Or why parents aren't as important as they think (and that's a good thing)
When was the last time you read a book that blew you away? One that left you scratching your head, wondering how you have seem to have been so comprehensively deceived by others?
I’ve just read a book like that. Running to 400 closely-referenced pages, it’s taken me four months to finish. Admittedly I’m dog tired by the time I open any book, but it’s also because I kept stopping, trying to compute and dispute what I’d just read. And then trying to rouse my wife into a late night conversation she really didn’t want.
Here’s what I read.
Question: if you have more than one child (or plan to), do you expect them to share the same characteristics: shy, ambitious, sporty or bookish? Of course you don’t: they’re individuals with their own personalities. But are you also expecting to impart your values, to shape the person they become? Undoubtedly: why else would you throw so much effort into parenting?
The perplexing, counter-intuitive conclusion of The Nurture Assumption, by Judith Rich Harris, is that parenting counts for nothing when it comes to personality. You won’t make any difference.
Harris doesn’t dispute that children take after their parents: they carry a weighty genetic payload. I’m reminded of this every time my wife trots out the line that I am the cause of my children’s reddish hair (she once said ‘to blame’ – that’s telling, no?).
She usually has to part her curly ginger locks to tell me this. And the sight of my brown mop doesn’t give her pause for thought, because it’s my dad who’s in her sights: his recessive red-hair gene, specifically. She also seems resentful of the fact that my parents’ wedding photos were black and white, so she didn’t realise that this blonde-haired chap was once definitely ginger. I think she might have issues.
But I digress: Harris concurs that genetics provide around half of the variance between the personality of children (alongside physical characteristics, of course).
But the other half? Where I’d instinctively put that down to the way you love and nurture them, Harris argues that there’s almost no evidence that my parenting choices will make any difference at all. In short, Philip Larkin was very, very wrong.
Consider the implications here, if Harris is right:
- for government and their well-intentioned intervention programmes;
- for parenting experts and their livelihoods;
- for Freudian-minded therapists and their efforts to implicate your parents;
- for you and me, as we decide how to raise our children.
Where it all began
The Nurture Assumption was published in 1999. It was nominated for a Pulitzer nonfiction prize and ruffled many feathers at the time, as you might expect. Favourably reviewed, it continues to be championed by psychologist Steven Pinker, and Malcom Gladwell is a fan amongst others, but it’s safe to say that for the media, popular science and parents alike it’s a message that has literally failed to hit home.
Indeed, the opportunities for you to shape your children’s future are endless, we’re told (as is the guilt you might feel for not heeding the advice). By the time the midwife has signed you off, you’re already under scrutiny, from others or yourself. Are you talking to them in the right way, and enough? Should they sleep with you? Should you feed on demand? Skip forward, and issues of discipline and motivation are causes for concern, even the amount of craft activities you do with your child.
This isn’t only about your mutual day-to-day happiness; it’s a given that these decisions are among those that will eventually mould the adult that your child becomes.
Welcome home! Any traffic on the hoverway?
One last example. I attended a parenting workshop held by Steve Biddulph last year, to accompany the launch of his new book, Raising Girls. One exercise was to imagine our daughter returning to us in 20 years: what type of person would we like them to be? Sporty? Curious? Assertive? Only by working towards that now, when they are small, could we hope to ‘create’ that person, he told us.
And it rang true… sort of. At a time when my children were barely more than toddlers, I considered how long it was likely to be before they reliably said ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. I reckoned on another decade at least, and 18 months on I’m not inclined to revise my opinion. (Thankfully as a manners Nazi I am irrepressible in my quest, and they will submit. Although I’m hoping I won’t have to ring that damn bell every time.)
But Biddulph wasn’t talking about conditioning your child, at least not directly: on the day his admiring audience lapped up the message that their actions could make their children better adults, if only they try hard enough. Millions of book sales suggest that others feel the same way, and want help to get this right.
Harris set herself against the scientific establishment and the norms of 20th century parenting. Her message may have fallen on pretty stony ground, but it isn’t for lack of evidence. In fact Harris revisits hundreds of studies to look for parent-child effects, the same studies that produced the headlines we all read about the impact of parents. And she finds that when controlling for genetics, the evidence just isn’t there, or robust, or replicable.
It turns out I know nothing
Post-partum bonding, birth order, the effects of childcare and single parents, raising bilingual children and discipline – one by one, along with countless others, Harris dismantles what I thought was true and self-evident, anticipating every ‘Ah, but…’ I could muster. Oh and she’s quite entertaining with it, too. If you want a brief overview, read this interview.
My summary does a gross injustice to a book of such breadth. I’ve neglected the data, the methodologies, the comparisons with other parents around the world, the importance of twin studies, the cracking chapter on teenagers (and how you won’t win)… Oh and you may have noticed that I haven’t even mentioned Harris’s answer to the question of what accounts for the remaining 50% of the variance in personalities. (It’s their peers, she believes.) There’s lots more to explore.
The power of this book lies in the detail, but also in the refreshing outlook on parenting it implies. It’s down to you whether or not your child enjoys the years they spend with you. You feed them, you clothe them, you laugh and play with them. If they learn to handle a 9-iron or cook a mean curry at your knee, then you’re undeniably giving them a skill they can use for life.
But look beyond that. Are you really so sure that you can shape your child’s personality? Even if you’re convinced, how do you know you’re doing it right? After all, there are as many parenting techniques as there are chairs at Bounce’n’Rhyme.
If you’re not so sure, wouldn’t it be better to stop trying so hard (and refuse to accept the guilt that the media seems so ready to heap upon parents)? Freed from the obligation to ‘improve’ your children, wouldn’t you have a bit more time and energy for them as individuals – and time and energy for yourself?
That’s the theory, and I think I buy it. Do you? If not, what contribution do you believe you’re making to the personality of your children, and how are you seeking to achieve it?