The Upside of a Dead Parent?

Attention, parents. Put down the yoga mat and wheat grass smoothie. Start smoking and drinking, heavily, cuss out the kids, let them forage in the yard for dinner and as soon as possible, drop dead.

Steve Jobs, Barack Obama, Sonya Sotomayor and other VIPS, they all faced adversity early in life including the death of a parent. According to Malcolm Gladwell, best-selling author and wanna-be social scientist, orphans and other disadvantaged youths often turn out to be successful. Yes the Blink and Outliers auteur is cherry-picking the psych lit one more time with the hypothesis childhood challenges (e.g., death of a parent, dyslexia, attending a second-rate college) build grit and thus, obviously, greatness.

To simplify even further:  Crappy childhood = fame and fortune.

It must be true. Gladwell has written an entire book about it. David and Goliath.  No, I haven't thumbed through it yet. Pop psychology and a bible story? I just can't.

Anyhow as these affairs generally go, I often find the media coverage more entertaining than the book. For instance, NPR's Robert Krulwich went with Gladwell's Emininent Orphan thesis in his recent piece, Successful Children Who Lost A Parent — Why Are There So Many Of Them?. Too bad he didn't question whether there are in fact so many of them. But let's look at the kind of evidence Krulwich cites in support of the Super Orphans which I can only imagine he gleaned from Gladwell's destined best-seller: 
A psychologist, Marvin Eisenstadt, poured through a number of major encyclopedias, looking for people whose biographies "merited more than one column" — and of 573 people, Gladwell reports, "a quarter had lost at least one parent before the age of 10. By age 15, 34.5 percent had had at least one parent die, and by the age of 20, 45 percent. Even for the years before the 20th century, when life expectancy due to illness and accidents and warfare was much lower than it is today, those are astonishing numbers."
Well that's convincing.

Especially if you don't consider the number of people who lost parents as children. I have no idea how many adults in the 1880s lost a parent but it has to be relatively high.

Supposedly almost a third of US Presidents lost a parent as a child. Shocking. George Washington, Andrew Jackson, little Tommy Jefferson, their loved ones just couldn't survive childbirth, the flu, infection. Go figure. It must have been just so unusual with all the quality healthcare available.

The other evidence? Research on eminent orphaned scientists. The first study? A paper from 1974. The second, a 1995 article in Creativity Research Journal on one person, Albert Einstein. It's actually a review of a book on Einstein.

Then there are the poets or rather a 1972 article on eminent poets. I kid you not. Apparently there weren't any dated exposes of circus performers.

Oh my.

To his credit, Krulwich did bring up the prison population:
The psychologist Felix Brown reports that prisoners are two to three times more likely to have lost a parent in childhood than the population as a whole.
I cannot seem to find psychologist Felix Brown anywhere. I didn't try for long but I'm not trying to challenging the notion inmates tend to come from unusually dysfunctional homes. I bring this up because I cannot find Felix or his data and it's annoying.

Since we're playing dueling half-ass evidence here, my turn.

Exihibit A: Eddie Vedder. Song: Alive.

The Pearl Jame front man can blame his success on his missing father. The elder Vedder practically wrote Alive, one of the band's most beloved songs, an anthem to lost boys. Turns out Eddie didn't even know his father wasn't his real father until one day his mom spilled the beans:
Soooooooonnnn, she said, have I got a little story for you....What you thought was your daddy was nothin' but a...While you were sittin' home alone at age thirteen...Your real daddy was dyin'....
Before you push your husband or brother or father off the ledge...

Exhibit B: Mick Jagger. The Rolling Stones vocalist, one of the greatest living rock icons, enjoyed a warm, close relationship with his father until the elder Jagger passed away in his nineties. Off the top of the Stones albums in my head I can't think of any absent father rants or imagery or significant maternal deprivation other than a mommy escaping with a few pills (Mother's Little Helper), the latter a socio-cultural commentary rather than evidence of a nagging personal loss.

Clearly parental loss is not a prerequisite for success.

Therein lies the problem with Gladwell's hypothesis, hell, all his books. It's just not as simply as that. If adversity led to success than what about all the children living in poverty? They should shoot straight to the middle class if not the First Class lounge if Gladwell is correct but we know life and human behavior is just not that simple. His lack of nuance is maddening.

The successful underdog argument reminds me of the first borns-are-smarter claims. Sure there is some evidence though it's limited and dogged by sub-par methodological rigor. It's not like we can study first-borns or orphans experimentally. It's not like some desperate graduate student could knock off a few parents and watch their kids for signs of resilience and success.

True there are some tantalizing possibilities in Gladwell's writings and grit is all the rage in education and parenting experts these days. Early drama and trauma could provide opportunities for achievement and extraordinary performances except in cases where it doesn't. In addition to prisons, psychiatric facilities and Lifetime movies, the psych literature is bursting with studies of still-troubled grown-ups who didn't turn early adversity into fame and fortune to put it mildly.

Instead of David and Goliath, I suggest you read up on the book and the author:
Should we stop reading Malcolm Gladwell? 
Malcolm Gladwell spars with science detractors over "David and Goliath"
Book Review: 'David and Goliath' by Malcolm Gladwell

Happy reading. But don't get too happy, I'd hate to doom your children to a well-adjusted though unsuccessful adulthood.


John O'Leary said...

Well said. Losing my parent when I was 17 made me really read up on Mr. Gladwell.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

And what do you think about his early grief/hardship hypothesis? My mother lost both parents by the time she turned 13. She doesn't completely agree. It's a bit simplistic for her taste.

Anonymous said...

Yes, losing your parent is a terrible thing, Malcolm Gladwell states that. However, Gladwell is just trying to point out that some losses have a silver lining. Yes, for the majority of people loss of a parent and dyslexia are more crippling than they are empowering, but that's not true of everyone one. I lost my mother when I was thirteen, I don't know who I would be if she were here, but who I am has been greatly affected by her death. I am more willing to take risks and seize opportunities. I have a greater appreciation for the shortness of life. Gladwell's point isn't that losing your parents is a good thing, his point is that some unfortunate occurrences have benefits as well as their obvious disadvantages. Gladwell takes into account that most people are more hindered by parental loss than positively effected. His book studies the positive effect on a minority, and it is a minority he acknowledges.