Friday, October 26, 2012

on nurturing nature

Mother and Child, by Gustav Klimt

So, my dear cousin has been listening to these psychology lectures in his car; the other day, he comes in and tells me, "Parents actually have very little influence on how their children turn out -- it's just in the genes". He tells me this with great confidence, presumably because Dr So-and-so said it, which somehow gives it "scientific" credence.

Now, we've had these discussions on psychology before; I'd done it in university, and had previously told him quite frankly that it was fine for some generalisations, but really that's all it is -- generalisations. I don't feel that there's that same objectivity and universality with psychology as there is with say, chemistry or physics. Trying to create principles that apply to all individuals and groups is, to me, impossible; humans are just too complex and diverse, as are their personal lives, experiences, beliefs, circumstances. And really, how many people could one possibly study, and for how long?

This idea that genes may be what influence personality and that parents don't really matter, came into prominence when a certain Judith Rich Harris published her book, The Nurture Assumption, some 14 years ago, in which, summarily speaking, she claims that parental influence is minor; whatever our peers do to us outweigh, in the long run, whatever our parents do (Ms Harris, by the way, was a textbook writer, with no doctorate or academic affiliation).

"[Harris] looks at studies which claim to show the influence of the parental environment and claims that most fail to control for genetic influences. For example, if aggressive parents are more likely to have aggressive children, this is not necessarily evidence of parental example".

Further, "Harris' most innovative idea was to look outside the family and to point at the peer group as an important shaper of the child's psyche" (I do not find this an especially profound or groundbreaking idea). However, "contrary to some reports, Harris did not claim that 'parents don't matter'. The book did not cover cases of abuse and neglect. Harris pointed out that parents have a role in selecting their children's peer group, especially in the early years. Parents also affect the child's behavior within the home environment and the interpersonal relationship between child and parent" (extracted from Wiki).

Dr Frank Farley of Temple University eloquently put into words what my immediate thoughts on all this was, namely that "she's taking an extreme position based on a limited set of data. Her thesis is absurd on its face, but consider what might happen if parents believe this stuff!"

Dr Wendy Williams, a professor at Cornell, said, "There are many, many good studies that show parents affect how children turn out in both cognitive abilities and behaviour" (extracted from Wiki, italics mine).

Naturally, however, there are supporters of Ms Harris' great insights, as there are critics. What I wonder is, with all the glaring, physical evidence of the effects of child neglect and abuse, why does anyone even want to propound something that goes against all the noblest principles of parenting at its best, and that has the potential to further encourage parenting at its worst?

While I do not discount the effects of a child's innate qualities on his or her personality, I do not accept that it's these inborn, genetic factors that determine how that child will turn out, or that they outweigh the importance of loving, nurturing, responsible parenting. Child neglect and abuse are on the rise, and without fail, parental personality and behaviour are cited as one of the major risk factors. To suggest that those neglected or abused children would turn out crappily even if their parents were nurturing and responsible, simply because they're inherently crappy people, is profoundly annoying to me.

However, it seems that Ms Harris "rejected the idea that her book would encourage parents to neglect or mistreat their children. She maintains that parents will continue to treat their children well 'for the same reason you are nice to your friends and your partner, even though you have no hopes of molding their character' (extracted from Wiki).

Well, I don't know about you, but I do not "treat my children well" for the same reason I'm nice to my friends. I do not feel responsible for my friends' behaviour and morals, for their sense of self-worth, and for the values, habits and attitudes with which they will live their lives and which they will pass on to their children.

Of course, I can't help vaguely wondering about Ms Harris' own kids, or the kids of those who support her views. Ms Harris, at any rate, has two children, one of whom was adopted. The biological child, Nomi, was, according to Ms Harris, quiet and well-behaved; she was, apparently, just like her biological parents, and "gave us no trouble while she was growing up".

The adopted child Elaine, on the other hand, was different. "She always wanted to be with people. We started getting bad reports from the school right away -- that she wouldn't sit in her chair, and she was bothering other kids... As the girls got older, Nomi became a brain and Elaine became a dropout. Nomi was a member of a very small clique of intellectual kids, and Elaine was a member of the delinquent subgroup".

When you have a parent who describes you like that, you have to wonder if it truly was because you were a genetically hopeless case, or because, having intrinsically different -- but not necessarily bad -- traits, your parent just didn't spend the time and effort needed to develop your talents and abilities to the full.

There was a study known as the Colorado Adoption Project, in which, for a mere seven years, researchers "followed" the lives of 245 adopted children, giving them and their adoptive parents personality and intelligence tests at regular intervals. The conclusion they reached from this supposedly vast, all-encompassing study was that "the only reason we are like our parents is that we share their genes".

Besides the fact that I believe all psychological studies are limited and subjective, I don't believe good parenting is about making our children similar to ourselves -- indeed, it is often hoped that they don't become like us -- it is about harnessing their innate qualities and turning them to positive, productive account. That is why I think good, present parenting does matter.

While one child may be innately shy and the other gregarious, as a parent I am responsible for instilling the right values and attitudes in both of them, sound principles and beliefs that will then dictate their behaviour, and which are not so weak as to be squashed by any peer pressure they may encounter.

Obviously, peers do have an impact on one's life, but I believe the degree of that impact is dependent on the amount of time they spend with those peers, and the fundamental value system they've acquired at home. In fact, I believe it is those values they learn at home that are what will influence the peers they choose to interact with.

For me personally, I can honestly say that the kind of person I was as a child and am now, is almost entirely due to how I was treated at home, the behaviours I saw, and the words I heard. My peers growing up had, in fact, very little influence over me then, and certainly none at all now. I have known and witnessed enough of the effects of parental nurturing and attention, as well as cruelty and neglect, in both my own life and the lives of my relatives and friends, to know how valuable responsible, accessible parenting is -- it is what greatly influenced my decision to give up my corporate career in favour of full-time motherhood.

"Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it" (Prov 22:6).

If you've ever done psychology in school, or ever read a paper on some theory, how often did you think, "Well, that sure didn't apply to me" or "That wasn't what happened in my niece's case, or my son's case, or my neighbour's kid's case"? There simply are no universal behavioural laws, and I find it irresponsible to propound theories that ultimately have no positive purpose.

Instead, they serve to bolster the views of people like my cousin and his friends who happily leave their kids in the care of maids and strangers all day, every day (interestingly, I recall a study done in 2011 by scientists from the US and Netherlands which found that "genes may contribute to a child's bad behaviour, but only when parents are distant; parental monitoring -- how well a parent knows what’s going on in their child’s life -- was key").

I found this person's response to an article on Ms Harris that appeared in Scientific American particularly eloquent: "There is no substitute for good parenting. I am a teacher and see this every day. If you see a problem student, 99% of the time, you have to look no farther than the parent... who does not value education, who is working too many hours to know or care what there kids are doing, who is mentally or physically abusive, who is dependent on alcohol or drugs, or who suffers from some type of mental illness.

"I am amazed at what our kids have to overcome everyday. I am also a parent of two honor students. My college student has won multiple scholarships. Who do you credit for that? Her teachers? They deserve some credit for their knowledge of subject matter....BUT it is the YEARS that I have spent raising them to value education, spending precious time with them, and pushing them to always do their best.

"The most promising students are those who benefit from the combination of GOOD parenting and GOOD teaching. They will choose their peers based upon shared values, and they will have the strength of character to speak their own mind. The old saying "birds of a feather, flock together" is very true.

"Kids who are raised in similar homes, suffer similar problems, and will group together to find some sort of "home away from home" feeling of comfort and safety. Its hard to be a member of an intelligent and successful peer group, when you cannot relate to any of the experiences that they have had. This article and the author of this book is a joke. Sadly it will be used by irresponsible parents to bolster their own irresponsible attitudes of denying any responsibility for the fate of their own offspring".


The Cranky said...

Your post is both profound and thoughtful. The whole nature vs. nurture debate has been around for a long time. Perhaps it's simplistic of me but I've always viewed it as:

Nature is equivalent to a carpenter's tools. The basic elements to put together a life.

Nurture, on the other hand, is the instruction and learning which enables you to use those tools well rather than merely destructively.


well written, well presented, well said!!! point taken. I am a mother of 2 little girls and take great pride in raising them. It is a full time job, which I enjoy with great passion. I am raising them to be responsible, compassionate adults who will be an asset to our society...I cannot see how this is JUST genetics! I love the way you write...I feel a book coming on!love Chelsea.

Kay G. said...

Very well written. Having said that, I really do feel sorry for those parents who having raised their children with all the love and support they can possibly give, still have children who turn to drugs or crime after being influenced by their peers.
Thanks again for a well=thought out post.

Kay G. said...

Oh! And I forgot to say how much I love the Klimt painting to go with this post. Do you remember that I stayed in the Klimt room at the Davinci Hotel in June?

Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

I love this post; it is so well written! You have put so much thought into it, and I found myself nodding my head as I kept reading. I do believe that we are born with certain traits, but I also believe strongly that the home base plays a huge fundamental role in how we turn out. As a parent, I have a responsibility in how my children turn out simply by the way I raise them and the things I teach them. And I agree completely that humans are very complex and much too diverse to have one set of principles applied to them.

Sulky Kitten said...

Very interesting and well written post, Janice. My first degree is in psychology and so I always roll my eyes when somebody comes out with some piece of hokum relating to the nature/nurture debate. Every single person's experience is different, both as a parent and as a child. I don't think that any one method of parenting is either right or perfect. There are degrees of success and failure within every parent-child dynamic, depending on your perspective.

Marsa said...

i think this post is so true! the way you were treated and raised at home deeply affects what kind of person you are! great post. i enjoyed reading it :)

Pizziricco said...

yez yez "I feel a book coming on!" too. when? when? as an added push, u've already got a captive readership!

willowday said...

So much food for thought here and interesting fresh take. I can't agree more that home provides more than given credit for. Without even being aware of it, I felt instinctively how to mother because of the mother and grandmother I had. Family is tremendously powerful, although peers and culture are written, in the mainstream, about more often.

I am sorry that I found this on a Sunday night, as we're rounding down for the night. Sweeping generalizations are worth examining but, I agree, too that I just don't like labels.

Beth said...

Such a well-written post, Janice! Yes, I certainly agree that it is absurd for anyone to suggest that it doesn't matter what we do as parents because behavior is completely determined by genes. I think there is no work more important (or difficult!) than our job as parents. That being said, I have seen over and over (and in my own family of origin) that even children who are deeply loved and cared for and responsibly raised can go astray. Sometimes, the parents are not to blame.

Sweet Tea said...

I read this and re-read this. I agree with you, totally, yet I must admit I have been wrestling with this very issue. I have given my life (happily) to raising 4 children and it pains me that anyone could think that kids have an "auto-pilot" switch. Still, though I want to think I did things right, one of my children is having a tough time growing up. I want to think I am making a difference. I'm trusting God that is the case...Your thoughts are so well written. I enjoy reading you!


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