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  • Two brothers, two very different paths. What makes the difference: Genes? Environment? Choice? Tweet This
  • We should work to identify the character traits that help people from disadvantaged families to thrive. Tweet This

Two brothers stood before a judge. The judge asked them where they wanted to live: with their grandparents, or their mom and stepdad.

Alex, 12, looked up at the judge and said, “Judge, I know that if I go live with my mom and stepdad, I’m gonna have a pretty good life. He makes pretty good money. I know I’m gonna go to college. I’m gonna be with a different kind of people. Whereas if I live with my grandparents, I’m probably gonna end up just like my dad.” Alex chose his mom and stepdad. Owen, 10, chose his grandparents.

When Alex was two and Owen a newborn, their parents separated. A few years later, their dad ended up in prison after a string of domestic violence charges and a false accusation of rape. At first, Alex and Owen lived with their mom, but she worked two jobs and felt overwhelmed, so she signed them over to their grandparents (their dad’s parents).

As children, their grandparents had migrated (separately) to Maytown from the Appalachian mountains. Their eyes met through the window of a Maytown bar, they got married and bought a one-story home in Maytown. Grandpa woke up every day at 5 a.m., sat on the porch in his underwear (sunshine or snow) to drink his coffee, and went to his factory job. When he got home around 6 p.m., he kissed Grandma, ate dinner, and spent the rest of the night tending his garden. Weekends, he got stone drunk.

Alex idolized Grandpa and resolved to be like him (minus the stone drunk part). He loved Maytown, even dreamed of becoming the mayor. But as much as he loved living with his grandparents, they came from the mountains, and they didn’t believe in the idea of college. So when their mom wanted the boys back, and the judge asked Alex where he wanted to live, he saw the future. There were two paths: a higher standard of living with his mom and stepdad, or a lower standard of living and repeating his dad’s story if he chose his grandparents.

In a high school psychology class, Alex’s teacher gave his students an IQ test and handed them their scores. Except Alex. He left him a note to see him after class. The teacher told him that in his several decades of administering IQ tests, he had never seen a score as high as Alex’s, which was in the 140s. “You can always walk into a room and know you’re the smartest person in the room,” his teacher told him.

Alex didn’t want to go to college, but his mom encouraged him to attend anyway. Since he liked listening to Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, he enrolled in a trade school to study communications. He got bored with it, as he had been bored in high school, but he stuck with it and earned his Associate’s (and about $15,000 in debt).

During the last few months of his program, he worked half-time as a clerk at a corner store for minimum wage. He wanted a “real job.” So he asked his stepdad, the plant manager at a factory, if he had any openings. His stepdad gave him a job that started out at $12.90. Alex was only 19.

Alex and Hannah want to be “a 1950s family.” To them it means structure and stability and family togetherness.

The same year, Alex married Hannah, who was also raised by her grandparents. They planned their wedding within a week because Hannah thought she might be pregnant and she wanted to be married before even finding out for sure. (She wasn’t pregnant, it turns out.)

A few years passed. They had a baby girl. They bought a brand new home in a brand new subdivision. Alex works 70- to 85-hour weeks at the factory for about $60,000 a year so that they can pay the mortgage and allow Hannah to be a stay-at-home mom. Once, they applied for food stamps, to give them a little wiggle room. But the welfare officer told them that Alex makes too much. She told Hannah that if she were a single mother she could receive the food stamps, Medicaid, and cash assistance.

But that’s not the kind of family they want to be. From the time they started dating, Alex told Hannah he wanted her to be able to stay at home with their children. They will never get divorced, they say, because divorce isn’t in their mindset. They’re old-fashioned like that, they admit, and they’re proud of it. They want to be “a 1950s family.” To them it means structure and stability and family togetherness, and both of them had precious little of that in their childhood.

Meanwhile, Alex’s brother, Owen, who had continued living with their grandparents, took a very different path. He had a child with his girlfriend. They received food stamps and an “Obama phone.”  Owen abuses drugs and alcohol. He later got married at the courthouse, though according to Alex, he and his wife were “high and drunk” at the time. Owen has been charged for domestic violence twice, and he can never keep a job for very long. Their dad even got in Owen’s face once. “How can you look at me and not see your future?” he asked him.

Alex summarizes the difference between them this way. “I’m the good one; he’s the bad one. I’m the smart one; he’s the dumb one. I like vegetables; he likes meat.” Alex thinks he’s had an advantage in life through a combination of high IQ and positive influences (mostly his grandpa). He doesn’t believe in free will: from the Holocaust to Mother Teresa, he thinks everything happens the way it happens for a reason, and there’s not much any individual can do about it. But he tries not to think about that too long, or else he gets depressed.

Self-discipline out-predicts IQ for academic success by a factor of about two.

As psychologist Martin Seligman points out in his book Flourish, the social sciences’ standard response to this tale of two brothers is to point out how “environment, rather than character or heredity, is a better explanation of what people do.” Perhaps the social scientist would note the higher standard of living that Alex experienced as a teen with his mom and stepdad, or his stepdad’s fortuitous position as plant manager. But as Seligman points out, the problem with saying it’s all the environment means that people are not really responsible for their actions. That makes efforts to change character, or to punish bad behavior and reward good behavior, a waste of time.

Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association, has spent about the last two decades trying to persuade people that success in life depends on more than environment. He decries “psychology-as-usual—the psychology of victims and negative emotions and alienation and pathology and tragedy.” Instead, he proposes “positive psychology,” which emphasizes the skills and character traits that a person can develop to flourish, even after traumatic experiences. Positive psychology suggests that “sometimes people are indeed victims … but often people are responsible for their actions, and their untoward choices stem from their character.”

For instance, he talks about the importance of self-control, noting that “self-discipline out-predicts IQ for academic success by a factor of about two.” He cites the research of Anders Ericsson, which finds that what really matters is not inherent genius but “the amount of time and energy you spend in deliberate practice.”

If Seligman is right, then “the world can be bettered not only by undoing malignant circumstances … but also by identifying character, both bad and good.” Building on his work, we should work to identify the character traits that could help more young people who grow up in disadvantaged families, like Alex, to thrive. And we should encourage young adults with traumatic family pasts to tell their stories and to see their suffering as a catalyst for building the kind of empathy and resiliency that will enable them to give their kids a more stable family.