Do Parents Matter? Does it Matter?

I can’t believe I’ve never posted about Judith Rich Harris, who undoubtedly ranks as at least a significant demigod in my personal pantheon.

Judy–a largely uncredentialed indy in her house in suburban New Jersey–pretty much single-handedly obliterated the notion that parenting is what causes us to be fxxxed up, and that parents in fact have much direct impact at all on how their kids “turn out.” (This side of abuse or gross negligence.)

She completely altered the way psychologists look at human development, by pointing out that developmental studies that don’t control for the effects of genes (i.e. almost all of them, until recently) are simply…worthless. They tell us nothing.

Yeah: children whose parents are alcoholics are more likely to be alcoholics. Nature or nurture? If you don’t ask that question, you can’t say anything useful on the subject.

I won’t detail it all here. Read this Malcom Gladwell piece from the New Yorker (published just before her first book came out), then run don’t walk to read her second book, No Two Alike. It’s one of the half dozen books you absolutely have to read to understand how human beings work. Her arguments and explanations are crystalline in their lucidity–issue after issue, she lines ’em up and knocks ’em down. (No, she’s not perfect; but she’s stunningly good.)

I have two things to say about Judy’s work.

First, I want to echo and add to Steven Pinker’s wonderfully humane (and funny) comments* in the parenting chapter in The Blank Slate (which chapter is based largely on Judy’s work).

I’ll do it via my recent response to a friend’s email, asking what I thought about screen time (watching DVDs) for her delightful, precocious ten-year-old daughter. (Mine are 17 and 18.)

My rule of thumb when making this kind of decision was always, “What effect will this have on my child on the day she graduates from college, or gets married?” (i.e., affect how she “turns out.”)

The answer, in almost every case, was “utterly imponderable” or “none.”

In that huge majority of cases, the next important questions are:

Will this thing contribute or detract from her having a joyous childhood? (The greatest gift a parent can give.)
Will this thing contribute or detract from us having a joyous family life?

Or perhaps even more important: will my trying to control this thing contribute or detract from the above?

Her response over lunch: “Why didn’t you tell me this ten years ago?!”

Some parents do not feel so liberated. They feel depressed and defensive. I think it’s because they want to matter. My advice, FWIW: find joy in your children; find your “matter” elsewhere.

* When many people hear these results, their first reaction is to
say, “Oh, so you mean it doesn’t matter how I treat my kids?” Of
course it matters! It matters for many reasons. One is that it’s
never all right to abuse or neglect or belittle a child, because
those are horrible things for a big strong person to do to a small
helpless one that is their responsibility. Parenting is, above all, a
moral obligation.

Also, let’s say I were to tell you that you don’t have the power
to shape the personality of your spouse. Now, only a newlywed
believes that you can change the personality of your spouse.
Nonetheless, on hearing this truism, you’re unlikely to say, “Oh,
so you’re saying it doesn’t matter how I treat my spouse?” It matters
how you treat your spouse to the quality of your marriage,
and so it matters how you treat your child to the quality of your
relationship to your child.

On consideration, I’m going to save my second comment for a later post. It’s a somewhat technical evolutionary discussion, and this post is already getting long.