A Parenting Book for Nihilists?

child with parent at Musée d'Orsay

[This post turned into a book review, something I had not really planned but, hey, anything goes here. Hope you enjoy it (and check out the book)!]

The literature on parenting is daunting (and inconsistent) at best, overwhelming (and wrong) at worst. I dabbled in it during months leading up to the birth of my son, but fatigue and the practicalities of parenting killed any further reading after his arrival. Recently, almost four (!) years later, I stumbled upon a parenting book (The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris) that shattered my views on parenting.

Its thesis: For the most part, parents don’t matter.

How’s that for a bold statement? The truth—as most truths tend to be—is more complex and nuanced, but ultimately doesn’t waver much from that claim. Before I explore some of the author’s insights, let me tell you why I needed this book without really knowing I needed it.

Where is the instruction manual?

Let’s face it: being a parent sucks sometimes. Putting child misbehavior aside—it’s such a rare occurrence from my little angel anyway—the self doubt and anxiety engendered by the parenting-industrial complex can drive mommy and daddy mad:

Am I being too harsh with my son? Or maybe too lax? I need to show him affection but be clear with expectations and boundaries. God forbid I swear anywhere within earshot of junior; then again, maybe he should learn which situations call for an “shit, no!” If I don’t start reading to the fetus while still in the womb, language might be delayed. Don’t let babies cry too long lest they develop abandonment issues. But they need to learn to self soothe, so maybe let ’em cry a little. This is OK, that is not—but it might be depending on the child. The list is endless and maddening.

What is a well-meaning parent to do? In a recent interview, child psychology expert Paul Bloom was asked what lessons he has taken from his research in the raising of his own children. I thought his answer was telling: he said, in essence, “nothing.”

If there were an established, foolproof method to raise psychologically healthy children, Bloom argued, everyone would be doing it. Don’t you think if the “best” method for child-rearing were discovered, it would be on the front page of every newspaper and magazine, and espoused by every pediatrician in the country?

The nurture assumption

Despite a lack of consensus on the “correct” way to raise children, surely no one claims that parenting style has no effect whatsoever on the eventual adult personality of children, do they? In a carefully crafted and researched 350 pages, Judith Harris does exactly that. Her arguments are logical, evidence-based (insofar as her representation of the cited research is accurate), and fairly convincing.

The author’s primary aim is to disprove the nurture assumption, the belief that how parents raise children determines who they become as adults—a concept perhaps as old as humanity. But how, then, is a child shaped into an adult, according to Ms. Harris?

toddler on floor at museum
The National Gallery, London.

Hanging out with the cool kids

The answer lies primarily in “group socialization theory,” the notion that a child’s peer group—not the parents—is the primary driver of adult identity and personality. Think back to your childhood: did you become an adult by simply emulating your parents? Or did you act more like your friends, and change as you grew up? I certainly did the latter.

Of course children turn out similar to their parents in many ways, but the author attributes this to being raised in a shared cultural environment, rather than parental influence. As evidence, she cites studies that show child behavior is closely correlated with neighborhood (i.e. other children in the a child’s peer group) but not with family composition (divorce, race, socioeconomic status). If the family moves, the child’s behavior becomes similar to children in the new neighborhood. She also points to children of immigrants; assuming they are exposed to native children in their new country, they will invariably choose the language and culture of their peer group rather than those of their parents.

Parents just don’t understand

I found a discussion of why it may be evolutionarily advantageous to resist parental influence of particular interest. Four possibilities were presented:

  1. Acting too much like the previous generation can prevent innovation
  2. The variety of offspring introduced by sexual reproduction ensures that we do not produce little clones of ourselves. If a deadly virus sweeps through the family, this increases the chance that someone will survive due to their unique genetic composition. It also means that each child develops a unique personality.
  3. Nature is scary, and through most of human history we lived right in the thick of it. It was not unusual for your parents to be eaten by a crocodile or die from a finger infection, leaving you an orphan. Those offspring that could survive and learn without parental guidance were at an evolutionary advantage.
  4. On occasion, parents and offspring may actually have competing interests. “Rebel” offspring—those more likely to cover their own asses—improve their chance of survival.

Maybe “We’re Not Gonna Take It,”  Twisted Sister’s ode to childhood rebellion, had it right all along. Rather than bow to the will of his parents, a child’s evolutionary fitness (i.e. reaching adulthood and passing on genes) is tied to increasing his status within the peer group and becoming a valuable member of the tribe (or heavy metal band).

Parents don’t matter at all (tear rolls down cheek)

Parents are obviously not inconsequential: children need food, shelter, iPads, college tuition, etc. (go on, groan if you want). Additionally, from a social perspective, any choices viewed as unimportant by the child’s peer group—such as religion, political affiliation, and career choice—can be influenced by the parent. Yes, parents get the behavioral scraps.

Development of the adult personality—attitudes, values, and behaviors—is (according the author’s theory) almost exclusively molded by the peer group, and any small effect parents may exert on their child’s personality is confounded by unpredictability. A given parenting style may help Bobby but hinder Susie, and one doesn’t know which it will be ahead of time.

Sorry, mom and dad, you are chopped liver when it comes to influencing your child’s adult behavior.

child crawling away on beach
Time to let them go.

Gene, Gene the personality machine

But there is still hope for parental relevance in the shape of a double helix: genes! We haven’t yet considered their significant impact on personality and behavior.

Studies have shown that nearly all important personality traits—e.g. impulsiveness, agreeableness, openness—have a genetic component. About 50% of variation in children can be traced to genetics, with the other 50% environmental (driven by peer group, if you believe the author. Cue sad parent music).

While genes may transmit personality traits from parent to child, it is not under our control in any meaningful way. We are all the result of a genetic lottery in our parents’ gonads, and will remain so until scientists (with society’s permission) change that fact.

Even the home environment can be thought of as an expression of parental behavioral genes; how I deal with stress and organize my home is in part dictated by my behavioral genes, but it affects my child’s surroundings. Do you feel your sense of control slipping away further?

Take home points

What did I glean from the conclusions of “The Nurture Assumption?” I’ve listed a few below, including some of the author’s suggestions on what parent’s can do for their children.

  • Accept the role that luck playsBy luck, I mean genes. Genes strongly influence personality, and we can’t choose which quirks we pass on. Heck, we might not be here at all but for incredible luck at the very beginning: barring a specific decision of our parents, half of our genes might have died inauspiciously in a tissue, instead of wriggling through the walls of our mother’s ovum and becoming us.
  • Let go of worry and guilt. The assumption that parenting successes or failures can affect our children’s fate has turned kids into, in the author’s words, “objects of anxiety.” If one accepts how small and uncertain the effect of parenting style seems to be, it is possible to rediscover the joys of parenting hiding underneath the fear of failure.
  • You can choose your children’s peers—to a degree. Peer group is important. Parents have some power to choose their child’s friends, albeit indirectly via choice of school and neighborhood. But it’s still a crapshoot: kids can fall in with a “bad crowd” despite the best of parental intentions, and someplace that works for Bobby may be a disaster for Susie.
  • Some values still come from parents. Disillusioning as it may be, your child’s peer group will shape the lion’s share of personality. But all is not lost: parents often still hold significant sway over issues deemed less important to the peer group, such as politics, religion, and career choice. (I’m planning a professional golf career transitioning to President of the United States for my 3-year-old.)

Will this change how I parent?

Despite the compelling arguments of the book, I struggle to completely dismiss the feeling that my parenting choices are at least moderately consequential. More, I must choose something when faced with an A:B decision regarding my child, whether I believe it matters or not. How I will inform those decisions? I don’t know. Admittedly, the conclusions of the book don’t leave much actionable intelligence for us to work with.

As the author says of children, “you can neither perfect them nor ruin them,” and that gives me comfort. My decisions are almost certainly less far-reaching than society would have me believe. In ratcheting down my parental anxiety a few notches, I can at least become a more fun and relaxed parent to my children.

Comments or questions? Leave ’em below!

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