active vocabulary of the child is larger than that of the adult but simply that the vocabulary used in this particular task is more complex, that is, the “welfare mother” dumbs down her language for her child.

He also mentions that by the age of three, a child of professional parents has heard 30 million words, a child of working class parents has heard 20 million words and a child of a family on welfare (again, in America) has heard 10 million words. Of course, this doesn’t account for the quality of the words, but based on the television/spoken language study and the number of TV hours in American households, this doesn’t surprise me. I’ve traced these figures to research by Betty Hart and Todd Risley. It’s pretty comprehensive.

As parents, my partner and I listen to this and naturally think about our own parenting and our own backgrounds. I am the daughter of a librarian and a business owner; my cultural background is Jewish, which strongly values learning and academic achievement. I talk to our child constantly and I talk to her using adult words. I have laughed at myself telling her what an ignominious position she finds herself in on the change table sometimes. My partner’s mother had what Americans call “an eight-grade education”. His father worked as an engineer, but was also from a working-class background. He was never read to as a child. My partner finds it much more challenging to talk out loud to our daughter.

Both of us instinctively want to foster intelligence in her, though. We hear this discussion and take on board the suggestions for improving confidence and test scores — tell the child their intelligence is in their control, praise more than criticise. Intelligence is a status item in this world: it leads to a certain type of success, as defined in a consumer economy and governed by people who, in the West at least, tend to be lawyers before they become politicians. However, if pressed, most parents would say they want their children to be happy above all else.

So, is this a logical desire, our desire for intelligence and success? That depends who you believe. Some argue, in fact, that happiness leads to success, rather than the other way around. But happiness correlated with intelligence? Sorry, no. In fact, it seems that happiness is a stochastic phenomenon. There’s an argument for the opposite, which is that for the general population, high IQ is negatively correlated with mental illness (well, except for Ashkenazi Jews, bad luck for me — it seems I conform after all).

If happiness is random but can lead to success and intelligence is a commodity that is valued in society and (for the general population) leads to lower incidence of mental illness, I think it’s something to pursue.

And if it’s as simple as actively talking to our kids, using adult language instead of baby talk (it’s impossible not to do it in motherese; I’ve tried), and encouraging the child to think about their skills as self-determined, I’m all for it.

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Ricky Buchanan
Jun 14, 2009 at 4:21 am

Your “happiness is a stochastic phenomenon” link takes me to an error page – it is a login required site?

Jun 14, 2009 at 4:45 am

Have updated it… try now.

Kate Devitt
Jun 14, 2009 at 4:47 am

Thoughtful post, thank you.

There is research in cognitive science on the value of motherese. It might be that motherese in conjunction with a high vocabulary is the ideal way of bringing up babies. Here’s an abstract from a special edition of the journal ‘Brain & Behavioral Science’ dedicated to the positive motherese hypothesis:

“Motherese is a form of affective prosody injected automatically into speech during caregiving solicitude. Affective prosody is the aspect of language that conveys emotion by changes in tone, rhythm, and emphasis during speech. It is a neocortical function that allows graded, highly varied vocal emotional expression. Other mammals have only rigid, species-specific, limbic vocalizations. Thus, encephalization with corticalization is necessary for the evolution of progressively complex vocal emotional displays.”

[Brain & Behaviorial Science, 08/01/2004. Vol.27,Iss.4;p.518-519]

Jun 14, 2009 at 4:53 am

That’s awesome, thanks. I am amazed at how natural motherese is and how soothing. The content truly is irrelevant. Harper was fussing earlier while Doug and I were trying to have a discussion about finances, so I turned my half of the conversation into motherese — still entirely about budgeting and the coming week’s activities, but modulated differently. She calmed down and listened attentively.

Jun 14, 2009 at 8:25 am


I love the idea that motherese is somehow a biological imperative. It makes a lot of sense, on an intuitive level.

As to the overall idea of intelligence (forgive the somewhat dribbling ramble: I’m almost asleep!):

As a budding counsellor, I value the different ways that intelligence can express itself. For me, emotional agility and resilience are far more valuable traits than vocabulary or mathematics, for example. I tend to worry that our education system is based too firmly in ideas about spelling and reading, and not about communicating clearly, active listening, effective conflict resolution, collaboration and personal improvement. I vigorously reject the idea that these sorts of skills are values based, and to be exclusively the domain of parents and the church etc.

That said, I was an immensely scholastically successful child. I read well, excelled at mathematics and spelling, and understood advanced conceptual mechanisms. I think that it was this sort of mental exercise that helped me become the quick witted, sharp-tack that I am today, and I regret not a single moment of my academically precocious childhood.

You see, I also worry about the idea of “emotional intelligence”, believing as I do that different forms of cognitive agility have more crossover than some might have you believe. I think that being brainy can also help one understand and empathise with ones peers, provided that mental exercises of maths and puzzles are also combined with tasks that encourage you to empathise and master healthy emotional containment.

It’s all about the ways you are encouraged to use your brain. So as long as being academically successful and professionally dynamic is coupled with being an all round quality human, I’m as pleased as punch

/end rant.



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