What's a parent to do when parenting experts disagree?
Take these two statements from Psychology professors at the highly respected universities of MIT and Harvard.
"[P]arents don't matter. What matters, other than genes, is a child's peer group."
MIT Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker
"[T]here is ample evidence that, for better or worse, parents do shape their children."
Harvard Professor of Psychology, Jerome Kagan
What's going on here?
And how is it even possible to seriously propose the idea that parents don't matter?
The Pinker quote is from his introduction to Judith Rich Harris’ book The Nurture Assumption, which makes a very convincing case against important parts of the expert parenting advice of recent times.
Conventional wisdom would have us all believe that parents can cause children irreparable lifelong psychological harm if they do the wrong things and can convey significant advantage if they do all the right ones.
A Closer Look at Expert Parenting Advice
But is it true?
That's what scientists like Pinker and Kagan have been trying to puzzle out for decades.
They have amassed a lot of data to work with.
And herein lies the problem.
There are great volumes of data and Harris turned a skeptical eye to the data.
She made a careful reclassification of the existing studies and found that a lot of it was effectively useless.
Let me explain.
Let's pretend we have a collection of this kind of data on a bunch of normal kids.
Notice that this will not tell us about abuse or neglect because those are not normal and all the studies have gathered their data this way.
And what we would find is that they are distributed in a couple of interesting ways.
The Two Dimensions of Children's DataFirst the kids have varying levels of affection which ranges from being warm to cool, and second they vary according to how impulsive they are which ranges from assertive to reserved.
Now what we also find is that if we tilt our scales a little then the altitude becomes a pretty reliable predictor of later success in life.
Adding the Third Predictive Dimension to Children's DataThis predicts that someone who is both warm and assertive is the most successful kind of person while someone who is assertive but rather cold will do better than someone who is warm but reserved.
(If you have read my parenting styles page then this will look familiar.)
Finally, of course, if someone is both cold and reserved, then they are the least successful.
Dissecting Expert Parenting Advice
So the important question is what caused them to be that way?
Is it in their inherent, inborn nature or is it how they have been nurtured?
Is it hereditary or is it the environment?
Expert parenting advice is bought and sold in vast quantities on the assumption that the family environment is the most important factor.
Before I go on I have to point out that this data is NOT about the whole child, it is only about the measurable qualities of intelligence and personality that psychological tests and observations can record.
So there are two things to that are very important to notice:
First, this is data about a narrow part of what normal people are like, it does not reflect everything about what we may really think makes people who they are.
Second, it is data that is analyzed in a population. It is not about individuals, it is about a group.
Scientists have been puzzling out the differences between genes and learning for years and found that they cannot make any headway looking at individuals.
What Harris did that was remarkable was she used the data to show that heredity is more important that it was assumed to be and she also called into question who it is that is doing the nurturing.
So now, instead of just looking for the effects of just genes versus the environment, we are looking for the effects of genes versus the family environment versus the non-family environment.
They are normally called the shared vs. the unique environment.
Unique or shared in the sense of what is unique or shared within a family unit because that was assumed to be the most important factor.
And what this data makes available is NOT an accounting of which of the causes put someone in a particular place in the data set, it tells us how much each of the three causes contributes to the variance in the population.
So what we have in the whole data set is 100% of the variance.
Three Causal Factors in Children's DataThen, when the data is analyzed properly the data shows that the unique environment accounts for 50% of the variance.
What that means is that if I was somehow miraculously able to know exactly how genes and your family determined your position in the set, then we would know that your actual position is going to be somewhere within a circle this big.
1st 50% of Causal Influence on Children is Unique Experiences & Chance
As you can see we can make only a limited prediction about future prospects.
Essentially, what this shows is that when they have examined the personalities and intelligence of identical twins they vary this much and no more because of the unique experiences that they each have.
That’s a lot of room to move.
Now if somehow I was able to determine exactly how unique experiences and genes determined your position but still did not have a handle on the shared family environment which is essentially the effect of parenting behaviors, then how much variance is there going to be?
The data show that the shared environment accounts for zero to ten percent of the variance depending on which studies are used.
Psychological Causation in Children (0-10% is Parental Behavior)
This is what is meant when someone giving expert parenting advice says that parents don't make a difference.
The Truth Behind Expert Parenting Advice
They mean that when you try to predict the intelligence and personalities of whole populations by observing parenting practices you don’t get good predictions.
As long as you are looking at normal kids, then it doesn’t matter what the parents are doing (within the normal range), the children's success in adult life will be a result of a combination of genetic endowment, their unique experiences and the chance events that occur to them.
Harris work is directed primarily at researchers to make the very important point that if they don’t give heredity it’s due and forget that a child's environment extends beyond the family then their data is bad, their analysis will be useless and the resulting expert parenting advice will be worthless, or even worse it might put an unnecessary guilt trip on parents for not being good enough.
Beware of Expert Parenting Advice in Sound Bites
So the controversy is really a red herring.
No one has actually suggested that parents don't matter AT ALL, they have only said that parenting behaviors don't influence the success that a child will attain as an adult due to his or her intelligence and personality.
No matter what you do directly to your child as a normal parent you cannot permanently change your child’s intelligence nor their personality,despite what some expert parenting advice will say.
So while Steven Pinker’s controversial statement was based on the truth, the combination of taking it out of context and his overstating the case makes it an absurdly provocative sound bite.
Redeeming Pinker's Expert Parenting Advice
And, therefore, Jerome Kagan's statement is perfectly true, as well.
In fairness I will let Steven Pinker redeem himself with this excerpt from his book The Blank Slate:
"Not everyone is ... accepting of fate, or of the other forces beyond a parent's control, like genes and peers.
'I hope to God this isn't true,' one mother said in the Chicago Tribune.
'The thought that all this love that I’m pouring into him counts for nothing is too terrible to contemplate.'
As with other discoveries about human nature, people hope to God it isn’'t true.
"[Remember]… a parent and a child have a human relationship.
No one ever asks, 'So you’re saying it doesn't matter how I treat my husband or wife?' even though no one but a newlywed believes that one can change the personality of one's spouse.
Husbands and wives are nice to each other (or should be) not to pound the other’s personality into a desired shape but to build a deep and satisfying relationship.
Imagine [you] told [me] that [I] cannot revamp the personality of [my] wife and [I] replied, 'The thought that all this love I'm pouring into … her counts for nothing is too terrible to contemplate.'
So it is with parents and children: one person’s behavior toward another has consequences for the quality of the relationship between them.
"Yes, it is disappointing that there is no algorithm for growing a happy and successful child.
But would we really want to specify the traits of our children in advance.…
People are appalled by human cloning and it's dubious promise that parents can design their children by genetic engineering.
But how different is that from the fantasy that parents can design their children by how they bring them up?
Realistic parents would be less anxious parents.
They could enjoy their time with their children rather than constantly trying to stimulate them, socialize them, and improve their characters.
"[These insights into parenting are] rescuing mothers from the fatuous theories that blame them for every misfortune that befalls their children, and from the censorious know-it-alls who make them feel like ogres if they slip out of the house to work or skip a reading of Goodnight Moon.
And the theory assigns us all a collective responsibility for the health of the neighborhoods and culture in which peer groups are embedded.
"Parents wield enormous power over their children, and their actions can make a big difference to their happiness.
Childrearing is above all an ethical responsibility.
It is not OK for parents to beat, humiliate, deprive, or neglect their children, because those are awful things for a big strong person to do to a small helpless one.
As Harris writes, 'We may not hold their tomorrows in our hands but we surely hold their todays, and we have the power to make their todays very miserable.'"
Professor Pinker and Judith Rich Harris have both looked deeply at the data and helped to illuminate what we all knew deep down to be true from the beginning.
Our moral responsibility begins with compassion.
Regardless of what expert parenting advice you get, your first and foremost duty in this life is to attend to the well-being of your family.
Neither you nor your children will thrive for very long in the community if you can’t first manage to get along within your family.
Discerning Good Expert Parenting Advice
Here are ways that parents do make a difference:
- Parents protect their children from abuse and neglect that might cause permanent psychological harm.
- Parents are responsible for what children learn about how to be in a family.
- Most importantly parents have an inherently intimate relationship with their children, therefore they have a unique opportunity to be a strong presence in their children’s lives.
So it is absurd to say that parents don't matter.
But expert parenting advice for improving your child's intelligence or personality is also a waste of time and money.
In the end the most important parenting investment is creating the best possible relationship with your kids.
Not to be different than you are; not to make them different than they are; but to acknowledge and honor that you are each doing the best you can do with what you got, even when it's not perfect.