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Your Child's Path

Unlocking the Mysteries of Who Your Child Will Become

About The Book

This “compassionate guide for parents and readers” (Kirkus Reviews) reveals how to distinguish between the childhood traits that are cause for concern, and those that are not.

Every parent hopes their child will grow up to be happy, smart, popular, and successful—and as a result, many are anxious and eager to find clues to what their child’s future will be. But with websites, media, and other parents providing an endless stream of advice about how to raise your children to be perfect, whom can a parent trust?

Susan Engel draws on her years of experience as a developmental psychologist, educator, and mother to help parents and teachers identify behaviors that require intervention, while also providing reassurance about those that do not. Unlike many parenting experts, Engel encourages acceptance and perspective. Rambunctious children will calm down as they age and find activities to absorb their intellectual energy. Shy kids don’t need to become “un-shy”—they simply need to learn how to reach out to others on a one-to-one level.

Blending stories about real children with new ways of thinking and up-to-the-minute social and clinical research, Your Child's Path is both an absorbing narrative and an indispensable tool that will help restore parents’ sanity and put the joy back in child rearing.



A Road Map to Your Child’s Future

I got my first pair of evening slippers when I was three, a birthday gift from my six-year-old sister. They were sparkly gold plastic high-heeled mules, with little pink poofs on the toes. I’d sashay around the living room in them, listening to the click of the plastic, feeling glamorous. I liked to wear them to nursery school, along with a large black leather purse I dragged around with me. It had first belonged to an elderly relative and contained lots of things I might need during the day: lipstick, candy, pencils, stuffed animals, Scotch tape, and sometimes a book or two.

According to my family, from the time I was two years old, I’d spend hours by myself dressing up in other people’s discarded fancy dresses, telling stories, and outlining, to anyone who would listen, my secret lives. On any given day, I might be a mother of fourteen who also managed a busy medical practice. I loved the part where I would get out of my station wagon, loaded down with grocery bags, my stethoscope swinging around my neck. I’d pretend to soothe one of my babies on my hip, while holding a phone cradled between ear and shoulder, giving a diagnosis over the phone. I was harried and competent, and so many needy people depended on me. But other days, I was an immortal princess who had been married to a handsome strong king for a thousand years. I could visit with him only now and then, when he appeared magically in the night, to court me all over again. Sometimes I was the maverick head of a major company, who managed a large staff and strode into meetings wearing black high heels, holding a clipboard. At other times, however, I was a starving orphan who lived in the woods and had only animals for friends. I could get very caught up in the pathos of that character. My fantasies weren’t confined to marvelous identities acted out in the privacy and solitude of my bedroom, either. Sometimes I tried to bring others into my imaginary world.

My grandmother Helen lived in a small white farmhouse at the edge of a potato farm, her home since she married in 1927. I visited her almost every day, walking down a little dirt path that led from my house at one end of the farm to hers at the other end. She’d toast me Wonder bread, spread it with oleo, and I’d chatter to her. She was a wonderful audience, smiling and nodding, ready to sit there with me for hours.

One day, when I was about six, I arrived and plunked myself down on one of her blue plastic kitchen chairs. It was probably about seven in the morning. I explained that I had some bad news. In a mournful voice, I told her that I was suffering from a rare disease. I lifted my hands from my lap and laid them out on the red plastic checkered cloth that covered her kitchen table, so that she could see the odd semi-shiny veneer, cracked in places, that covered my skin. I explained that the disease required me to peel that top shiny layer of skin off my hands every few hours, even though it was extremely painful. I demonstrated by pulling at one of the edges, grimacing in stoic agony as the translucent material lifted from the top of my hand. Tolerant and adoring, she’d watch sympathetically, clucking her tongue at how awful it must be for me. It was Elmer’s glue, which I had carefully painted across my hand and allowed to dry before walking down the path to share my condition with my grandmother. I can remember the disbelieving glee that I felt when she seemed to fall for my fabulous account. I loved temporarily inhabiting that suffering victim, and I loved the thought that others would fall for my story.

The joke in my family is that someone passing by my bedroom door would hear lots of people talking. Looking in to find out who my visitors were, an observer would see just one little girl, pale and thin, sitting alone, sometimes in a darkened room, creating an imaginary world peopled by admirers, comrades, enemies, and support staff.

However, this funny little story has a twist. Sometime during my teens, I found out that when I was little, my father was concerned that all of those imaginary friends foreshadowed schizophrenia. When I talked to myself, he worried that I had a fragile hold on reality. He was alarmed that I didn’t know the difference between the real world and make-believe and that I spent too much time pretending. He anxiously watched for signs that my fantasy life was getting the better of me. His aunt had suffered from schizophrenia, although her diagnosis had been kept secret for most of his childhood. Perhaps my behavior triggered his fear that someone else in the family would also be afflicted with mental illness. Was my father right? Did those early escapes from reality presage something more debilitating?

As things turned out, I am riddled with anxieties and, perhaps as a result, almost unbearably controlling. I tell my husband what to say to the kids, I tell my grown children what to say in job interviews, and I wake my sixteen-year-old son, even though his alarm clock has gone off, just to guarantee he will get to school on time. When guests visit our home, I rush down to the kitchen before anyone else wakes up, just to make sure that breakfast goes the way I think it should. I have all kinds of fears. I cannot board a plane without Xanax. I don’t like to be the passenger in other people’s cars. I’ve never met a superstition I didn’t embrace. Every single evening, I stop whatever I am doing so that I can wish on the first star and ensure that my children will stay healthy. Just as I did when I was young, I still mentally rewrite the sad endings of novels I like. I’ve had my share of troubles, too—estrangements, disappointments, and regrets. But other than my quirks and the neuroses from which they spring, my connection to reality is pretty solid. I’ve worked my whole adult life, been married to the same man for thirty years, and raised three sons. The usual barometers of mental health point in the right direction.

Those wild gatherings of imaginary friends and narrative performances when I was little predicted something, but they did not predict mental illness. My love of fictive lives stayed with me. I studied literature in college and am still an avid reader; I love novels most of all. Much of my research has concerned the stories children tell and the worlds they create in their play. I have spent plenty of time thinking about alternative worlds, but scientists tend to call this counterfactual thinking. Most researchers do it.

My vivid fantasy life in early childhood might have foreshadowed my interest in psychology, but it wasn’t a red flag for mental illness. Although my father’s prediction turned out to be wrong, it’s understandable that he was uneasy. Most parents feel anxious at one point or another about how their children will turn out. In those uncertain moments, what are they to do? Often, parents feel lost, as if all they can do is read tea leaves. Some lean on folk wisdom they have inherited from others, and it might not, in fact, be very wise. Yet developmental psychology can provide parents with a helpful road map for identifying and interpreting clues about who their children will become.

Finding Each Child’s Pattern

I fell in love with developmental psychology when I was a sophomore in college. I was dazzled by the clever experiments that revealed how children thought. I loved the idea that there was a pattern and an order to development that could be deciphered through observation. I loved the contrasting theories that illuminated such different aspects of what children did and said. Seemingly small patches of behavior offered clues about how a child was thinking and feeling. Taken together, those clues provided a blueprint for growth and change. I had already spent years watching children play and talk (my much younger sister and the children I had taught in the summer program I ran during my teens). Now research was offering me a way to think about the patterns that governed what I had noticed.

Yet once I became a mother, the world of children looked very different to me. I no longer saw moments of behavior simply as a demonstration of a psychological principle. But I did begin to notice, with a sharpened focus, all kinds of details about my kids, and my friends’ kids. One little girl I knew was high-strung from the moment she was born. She fell asleep crying and woke up crying. When she did sleep, she stuck one finger straight up in the air. She learned to talk with vehemence and rattled off long, breathless sentences about everything. Which of these things was an indication about her future, and how did the clues fit together? One little two-year-old friend of my son used to come home with us from the park and spend the afternoons at our house. From the moment he set foot in our loft, he would race around and around our kitchen table, letting out shrill screams for what seemed like hours on end, as if this were the most fun game ever. When he would eventually get tired, he would stop running, and a blank, inscrutable look would cover his face as he just stood quietly, watching whatever my son was doing. What kind of a guy will he turn out to be? I wondered.

As my immediate world became peopled with babies and children, my younger sister and I would play a guessing game. We would imagine the little boys and girls in our extended family thirty years later. What kind of grown-up would each of them turn out to be? One niece spent several years of her childhood dressed like her boy cousins, even wearing boys’ boxers under her pants. She also insisted on peeing standing up. She was strong-willed and dynamic, a real bossy boots, and easily excited. My sister predicted that this niece would become the head of a big record company and would wear a pinstriped three-piece suit to work every day. Another niece had a quiet, beguiling manner. She was ultra-feminine, almost languorous, even as a little girl. She loved pretty things, and we guessed that she would grow up to be a fashion designer. We playfully thought we could see the seeds of their future selves.

For many years, my interest in children seemed to follow two parallel paths: the children I knew and watched, who seemed to be brimming with intriguing quirks, and the world of research, which was bent on lifting patterns from the confusing debris of specific children and particular situations. As a mother, I noticed the incidents and idiosyncrasies that made each child so interesting. As a psychologist, I thought about trends and benchmarks.

As strange as it might seem, I never thought my life as a mother and the friend of other mothers had anything much to do with my work as a psychologist. I lived among real kids, but I studied behaviors that proved and disproved general theories. I never dwelled on the possibility that I knew anything as a psychologist that could help me predict what my children or their friends would be like when they got older.

That changed suddenly in 2008, during a conversation with my sister. We were gossiping about the son of one of our childhood neighbors, a young man who had just celebrated his twentieth birthday. His early family life, we thought, had all of the ingredients that would surely lead to trouble. His father was a substance abuser with a spotty and troubled work life. His mother’s hold on reality was tenuous. His parents had broken ties with many of their family members. They had few friends and were always feuding with neighbors. They mistrusted everyone around them. They seemed plagued by physical ailments that had no clear cause or cure. And when he was young, the son seemed muted, anxious, and often sad. We would have bet our bottom dollar that this boy would bear the marks of such problematic family life. Yet, against all odds, as a twenty-year-old, he was thriving. My sister reported to me how warm, smart, and engaged he now was. He was doing well in a good college, he loved his courses, he enjoyed the new friends he was making, and he was dating a really nice young woman. Who knew? On the face of it, his childhood had seemed filled with arrows pointing toward disaster.

As we discussed this, I laughed wryly and said, “Development is a mystery, isn’t it?” This book starts with that comment, because it took me off guard and forced an idea that had been bubbling around in my head finally to take shape. I thought to myself, Now, wait just a minute here. I’ve been a developmental psychologist for almost thirty years. Development is not a mystery. It’s a crystal ball. But you need to know how to read it.

When I thought about that neighbor, I realized that along with all of those worrisome signs were other, more significant qualities. The young man had had a very strong bond with his mother even as an infant. His parents had adored him and been very consistent in their attention to him. They were smart, and he was smart. He was good at things. The family had fun together, spent time doing things together, and showed love for one another. I shouldn’t have been surprised that he seemed to have grown into a happy, able young man. I had let myself get distracted by red herrings and ignored equally clear signs that he would probably be fine.

The idea for this book came from that conversation, which led me to rethink the ways in which developmental research could help us see and understand the paths of real children. I wanted to show parents that the findings of well-done research could help them see their children with more subtlety and understanding.

The heart of the book comes from my experience as a mother and a friend to other parents. I have seen that each of us looks into the face of our little baby with joy but also with apprehension and uncertainty. What will her life be like? What will she be like?

A very close friend of mine had a little boy whom she worried about during nursery school. He spilled his milk every night at dinner, played too roughly with toys, and frequently broke lamps and dishes. His elbows were everywhere. He didn’t sit, he bounced. Although he was kind and loving, he often clobbered other children or knocked them over. He played too hard, leaving tears and wagging fingers in his wake. In nursery school, he had only one buddy. He would often come home with his Charlie Brown mouth turned down, telling his mom that his friend had rejected him or that some little boy had been mean to him.

When it came time for kindergarten, his mother fretted that he would be the kid teachers wouldn’t like, the rambunctious boy who found lessons difficult to concentrate on, and, on top of all that, a loner. As they were heading out the door that first morning of school in September, the little boy suddenly said, “Wait a minute. I need something.” His mother stood watching as he raced to his shelf of toys, grabbed a small action figure that punched its fist when you pushed a button, strode over to her, and said, “I’m ready now.” When they got to school, he walked in calmly, the small figure visible in his hand. Within thirty seconds, four little boys had gathered around him to admire the toy. He was off and running. His mom thought to herself, Phew. He’s gonna be fine. Then she called me on the phone and said anxiously, “Can I count on this? Does it mean he’ll always know how to navigate a group?”

In the best moments of your child’s life, you want reassurance that he will always be this ebullient/clever/determined/appealing. At the worst moments, however, you want reassurance that your child can change and is likely to. I recall going to visit a younger friend a few years ago, the mother of a smart and dynamic four-year-old named Rosie. Rosie was a handful. She had a big vocabulary and was a sponge for adult phrases. She often behaved as if others worked for her. As I walked through the door, she was thrashing around the house, screaming at her mother, “You are not the boss of me! I hate you. You don’t love me, and you never have. Don’t tell me what to do. I am the boss of myself!” Rosie’s harried mother looked up at me with a stricken look on her face. “Is she going to be this way forever?”

I had to take some time to answer that question, because children are as complex as the adults they will become. Rosie was not simply bossy and stormy. She was also bright and highly attuned to what others were thinking. She was full of zest for life. She soaked up what was going on around her, and even at four, she was like a laser beam zeroing in on people’s interactions, quickly learning what she should say to persuade others to do what she wanted. Which aspect of life was Rosie’s mother trying to predict? As a grown-up, Rosie would probably come on strong—she might continue to put her own needs ahead of the needs of others. She might always tangle with people. But she would also have passionate close relationships, and no doubt, she’d use her vitality and intellect to become very successful in some career. But it’s easy to see why Rosie’s mom felt anguished. All of us gaze at our children in adoration or exasperation and can’t help but try to envision the future that lies ahead for them.

My first son, Jake, was born when I was twenty-four. I thought I had never felt that kind of love before. I couldn’t stop kissing him and staring at him. I can remember holding him in a rocking chair, in our loft in New York City, and murmuring to him, “I knew I was going to have a baby. But I had no idea it would be you. I’m so glad it turned out to be you and not someone else, Jakey boy.” Even as a tiny baby, he was, I realized, already a complex and distinctive person, brimming with qualities that, at that time, only peeked out but soon enough would define him.

He loomed so large in my life that first year. Everything he did seemed important and vivid. The way he nursed, his cries at night, the things that made him laugh, enthralled him, and terrified him, all seemed like crucial clues about who he was. It’s just now, twenty-six years later, that I understand that some of the things I paid attention to when he was young were clues, and some were not. Other behaviors and qualities were pointing toward his future, but I didn’t know it.

I also felt awed by the responsibility of being his mom. At three months, Jake still wasn’t sleeping through the night, as my mother and Dr. Spock assured me all good babies would. He was still waking up in the middle of the night when he was six months old, still not sleeping well at nine months. When he was twelve months old, I let him cry for an hour and a half before bringing him to our bed. Was it bad that I picked him up in the middle of the night, or was it worse that I had let him cry for ninety minutes? Would either have a lasting effect? When he was two and a half and happily snuggling into our bed each night for a good night’s sleep, a colleague at the school where I taught shook her head, sucked her teeth, and said knowingly, “If you don’t get them to sleep alone when they’re babies, you’ll never get them out of your bed.” I felt sick. Had I already screwed him up for life? Would he ever become independent? Would I ever again sleep alone in bed with my husband? Then my pediatrician, a slightly older mother, said to me, “Eventually, almost everyone figures out how to get through the night alone. Not that anyone ever wants to.” With those casual words, she helped me shake off the emphatically dire predictions others had so eagerly offered me.

People’s common hunches about human development are often wrong. We carry around strong intuitions, often based on nothing more than our own experiences, about children and their likely paths in life. Many of us have ironclad views on just what a child must have, or be, in order to turn into a healthy and good adult. One parent thinks good sleep habits are the key to a happy childhood, another thinks constant adult attention is the only way to ensure well-being, and a third parent is certain that if you allow a child to give up on things, he is doomed to a life of failure.

You might think that children must have discipline in order to grow up as productive members of society, or you might think that as long as a child is swaddled in love, nothing else can hurt her, and she will turn out to be a happy, caring adult. You might think that children who get lots of positive feedback are going to be confident grown-ups or that children with serious illness are certain to be riddled with neuroses later on. We make assumptions about which characteristics will follow a child as he or she grows up and which are simply passing phases of development. We assume that a defiant fifteen-year-old boy is just going through adolescence but an unsociable nine-year-old is in for trouble. Most people think they can spot the kid headed for turbulence and the one bound for success. But those intuitions are often wrong.

Red Herrings

A mother recently told me that the summer when her son Nate was seven years old, they went on holiday with extended family. Nate got into an argument with his five-year-old cousin, Tess, and smacked her across the back. Tense and disapproving, the little girl’s father, Bill, warned with absolute certainty that Nate showed clear signs of developing into a violent teenager. Bill was a teacher who had worked in tough neighborhoods in Harlem and the Bronx, and he “knew” that kind of kid. By college, Nate had grown into a shy, cerebral literature major, with a small group of close friends who demonstrated against the war in Iraq. He loved violent movies and wrote his thesis on the horror-film genre. But as far as anyone knew, he hadn’t hit anyone since before puberty. It can be hard to know, except in hindsight, when a child’s unusual behavior is just a quirk with little long-term significance and when behaviors provide signposts for what’s to come.

People mispredict children’s futures all the time, and not everything can be determined. Exposing our mistaken assumptions about stability is an equally important part of the story that this book will tell. For instance, as new research shows, obstreperous behavior in early childhood does not predict academic difficulty in elementary and middle school. In one study, teacher and parent reports on three-year-olds were compared with various measures of school adjustment when those same children were in middle school. The children described as being difficult and loud and having low impulse control or in other ways being disruptive were no more likely to have problems in middle school than the other children. By the time she is in seventh grade, a rowdy three-year-old will not look different from other children, even though many teachers assume that the unruly preschooler is throwing up a red flag.

When my son Jake was three, his nursery-school teacher told me that he frequently seemed to have trouble finding something he wanted to do and sticking with it. It was a Montessori classroom, and the teacher set great store by the children’s ability to choose a set of materials and play with them for a sustained period of time. It seemed to her that Jake was drifting through the room, picking up something for a few moments, putting it down, and moving on to something else. I began to wonder whether this meant he would lack self-direction and motivation. Would he be able to stick with things? Would he always need someone telling him what to do? His teacher’s concerns sent me into a small tailspin, casting a slight shadow that I couldn’t quite shake off.

A year later, in kindergarten, his teacher told me that she was concerned because he didn’t pay attention when they sat at the table learning numbers and letters. A few weeks after I got this worrisome feedback, my mother visited his classroom for Grandparents’ Day. She came home, shook her head, and said, “No wonder he drifts away during lesson time. It’s boring.”

I began to rethink my earlier worry. He was a child whose passions already consumed him. He could spend hours developing elaborate imaginary games involving his favorite superhero, Green Lantern. He spent whole summers directing his siblings and cousins in an extended and complex game of something they called “Baby Animal.” Years later, he would direct them in even more complex films that he planned, filmed, and edited for large groups of friends and family to view. Meanwhile, he became an artist, working alone for months on end on a single sculpture. It wasn’t his lack of self-direction that explained his vague wandering in the Montessori room. It was the lack of materials that really grabbed him.

Jake, like all of us, has had his struggles. But concentration, perseverance, and involvement are not among them. These were red herrings. The clues about his future were lying there, right next to the red herrings. They often are.

The Vital Clue

My youngest son, Sam, could already tell a wickedly funny dirty joke at two and a half. Precocious and outgoing, he stood up one night at a beach picnic and delivered a joke about three mice: “The three mice are sitting around talking about how tough and strong they are. The first one says, ‘Ya know those poison pellets they put out for us to eat, so we’ll die? I eat ’em up all the time. They’re better’n candy.’ The second mouse says, ‘Well, you know those mousetraps they’ve left all over the house? I do bench presses with ’em every morning and night.’ The third mouse gets up and starts to walk away. The two others call out, ‘Hey, you didn’t say anything. Where you going?’” At this point, my toddler turned and sauntered from the fire on his sixteen-inch legs, delivering the punch line over his shoulder, in his high, clear voice, “‘I’m going to fuck the cat.’”

My stepfather, a farmer who was raised a Methodist, laughed till tears squirted out of his eyes. And from that day on, he called Sam “The Reverend.” Here’s the catch. Sam, now a teenager, frequently gives public lectures around the country. His talks are inspirational, and in them, he urges young people to do good works in their communities. His grandfather saw his command of the audience and his urge to communicate. Although the nickname was a joke about a two-year-old child’s profanity, it also captured a vital clue about a quality that would last through his adolescence and beyond.

Underneath our hopes and worries, we parents want to know which signs predict the future and which do not. We also want to know which of our own actions will have an influence on our children’s lives and which will not. We’re not the only ones trying to figure out the paths that connect our children’s lives to their future. Psychologists have spent the past one hundred years trying to figure this out as well.

Children Are Clay

The American behaviorist John Watson famously claimed in the early twentieth century, “Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.” He boldly asserted an idea that lay buried in the minds of many: that you could mold a child’s future by the way you raised him. Countless people still believe this, although they might not even know it.

A few years ago, an old friend was complimenting me on my three sons, how well they had “turned out.” She said this with some surprise and admitted that when they were little, she thought they were totally out of control. “You had no rules at all. Sam swore in the grocery store. He never wore clothes. They ate candy morning, noon, and night. You let them fight. I thought they were totally wild.” I disagreed, suggesting that my rules might not have been about things like swearing or keeping their clothes on or saying thank you to a grown-up but had more to do with working hard at things and being kind. She thought about that for a moment and then said, “But what? Did you punish them when they weren’t kind? Did they have a consequence when they didn’t throw themselves into a project?” I was baffled. What was she talking about? Then I realized that her implicit model of development was showing through. Perhaps without even knowing it, she was basing her ideas on a behaviorist theory of child development: the traits that will emerge over time in a child are the ones that are regularly rewarded, while undesirable behaviors that are punished will disappear.

Although most psychologists no longer think Watson’s undiluted behaviorism provides a good account of development, many researchers have shown that experiences in early life do shape the future adult—and not just in the obvious ways most of us assume. For instance, studies have shown that the number and kind of conversations children have with their parents when they are toddlers and preschoolers have a formative influence on the ability to read at five or six. Thus, we now know that a measure of a young child’s family conversations allows us to predict something about that child’s long-term academic success. But not every experience leaves an indelible impression on a child.

A friend who is a young mother of two recently confided in me, “You’re not going to like this story. Finn came home from school the other day and walked straight through the kitchen onto the patio outside. He opened his book and began to read. No snack. No chatter. I finally asked him whether something had happened at school. He reluctantly admitted that he had gotten in trouble for throwing a candy wrapper across the room at snack time. It seems another little boy, something of a rabble rouser, had been egging Finn on to try to toss it into the garbage and make the basket. But Finn knows they aren’t supposed to be rowdy at snack time. I don’t want him to be the kind of child who gets into trouble with the teacher. He needs to learn how to control those issues. We are giving him a consequence. I told him how glad I was that he told me the truth but that there would be no play dates for a week.”

She was right. I didn’t like the story too much. That was partly because I think throwing a candy wrapper into a garbage can as if he were playing basketball is pretty harmless and was probably funny at the time. And it was partly because I think lively, exuberant children should be allowed their unpredictable moments. Mostly, however, parents can’t mold a child’s personality to fit their preconceived notions, no matter how consistent and carefully thought through their parenting style is.

Finn might be the kind of kid who likes rabble rousers and who periodically bursts out. Little his mother does will change those qualities. As I told her, “You can’t make him exactly what you think he should be. You might be able to control him, but that doesn’t mean you can control who he will become.”

Children Are Seeds

Sometimes it is not that the conditions of a child’s life hold the key to his or her future but rather that the child already contains his or her future self. In the old musical The Fantasticks, a frustrated father bewailing the way his almost grown child is acting thinks wistfully of how much more predictable and easy it is to grow a garden. He sings, “Plant a radish, get a radish.” This view says that if you know what you start out with, you will have a good idea of what you’ll get in the long run. As it turns out, there is some truth to this with human beings as well as with radishes.

Research has identified several characteristics that show up early in infancy or childhood and don’t change much over a child’s life. In contrast to Watson’s view, these characteristics predict the future precisely because they are fairly impervious to features of the environment such as child rearing or schooling. Certain kinds of information about a baby provide us with a pretty good picture of what’s in store for that child later on.

Take, for example, the way a young child plays. Whether a child prefers to turn small objects into characters and use them to enact a scenario or prefers to use small figures to make patterns tells us something about the kinds of conversations she will have when she is older and even what kind of reader she will be. Researchers have also found that the way a child plays offers a glimpse into her ability to think about other people’s perspectives and imagine alternative outcomes to situations. One psychologist, Daryl Bem, has argued that a child’s play style is the first indicator of his sexual orientation. Boys who play more like girls spend more time with girls, thus making boys the exotic objects of their erotic interest. Taken together, numerous studies have suggested that a child’s play offers intriguing clues about specific aspects of her future self. Moreover, there is little a parent can do to affect her play style.

Some predictors are more mysterious than others. Consider Thomas Bouchard’s research examining the role of biology in shaping a child’s intelligence. Bouchard and his colleagues studied a group of twins who had been given up for adoption. They assessed the children’s intelligence when they were in preschool, in middle school, and again in adolescence. The researchers also collected the IQ scores of the children’s adoptive parents. When they were little, the children’s IQ scores were more similar to those of their adoptive parents than to those of their twin siblings to whom they were genetically similar. However, by the time a set of twins were teenagers, their IQs were similar to each other and less like the IQs of their adoptive parents.

The most compelling explanation for this finding, and the one most researchers accept, is that IQ is driven by genes. In other words, a great deal of the variation among people’s IQs can be traced to variation in the IQs of their parents. Very young children reflect the influence of the parents raising them, but as they age, the influence of their immediate environment wanes, and the genetic influence of their biological parents gains the upper hand. Along some dimensions, information about a biological parent provides an excellent forecast of the child’s future.

The Alchemy of Genes and Environment

Yet even when we are able to identify genetic information about a child, it rarely provides a straightforward or simple blueprint for predicting psychological development. For instance, one important new study has found reliable links between the number of books, tools, art objects, and spaces for free play found in a child’s home and a child’s academic success in grade school. In this case, the physical environment, and what it might convey about interactions at home, is a crucial ingredient in shaping a child’s intellectual capacity.

The current preoccupation with pinning down the relative contributions of nature and nurture has led to a mistaken notion that whatever is genetic is unchangeable and whatever is environmental is changeable. Yet research has consistently demonstrated that most attributes reflect a complex and dynamic interaction between genes and environment. The psychological effects of the environment can often be intractable, while expression of a genetic trait can be powerfully molded by experience.

When the Major League baseball player Jerry Hairston Jr. was two years old, his father, Jerry Hairston Sr., who had played in Major League baseball, and his grandfather, Sam Hairston, who had played in the Negro League, were having their photograph taken. Sam Hairston stopped the photographer. He said, “Bring Jerry Junior over here. I want my grandson in this picture. He’s going to play for the Major Leagues someday.” Sam Hairston was right. In 2009, Jerry Hairston Jr. was hired to play for the New York Yankees and helped them win the 2009 World Series.

What made Sam’s prediction come true? He might have assumed that his grandson had inherited certain characteristics that would give him the same outstanding ability his father and grandfather clearly possessed. But which characteristics? A strong arm? Exceptional hand-eye coordination? Huge ambition? It’s also just as likely that Jerry’s baseball success came from the fact that he grew up in a family immersed in and dedicated to baseball. He probably saw, heard, and played more baseball than most children. His same strengths and talents, if he’d been born to a family of dancers, would have expressed themselves quite differently. And someone with those same strengths and talents whose family had no athletic ability or connections within the sports world might have ended up working as a gym teacher.

Unsimple Patterns

It’s easy to think that some kids are lucky enough to have it all, while others will face one struggle after another. And it’s true that during a child’s first eighteen years, there are certain qualities that set the child on a happy pathway. Success and happiness often seem self-perpetuating, and so do failure and sadness. The cranky child stirs up conflict, often doing or saying something that rubs others the wrong way. He brings out the worst in others, and before you know it, he has every reason to believe that other people just aren’t nice to him. The good-looking child who gets along easily with others and is sunny keeps encountering nice people who want to help him—enough to make anyone feel cheerful most of the time.

If you take even a cursory glance at the psychological characteristics found to be most stable, the ones that can be measured in a baby and remain pretty much the same over the next twenty years, it would be easy to think that forecasting a child’s future is fairly straightforward. It might seem at first that a few good qualities predict everything wonderful, and a few limitations predict a lousy life. Take, for instance, the research on agreeability, a highly stable characteristic not hard to decipher. Agreeable people are easy to deal with, they take things in their stride, and they have a generally upbeat outlook on things. It seems obvious that children who are very agreeable, on the whole, are better off than children who are not. The agreeable child attracts friends. Having friends gives her a chance to become good at having friends, which ensures that she will always find friends. Being agreeable makes it easier to get along with your parents. And the better you get along with your parents, the more benefit you’ll get from family life.

But development is a little more complex than that. We all know someone who has risen to the top of her field but spent years in unhappy love affairs. We all know someone who has a lasting, loving marriage but feels like a failure at work. Although a few characteristics are very important and surprisingly stable, each of us is made up of myriad qualities, and each of us lives in a particular set of circumstances that shape those qualities. Imagine three kids, none of whom makes friends easily. One of them has three close siblings and spends a lot of time with her family. The second is an only child whose parents don’t have many friends of their own. The third, on closer inspection, does have strong friendships, but the friendships are rife with conflict. These three kids are on different paths leading to very different adult lives—and it’s probably only the second child who will be lonely later in life.

This book is about figuring out which clues mean something and which do not. Every child’s life contains patterns that point toward the future. But each child’s pattern is quirky, not quite like anyone else’s. This book offers a way to read the clues and decipher the pattern.

Each of the following chapters examines one central quality—an aspect of life that can seem hard to decipher when children are little and yet is of central importance as they grow up. Chapter 1 discusses how to spot your child’s intelligence. This is a dimension of human behavior that has been hotly debated in recent years but almost always in the context of politics and educational policy. However, intelligence is not just a subject for policy makers and those concerned with social justice. Everyone values intelligence in their daily lives. It matters to all of us whether we are very smart or not so. This is as true for the bricklayer as it is for the mathematician.

Chapter 2 looks at the other quality that most worries parents during the early years: their child’s ability to make friends. Like intelligence, sociability seems to have enormous stability, but, also as in the case of intelligence, there is more to making friends than meets the eye. There are different ways to make friends and different ways not to. Some young children spend a lot of time alone and will be fine as they grow up. Others might have an unhealthy friendship, throwing up a big red flag for later difficulties.

Chapter 3 examines a quality most people believe they value, even if you wouldn’t know it from the way they behave: goodness. Very few parents feel that their children were just born bad, but if you have a child who is mean to others, cheats in sports, or lies to you, there might well come a day when you wonder whether she is going to be a good person when she grows up. Of course, there are different levels of goodness. Some people simply don’t break rules and try not to be cruel, while far fewer of us consistently put other people’s well-being ahead of our own. From a very early age, some children seem attuned to the needs of others, while others seem to have a keen sense of justice. But there are also several ways parents can have a powerful impact on how moral their children become.

In Chapter 4, I head into somewhat trickier territory. Some of the things we yearn for and dread about our children’s futures are not so easily defined or measured, but they matter a great deal. Even if we rarely admit it, most of us want our children to be successful, and we might consciously struggle with what that means. When my children were little, I imagined them doing great deeds. Now, as they enter adulthood and I peer at old age, I think of this somewhat differently. I care much less about their great deeds and not at all about fame or fortune. My longings have been tempered by age and the vagaries of real life. Now I want my sons to do well at something they love. What do I mean by doing well? Earning money, finding acknowledgment, and seeing the value of their labor. Mostly, I want them to be able to wake up most days happy to go to work. I want them to find pleasure in the work they do day in and day out. And I want them to earn money at whatever that is. The signs of someone bound for success are there in childhood if you know what to look for. But just as intriguing are the things you can do to encourage success, and these are not altogether obvious.

As your children enter adolescence, you begin to think about their love lives. My youngest son first fell in love at an early age. Sam was four when he was stricken by a six-year-old named Macy. He would blush every time her name was mentioned. He wrote her notes. He dreamily recalled their two-minute interactions on the playground. I myself almost got married at five, to a next-door neighbor, but at the last minute, I couldn’t go through with the wedding. However, the roots of love don’t lie in these early crushes. Love is a snowball that you begin making with your mother. Chapter 5 describes the nature of this snowball.

Parents I talk to worry about specific things—whatever has been troublesome for them or whatever has raised a red flag in their child’s young life. But eventually, most parents will say, “I just want him to be happy.” And life is agony for those of us who have watched our child be deeply unhappy or sad over a long period of time. The very worst moments of my life have been when one of my children was devastated by disappointment. If I could find a potion that would buffer my children against crushing defeat or give them the strength to rebound from setbacks, that’s the potion I would pay big money for. Most of us want desperately to know what it would take to ensure that our children will be cheerful and content as they grow up. It turns out that although you cannot change a person’s basic outlook on life, you can nudge it in a sunnier direction. I examine this in Chapter 6.

Two types of people will probably read this book. Some of you, I hope, are simply interested in the fascinating patterns that make us all who we are. You might even find yourself or your childhood in these pages. But many of you are reading this book because you have young children and want to know what lies ahead for them. You might also want to know what you can do to change the course of your child’s future.

Children are born with certain powerful tendencies that shape their future. In addition, each child is born into a family, a neighborhood, and a set of circumstances that exert an equally powerful (and often unchangeable) influence. But none of this means that a child’s path is set in stone. In each case, there are ways a parent can respond that will help a child draw on her strengths and minimize her weaknesses. Yet you cannot custom-tailor your child’s personality.

In recent years, a dangerous myth has sneaked into our collective consciousness. It’s a sophisticated modern version of John Watson: we think that if we just do things well enough with our kids (use the right punishments, choose the right schools, encourage at the right moments), we can make them all into smart, successful, happy individuals. That is not the case. There is no perfect parent, and there is no recipe for parenting. Development, just like relationships, is complicated and unruly. Every gardener knows that you can put three plants in the same patch of the garden, feed them the same plant food, water them on the same schedule, and they’ll still come out differently. The same is true of children. Thank God.

When babies in the United States are born, they are given a score, called the APGAR. That score rates them on several important dimensions (skin tone, sound of cry, and so on). In theory, the higher the score (from one to ten), the more likely it is that the child will thrive and grow in the days and weeks following birth. The APGAR score is an excellent predictor of early health. We don’t have a psychological APGAR, especially not one that will predict a child’s long-term development. Nor do babies come with labels that say, “Makes friends easily, smart but unmotivated.” What we do have is a wide body of research that indicates the experiences and behaviors that are stable and those that are not. We know more than ever about which aspects of a child’s early circumstances matter and how they matter. We know quite a bit about the things parents can do to influence their children, for better or for worse. There are plenty of good data telling us what clues predict a child’s potential, when we shouldn’t worry at all, and what we can do to nudge a child off a bad path and onto a healthier path. Each child’s life contains clues that, when put together into a story, point the way toward her future.

© 2011 Susan Engel

About The Author

Photograph by Peter Boyce

Susan Engel is a developmental psychologist in the Department of Psychology at Williams College and the founder and director of the Williams Program in Teaching. She wrote a column on teaching for The New York Times called “Lessons” and is a cofounder of The Hayground School in Eastern Long Island.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (February 26, 2013)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439150139

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