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October 8, 2012

Guest Blogger: Steve Dandrea

The (Ever Shifting) Goal of Parenthood

To quickly summarize, in my last Blog entry I proposed the idea that parents take more than their fair share of the blame, and of the praise, for how their children turn out. There is a wealth of data to support this. I cannot possibly present a great deal of it in this short blog, but consider the following two observations:

1. Parents with more than 1 child can testify that each child comes into this world with it’s own distinct personality.

2. Identical twins reared together in the same household are no more similar than if they are raised apart (ditto for fraternal twins.)

In the last 50 or 60 years the dominant view in child psychology was that the child’s permanent personality/temperament/character were molded by the parenting style. What this view completely misses, however, is the child’s effect on the parent. If you have 2 children, one calm and quiet, one loud and boisterous, chances are the 2 children will describe their parents as different as well. The loud and boisterous one will tend to characterize the parents as strict and authoritarian, whereas the calm and quiet child will tend to describe the parenting style as passive and accepting. Different children require different parenting styles, but this was ignored for decades while researchers looked only at parent to child effects, instead of the other way around.

Research has come to show that a child’s peer group is actually what primarily shapes the child’s character. And it makes sense if you think about it. Consider the following questions.

1. When children of immigrants who speak with a thick accent learn English, the children never speak with the accent, even though they often learn the native language at home prior to learning English. Why is this? Because they are socialized by their peer group.

2. When your son or daughter goes to school in an outfit you disapprove of, who’s approval do you think the child is concerned with: yours or their peer groups?

The data supports that a child’s peer group does more to influence their overall character than their parent’s. If you feel shocked at these outrageous claims, you shouldn’t be. The previous dogma of parent-to-child effects had its lid blown of its top back in 1998 when Judith Rich Harris’ “The Nurture Assumption” was published, much to the dismay of the orthodoxy. I don’t have the time or space to detail the ensuing battle between the new school of thought and the old, but a good starting point for the debate (besides reading the book itself, of course) would be to check its Wikipedia page.

“But wait!” says the skeptic. “I have ‘trait X’, and I raised my child to have ‘trait X’! Not only me, but several people I know have cultivated qualities they find important in their children!” This is correct for me as well. Several parents I know have children like them. Music loving parent’s have music loving children. Well spoken parents have well spoken children. But stop to consider what made the parents well spoken/music loving in the first place. You can say it was their parents’, but this only pushes the question back one generation. The real answer is genetics. Artistic ability is heritable. So is almost every personality trait, believe it or not. (This is not to say there is “a” gene for something like, disagreeableness. This is only to say that there are genes that contribute to a person’s amount of disagreeableness in relation to everybody else. Science speak: variability within a given population.)

So if our children are not ours to mold, and shape, and change as we please, what oh what is a parent to do? To borrow a point made by the linguist Steven Pinker, no one but newlyweds think they can change their spouse. And yet if I told you that you couldn’t change your spouse, I doubt your response would be “so it doesn’t matter how I treat my spouse?”  I don’t want this blog to come off as too deterministic or negative, as if there’s nothing that a parent can do to increase the likelihood of their child leading a happy, successful and stable life, there most certainly are. I often see and hear from parent’s who are at their wit’s end, be it with their rambunctious 2 year old, or their rebellious 16 year old. “I’ve tried everything”, is a frequently used phrase. I have offered a few clues hidden between the lines designed to entice the reader to check back for my next entry. What options are available to parents will be the subject of my last entry on this topic, coming in two weeks time.

Please send all hate mail and associated complaints to steve.dandrea@gmail.com


Steve Dandrea is 31 years old and lives in Westminster, CA., with his wife and two children, ages 13 and 5 1/2 months. He works in the Optical industry and spends his spare time (what little he has), playing guitar and reading, reading, reading.

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