Parenting 101

The latest fashionable parenting wisdom is that a parent’s wisdom doesn’t matter.

Some public intellectuals have staked out the claim that genes and circumstance vastly predominate any effect parenting might have on a child. They base this on studies indicating that identical twins raised by different parents become adults with similar health, wealth, and happiness—suggesting that nature far outweighs nurture as a determinant of life outcomes.

The results aren’t predetermined; if your kid is hard-wired to have self-restraint, foresight, and a reasonable capacity for calculation, he may become a law-abiding actuary, or a chess-player, or a geneticist, but he could also end up a high-stakes card player. The range of outcomes is wide, but the die is cast with parameters.

The vicissitudes of life may chink or scorch or even crack that die, but if your child doesn’t come with the self-restraint app, for example, the twin-studies data suggest you’re not going to build it into him.

So don’t delude yourself, mother, father, with the faith that your pitiful efforts can alter your child’s path any more than a butterfly might deliberately spin a hurricane off course.

Parenting certainly feels that way, to this parent, at least—like flapping my weakling wings against the coming storm, the storm that comes over a child passing into adulthood in this age of quiet terror, of hopeless optimism, of sterile, brightly packaged, insistent faith in the goodness of goodness.

We parents already know we are weak and fading and set against the storm; we’re in need of no professorial revelation here.

The nature-over-nurture proclamation complements, perhaps not surprisingly, recent research by psychologists in the burgeoning field of happiness studies, who purport to find that the childless are happier than the child-burdened.

For all our protestations to the contrary, academics tell us, we parents are a miserable lot, our discomfort only abated once our little chickens have flown the roost.

Taken together, these proclamations yield modern wisdom that is no doubt pleasing to many young professionals: don’t get conned into having kids, but if you fall for that cultural trap, certainly don’t over-invest in them.

By now we all know better than to helicopter about the heads of our little ones, intervening in their every conflict, packing each waking hour with professionally-sanctioned enrichment.

But too many of us still agonize over whether we read to them enough, and whether we are reading them the right things, and whether their watching Spongebob Squarepants will be the root cause of Harvard passing them over for the child of Indian immigrants who don’t even allow PBS in their home.

Lay down all this angst over whether you’ve afforded your children enough of your scarce quality time, the latest experts insist. Your quality time won’t help them. Spend it on yourself.

I wish I could let this scholarly insight soak into my bones.

God knows I want to believe it, every time I return my sons to their mother’s house and travel 300 miles to work, every night I wake a dozen times and remember they’re sleeping in another state. Such cool, soothing ruminations from the domain of scientific parenting might fill this honeycombed heart that most days feels like it will collapse into itself.

I’m skeptical, but I know believing research like this is convenient to many—newly encouraged you-can-have-it-all-and-a-bag-of-chips corporate moms, skulking absentee dads, child-ridden professors who craft research to prove they can give quality time to their pressing research and toss the dregs to their young ones.

I’m not a quiet skeptic, unfortunately; I’m one of those tiresome curmudgeons who feels inclined to disprove whatever truisms set people to nodding their heads with relief or delighted outrage. On occasion, I’ll even roust myself from comfort to do so, or if not to disprove the offending platitude, at least poke it in the eye.

One might puncture the aforementioned assessment of parenting’s impact, for example, by noting that it assumes most parents have parenting styles that significantly vary from one another.

If parenting only overcomes genetics when it is engaged, consistent, spiritually deep, and resistant to electronic titillation, for example, then perhaps we should be surprised when twins raised in different homes end up with similar worldviews and behaviors. The twin studies assume, in other words, the very thing they claim to prove.

What’s more, research shows children do increase parental happiness when they’re wanted in the first place. Even if wanted children don’t increase happiness, we ought to question whether happiness is really what we ought to be pursuing anyway, as opposed to, say, the other-orientation that leads to service, genuine love for others, and spiritual growth.

But suppose this latest crowd of bright-eyed professorial bullshitters was, in fact, right?

What if parenting really doesn’t have any significant effect on the paths our children take? What if they are just little locusts, mindlessly eating out the substance of our happiness before moving out and before (God willing) they reproduce?

I can’t, for life or soul, see how this matters. I already know it’s my fumbling ministrations against the prowling lion. I know my children can be snatched from me in an instant.

I persist in reading to them, keeping as much garbage out of their minds and bodies as I can, disciplining them, praying for them, fiercely loving them in word and deed, because maybe it actually does matter a little.

That’s all I need, just that maybe. One maybe can carry a parent a long way.

And I do it too, because when I focus on my happiness alone, I am wretched.

I know it’s a crazy idea, but maybe the experts have it backwards. Maybe I can’t have much positive effect on my children, but when I consider what they’ve done for this weathered soul, I suspect they may well make the difference, for me, between heaven and hell.

  • http://chadthomasjohnston.com Chad Thomas Johnston

    Wow. I’m with you on this, Tony.

    If I resign myself to mediocre parenting just because my daughter will not be affecting by anything I do, I am buying into the same line of reasoning that says, “Why pray? You’re not going to change God’s mind anyway.”

    My parents have absolutely impacted me. Beyond that, you bring up a very valid point: Parenting, like prayer, changes *us.* And by golly, we need to be challenged and changed. The last thing we need is even more self-indulgence and aimless happiness that leaves us untouched, unshaped, and unguided.

    Let’s do more than hang onto that “maybe.” Let’s just assume that what we do matters, and not let any naysayers tell us otherwise. When we let those negative voices into our heads and lives, we give them a power they do not deserve. Great thoughts, sir.

    - CTJ

  • http://www.tonywoodlief.com Tony Woodlief

    Thanks for the reminder, Chad, that entertaining the negative thoughts isn’t a neutral activity — it, too, has consequences, something I need to remember.

  • Brad Winters

    At the end of one of those days in parenthood that leave you cock-eyed at the wheel–kids spiking in the back seat from a sugar-coated tour of the Ben and Jerry’s factory in Vermont–this is a great read and necessary affirmation of what the whole undertaking is, and isn’t, about. Thanks, Tony.

  • http://www.tonywoodlief.com Tony Woodlief

    Brad, a deeper person would have something significant to say in response, but if I’m going to be honest, I have to admit that the first thing crossing my mind upon reading your comment is: “There’s a Ben and Jerry’s factory? Why didn’t anybody tell me?!?”

    • http://chadthomasjohnston.com Chad Thomas Johnston

      I want to go to the Ben & Jerry’s factory, too. I will join you two in the shallow end of the Patheos pool, where dreams of ice cream and sugar comas will suffice. :)

  • http://collinpark.blogspot.com collin park

    Tony, I love where you ended up: children can have a marvelous effect upon a parent’s spiritual and emotional growth. Mine certainly have on me.

    I do want to complain, though, about your characterization of “expert” advice.

    In my office hangs a photo of my daughter and me; she’s working on a crossword puzzle and I’m leaning (not hovering) nearby, the heel of one hand resting on the table. Sitting on that table, in the foreground, is Judy Harris’s book THE NURTURE ASSUMPTION, which I’ve actually read. It’s a brilliant book, and the science is good imho. But though I believe Harris’s conclusions, I don’t neglect the kids, as they would happily tell you. Why do I care for them? It’s not because I want to change who they’re becoming, for crying out loud! (Fathers, don’t exasperate your children, Paul tells us.) It’s because I love them and I love seeing who they are becoming and I hope to be involved with them for a long time to come. I read to them most nights when they still lived at home (and when they still went to sleep at a reasonable hour): passages from the Bible, some other things if we had time, and always a prayer.

    Back to Harris, who actually doesn’t say anything like this:
    >>> Lay down all this angst over whether you’ve afforded your children enough of your scarce quality time, the latest experts insist. Your quality time won’t help them. Spend it on yourself.

    In fact she repudiates this line of thinking in that book, as well as in interviews, basically like this: People never say, “I can’t alter the future personality of my wife/husband, so can I just neglect her/him?”

    “Can’t change X’s adult personality” (or other characteristics measured by psychological tests) absolutely does not imply “I shouldn’t care about X” or “I can ignore X”. That is just sloppy thinking.

  • http://www.tonywoodlief.com Tony Woodlief

    Collin,
    I believe you’re right about the implied illogic, but it’s the conclusion I think many people draw from reading Bryan Caplan, for example (the headline says it all: http://blogs.wsj.com/ideas-market/2011/04/11/twin-lessons-have-more-kids-pay-less-attention-to-them/). I think it’s worth distinguishing, further, between arguments claiming the personalities of children can’t be changed, and the broader claims of those who rely on twin studies to suggest overall life outcomes can’t be substantially affected by parents. The latter leads to an assumption that we can let our kids do whatever they like except insofar as we derive pleasure from an interaction with them, because the hard and uncomfortable work called “parenting” has little payoff. Thus Caplan would agree with you about hanging around your kids for the pleasure of it, but he would likely part ways when it comes time to work on a latent selfishness you’ve noticed in one of your children, for example, or laziness, or any of the other sins that beset them just as they beset us.

    • http://collinpark.blogspot.com/ collin park

      Tony,

      Thanks for the Caplan pointer. Yes, he might disagree with me on some of those “teaching” things, especially if his view of life’s Ultimate Meaning differs from mine.

  • http://atlantarofters.blogspot.com The Sanity Inspector

    I don’t know that I remember so much as a paragraph of all the advice my father gave me over the years growing up. It is his presence in my life, the memory of him in his recliner, or pottering with his tools, or going out after hours to deal with some problem at work, that made the mark. The timbre of his drawl, his unbearably corny (to a middle-schooler) humor, all those pre-verbal impressions children soak up on Daddy’s knee, those are the things that have stayed with me & inspire me in my own fatherhood.

  • http://www.cordeiro.us Cordeiro

    Well done, Tony – from one tiresome curmudgeon to another.


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