Sunday, May 25, 2014

Your children are not your children

Your children are not your children.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
--Kahlil Gibran
So opens Judith Rich's 1998 book, The Nurture Assumption. Assailing trends still current in the Parenting Advice Industry, this book revolutionized my thinking about parenting over 15 years ago. Recently, I've found myself thinking about it anew.

Reviewing a series of studies showing how (barring serious abuse and neglect) identical twins raised together are no more similar than identical twins raised separately, and how adopted siblings are no more similar to one another than are other, unrelated children, Harris draws the following conclusion:
Children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left them in their homes, their schools, their neighborhoods, and their cultural or subcultural groups, but switched all the parents around.
I've looked around at some of the critical reviews of Harris' book, and, so far as I can tell, no one has cited facts that refute this finding.

What does it mean? To the extent that nice parents have nice kids, or aggressive parents have aggressive kids, or, say, parents who read a lot have kids who read a lot, these may simply be traits  that are passed along genetically.

Of course, we parents would prefer to think we have more influence over our kids than simply providing them with unconditional love and stable environments and decent peer groups and rich educational resources. And, of course, the Parenting Advice Industry would prefer for us to think this as well. 

We'd all also prefer to take credit for those things about "our children" that make us most proud. An aunt of mine once told me about how, after her first child was born--a calm, engaged, happily obedient girl--she looked around at all the other parents around her, with their so much more emotionally unstable, unhappily defiant children, and thought to herself, "I'm a parenting natural!"  Then she had her second child, and completely changed her mind about that.  Good for her to have had that revelation; not everyone does.

Indeed, while The Nurture Assumption got a lot of attention those 16 years ago, how many people still talk about it now?


Mnemosyne's Notebook said...

I was interviewing for a teaching position a couple of years ago and was asked to name three books that most influenced my thinking. The first that came to mind was 'The Nurture Assumption.' The name just drew blank looks.

I think it is one of the most challenging things I've ever read, and whenever I think about parenting or education, I always try to run my thoughts threw the wringer of that book.

Anonymous said...

This also shows how little effect schools have on kids.

C T said...

"simply providing them with unconditional love and stable environments and decent peer groups and rich educational resources"--if only it WERE simple. If only more parents could/would do these things. I've seen the ill effects of unstable environments, mental illness, and conditional love, and the lack of properly nurturing parenting made a huge negative difference.
Good parents waste time thinking they can sculpt perfect Galateas out of their children, but there are so many not-good parents out there damaging their children.

Katharine Beals said...

Good point, C T! It would be nice if the Parenting Advice Industry would focus its energies on this particular group of parents rather than pandering to the perfectionists.

Hainish said...

I have to wonder how much of the identical-twins-raised-apart were adopted by families with generally similar characteristics (e.g., if you're adopting, the child is obviously wanted by the parents; adoptive parents have to meet certain income requirements and pass psychological evaluations). It obviously excludes the outlier parents.

Anonymous said...

The perfectionists are the ones who buy the books, Katherine. You think not-good parents buy books about parenting?

Katharine Beals said...

"The perfectionists are the ones who buy the books, Katherine [sic]."

That's right.

"You think not-good parents buy books about parenting?"


Indeed, writing books is probably the least effective way to promote good parenting.

Anonymous said...

So how exactly would the Parenting Advice Industry focus its energies on people who don't buy their books?

Or are you just being silly?

Katharine Beals said...

Anonymous, it's not silly to engage in wishful thinking, even in areas outside one's expertise where one doesn't presume to have a solution.