Review of “Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become”

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In her book Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become, Susan Engel raises three main points:

1) Parents can’t redesign their children’s basic personality and intelligence.

2) A number of behaviors that parents are quick to label as ‘red flags’ in young kids are usually normal; instead of ‘red flags’ they’re ‘red herrings,’ leading parents to make incorrect predictions about their child’s future or worry about minor or nonexistent problems.

3) The means to distinguish between red flags and red herrings can be derived from research. We’ve accumulated a body of research to-date that can help us distinguish between normal or less damaging circumstances and patterns of behavior, and those that are actually worrisome.

Regarding points 1 and 2, Engel presents some convincing arguments throughout the book. For instance, intelligence is a fairly stable trait; a child of average intelligence isn’t going to become a genius. However, this doesn’t mean that environmental influence doesn’t have an impact. A child’s intelligence can be enhanced or dampened. For instance, parents who give their children opportunities to learn, give them books, talk to them, help them discover things they love doing, and show their kids the importance of perseverance increase the chances of the kid succeeding later in life, more than if they fuss over IQ numbers and whether their kid is the most gifted one in the class. They give their kids the opportunity to behave intelligently, expand their knowledge and skills, and live to their fullest potential. This is in contrast to kids who, regardless of what their intellectual potential is, don’t get very many opportunities to grow and may start to behave unintelligently, suppressing their natural potential.

In regards to the third point, the books is less convincing. Engel covers a lot of research, much of it interesting, showing how what we consider ‘red flags’ may not necessarily hobble a child for life; for instance, children who grow up in unstable homes but have certain protective factors in their life may still become well-functioning adults. The tricky part comes in when Engel tries to show how you can make predictions about an individual child’s life based on the research. What are the problems with how she lays out her approach?

a. There are individual differences, and noise in the data, when it comes to any study, especially when you’re looking at complex traits such as shyness and intelligence, or studying various factors that influence development. Granted, I don’t think Engel ever says that you can predict 100% how your child will turn out, but I think the case is overstated in the book.

b. She doesn’t devote enough time to discuss the research methodology or study limitations, including possible flaws in study design. In a couple of places she does point out the issue of individual differences, but I think that for a book that is so heavily based on research, she should have spent more time discussing and explaining the research. Readers who don’t have familiarity with research methodology in this area are particularly in need of understanding the limitations of the work to help them make sense of the data and understand what it can and can’t tell us.

c. In each chapter, Engel mixes research results with individual ‘case studies’ of kids who seemed to have red flags but turned out ok (or children whose red flags went undetected). Though she talks a lot about how you can use the existing research to help you decipher the clues in your child’s life, her case studies rely on hindsight; she knows how the kid turns out, so it’s simpler for her to trace the course of his or her life to see what might have gone right or wrong, and what were possible influences. Even then, with the benefit of hindsight, she doesn’t always make the developmental trajectory clear; I didn’t always understand why it was a given that a particular child would turn out ok, while another child wouldn’t. For people who don’t have the benefit of hindsight, it’s not easy to “decipher the clues,” given that a kid’s developmental trajectory is influenced by a complex combination of factors; I don’t know how you can always tell, in the present moment, whether something is a red flag or a red herring.

The bottom line is, I wish she’d gone more into explaining the research, which is interesting, and developing her discussions of it; her chapters were sometimes a hodgepodge of research examples and personal examples that didn’t mesh well or develop into a clear argument (the chapter on adult romantic relationships comes to mind).

But ultimately, the message that parents can’t completely remake their kids’ personalities, but instead can help enhance strengths and give their kids tools to cope with potential weaknesses, is a reasonable one, as it encourages parents to see their kids as they are, and not constantly measure them against other kids or against some parental ideal that may be narcissistic at heart.

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