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.
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.