Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Book Review: The Tipping Point

The Tipping Point, by Malcom Gladwell, surprised me. Firstly, I was surprised that I read it--NY Times bestseller with the subtitle "How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference" just doesn't sound like me. I hate people, and if enough of them like something, I generally won't. But, I put aside my arrogant elitism (just kidding--I don't know how) and read it. Secondly, I was surprised that I loved it. It was a very good book, and worthy of however many hours you put into it.

Gladwell traces social movements that, at some point, take off, "tip," and explode. He then tries to pin down what (and who) makes them do so. It is quite fascinating--The mavens, connectors and salesmen, the law of the few, how Blues' Clues surpassed Sesame Street, how people behave when some of them are made prison guards and the others prisoners (near torture and a riot within one week), and many, many more things from smoking to why a suited white male pulls a gun and shoots four black gangster-like teens on a subway. It really is fascinating, and will be a very valuable reference book for years to come.

There was, however, one problem of considerable importance (at least to someone like me), and that was his view on the importance of parenting.

Now, someone like Gladwell is hard to refute, as he simply states facts that he (and others) have assimilated, and though being unbiased is impossible, he is what we would consider unbiased. The problem I found was not in what he said, but what he failed to say. Here is the situation.

Gladwell says:

"...our environment plays as big--if not bigger--a role as heredity in shaping personality and intelligence..." and, "whatever that environmental influence is, it doesn't have a lot to do with parents." This opinion is based off of several tests that seem quite incontrovertible, and indeed, upon closer review, are quite correct. He elaborates by stating "the environmental influence that helps children become who they are--that shapes their character and personality--is their peer group." So, he holds that the peer group itself supercedes parents in the influence wielded upon the members of the group. This is, astonishingly, entirely correct. We find it (if vaguely) in the Scripture: "a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife:" the "peer group" is what man is designed for, and it affects him tremendously, even more than his parents.

But this in no way takes away from the affect that the parents have--they are the screening process that his peers have to pass, and this is the fundamental point that Gladwell misses. And why does he miss it? Because all to often, it is invisible. All in all, his assessment of the importance of peers is quite correct, and should serve as a rather striking warning to us: no matter what you say and do to your kids, who you let them spend their time with away from you will define them more than you ever will. Ouch.

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