My Childhood Home Environment
January 2014 (perspective of a postdoc)
Lately I've been thinking a lot about the privileges I had during my formative years. A few years ago, I wrote up some notes in Implicit Privilege; and my latest article, Silent Technical Privilege, focuses on my college and grad school years.
I did very well in school during K-12 and have been reflecting on possible contributors to such academic success. However, being told that I was a “smart kid” has always felt like a lazy non-explanation. There are plenty of kids with above-average intelligence (however you define intelligence) who still don't do well in school. Having an academically high-achieving peer group certainly helped. But I only spent half of my days at school; the other half was at home. Thus, I think that my home environment played a major role in shaping my childhood. I was lucky to have grown up in a household that meshed well with my natural personality and drove me to excel in school. This article elaborates on some of these home conditions.
Disclaimer: A lot of these conditions were unplanned, so this article isn't a parenting how-to guide. Every child is different, so it's not like someone can replicate these conditions and get identical results. Perhaps if I had a different personality or peer group, these home conditions might have been disastrous.
I grew up as an only child in a Chinese-American immigrant household where my mother was a university professor and my father was first an MBA student and then a sales and marketing manager.
Although we always had enough money, we were not wealthy by any definition. In elementary school, we were lower middle class; in middle school, we were squarely middle class; and by high school, we moved into the upper middle class as my father's career was rose along with the dot-com boom. (The bubble burst right as I started college, but fortunately they had saved up enough to pay for most of my tuition.)
Let's now consider the privileges that made it easier for me to excel in academics. Note that none of these were based on money, beyond the already-big privilege of not worrying about it.
My house was quiet
My house was always really quiet, which meant that I had no trouble concentrating on homework and studying. There were at most three people there. Often there would be only two people, since one parent or the other would be traveling for work. My parents rarely raised their voice in the house, so it was a calm environment. (When they yelled, I knew that shit had really hit the fan.) Finally, we never had random extended family milling about, since they lived across the ocean in China.
I know this sounds like such a simple condition, but so many households are perpetually loud and not conducive to deep concentration.
I was an only child
I had no siblings to care for or to fight with, so I had a ton of time and space to concentrate on my own studies. Specifically, I always had my own bedroom and never had to share resources.
One negative side effect of being an only child is that I grew up a bit more selfish than my peers who had siblings. That's why college was such an important time for learning to live and work with others.
I had very few chores or errands
My parents never made me do a ton of chores or errands around the house, which again left me with a lot of free time – more than enough to get my homework done, study for tests, and then just goof off by myself and let my imagination run wild.
I had nightly chores to do before and after dinnertime, but those took up at most half an hour. And they were at predictable times, so it wasn't like my parents would all of a sudden yell at me to help them out with random stuff around the house. This setup left me with large blocks of uninterrupted alone time, which I feel is an important prerequisite for intellectual development.
One potentially negative side effect is that I didn't grow up as handy or resourceful around the house, but those skills weren't hard to pick up as an adult.
My parents were always working at home
Throughout my childhood, my mother was (and still is) a university professor, and my father was an MBA student and then worked at home (telecommuted) during various jobs. Thus, I often saw them doing “homework” at home. In particular, my mother was working all the time on research or class preparation, especially before she earned tenure. For details, read How my mother made tenure.
As a consequence, I grew up with the mentality that home was a place where people did homework and studied, so I should probably be doing homework and studying as well. It seemed weird to be doing anything else. And it wasn't like my parents purposely planned it that way – that was just what they had to do for their jobs.
No television in my bedroom
Throughout elementary school, we had only one television in the house, located in the family room. I watched a fair amount of TV, but it was apparent when I was watching, so I never went overboard. And there was no hiding away for hours in my own bedroom watching TV shows. My parents also watched some TV, but since there was only one, we had to either watch together as a family, or it would be obvious when someone was watching.
I'm not a media expert or psychologist, but I have a hunch that this sort of TV watching is somehow healthier than what we have today – everybody always being able to watch on their own portable screens in the privacy of their own rooms.
In middle school, we bought a second television to place in my parents' bedroom. Then they were able to watch in private, and I also spent more time watching TV alone in the family room. But it was still not too bad, since I never stayed up late watching TV. Instead, I just read books at night and got a lot of sleep (always 7 to 8 hours), which made it easier for me to concentrate in class. My friends who had a TV in their bedroom would often complain about not being able to sleep well since they stay up watching late-night TV all the time.
(When I interned at Microsoft one summer during grad school, I lived in an extended-stay hotel with a television. I sometimes suffered from insomnia from watching late-night TV since it was so bad yet strangely addictive.)
An unlimited book budget
My parents never bought me many toys, but they would never hesitate to buy me any books that I wanted. That was a simple yet memorable policy.
The books I bought didn't need to be “serious” ones related to academic pursuits, so I tended to read a lot of random stuff (like obscure baseball rules) for fun. This was before the days when you could Google everything online!
Free time at the university or book store
Since my mother was a professor, she often brought me to work with her when my father wasn't home to take care of me. I spent many hours of my childhood at her university office or library, and all I could do to entertain myself was bring books to read.
When I started middle school, my mother often brought me to the local Borders book store on weekends. She would do work all afternoon at the store cafe, and I'd just wander around reading books. Those were some of my favorite childhood memories, since I could just browse through whatever caught my eye. The book store was an awesome babysitter.
High expectations but not high pressure
This feeling is hard to put into words, but throughout my childhood, I knew that my parents had the highest expectations for me, yet they never exerted a ton of pressure. Their implied contract to me was like, “You be good at what you do [excelling in school], and we'll stay off your back. Simple as that.” The status quo was good, and neither side rocked the boat much.
All of these childhood home conditions nudged me to do well in school. If I had grown up in a different home, I might have been nudged to excel in sports, or music, or acting, or entrepreneurship – who knows? And if I had a different personality, then I might have gone nuts living in that house.
Thankfully, none of it ever felt forced or contrived; it wasn't like my parents were trying to “engineer” a straight-A student or whatever. They were far too busy worrying about their own jobs and keeping the household afloat to bother over-thinking about parenting. However, I give them a lot of credit for setting good high-level boundaries and then not micromanaging.
I was very lucky to have grown up the way I did. So now, the open question is: How can we help kids with lots of natural potential who don't have the proper home environment to foster their intellectual growth?