Saturday, June 9, 2012

How much do parents matter?

The Newsweek  and Time magazine online archive is probably one of the greatest drains of my time. You can read more or less every article ever written since I don’t know when, and it’s intoxicating having all that knowledge at your fingertips. I often think how history-shattering it would be if you could just send one computer with all the current internet information back in time. It has the making of a bad science fiction novel. Anyway, it’s funny how certain social issues keep coming back again and again on the front cover over the decades, and parenting seems like the biggest issue of all. I recently read an article from about a decade ago on how parents don't matter. It was surprisingly convincing, so I also read the book the article was based on, and, after this rambling intro, that book is what this post is about. 

Harris’s book, The Nurture Assumption, is centered on the idea that instead of parents socializing children, peers socialize children. She noticed three things that caused her to question the the influence of parents: immigrant children speak with the accent of their peers, not of their parents; upper class British males were raised by their governess or teachers (both lower class) yet behaved in an upper class manner; and finally children are encouraged to act like their slightly older peers as opposed to encouraged to acting like their parents.

Of course, children do end up like their parents, but not due to parenting. Harris believes any connection between parenting and the way the children turn out could be accounted for by the shared genetics. For example, a happy mom has a happy child because they are both genetically predisposed to happiness, not because the mother raises her child to be happy. When studies are controlled for genetics, they find that growing up in the same home does not make children more alike, and that birth order (something that is purely nurture, not nature) makes no difference on the way the child acts outside the house. Instead, the main influence on children is their peers. It’s the peers that influence everything from what language the children are most fluent in to what are their values and goals in life are.

The parent’s lack influence outside of the home is because children know what works in one context doesn’t necessarily work in another context. It might be useful to be obedient with authoritarian parents at home, but not with your less-capable teammate on your soccer team, for example. Therefore, children don’t carry what they learn at home to the outside world, but instead reevaluate every new environment and act accordingly.

It's impossible to read the book without constantly revising your own opinions. I ended up agreeing with a lot of what she wrote, but I wish she had more proof that the environment- influenced aspect of personality is purely situational. I do agree that personality is partly situational. For example, a recovering alcoholic will be much more likely to relapse in a setting where he abused alcohol (in a bar, for example) than at a rehab center. But at the same time, he’s still going to crave alcohol no matter where he goes - all the environment does is strengthen or attenuate that craving. Maybe I’m ignoring the data in favor for what feels right, but it does seem right that we would carry things we learned at home with us to school, even if we don’t carry enough for it to be detected in personality tests. 

In addition, even if we assume that parents only have influence on their children in their own home, that’s still important. Children spend an awful lot of time at home. Also, if the parents effect the way their children care for their own children (which is also a "at home" environment), they will have a multi-generational influence. That's got to be important, even if it does turn out that parents have no influence on how children act at school or work.

In any case, it was a very thought-provoking book. While I’m not convinced that parents don’t matter, I am convinced the power of parents can be over-emphasized. Kids aren’t silly-putty. However, it’s important to note (as the author does) that extreme abuse is well-proven to have life-long ramifications. And even if poor parenting isn’t necessarily going to mess up a child for life, that’s still no excuse for poor parenting. The kids may be alright, but they won’t have a happy childhood. What are your thoughts on the influential power of parents? This is definitively something that I don't have any real-life experience in myself.


  1. Interesting! I think peers definitely have an influence, but they are not entirely responsible for the development of personality, otherwise all children would be the same. For instance, I used to babysit for two families on my street, each with a boy born in 2000. They have been exposed to the same neighborhood and school experiences their whole lives, but at every stage have been profoundly different people. The boy raised by his timid, gentle, sweet mother is like her, in addition to being a little nerdy, outdoorsy, and other things his family values. The boy raised by his hyper-energetic, outgoing, and sporty mom is like her, and he values sports and activity over studying, reflecting his own family values (this is extremely generalized but the differences between them and the degree to which they reflect their families always astonishes me). So i think the early formative years before you are exposed to peers are crucial.

    1. Good point. That's something else I wish the book had gone into: those early years where you don't really play with friends so much as have mommy and me time, and that time affects (effects?) everything from attachment styles to the "mothertongue" language. I think Harris would say that the mothers are genetically passing on their personality traits to their kids, but there are somethings like religion or family values that doesn't seem genetic but still gets passed on anyway.