• Parenting – why it might not much matter. Nature vs nurture!

    I want you to consider the possibility that your parents did not shape you as a person. Despite how it feels, your mother and father (or whoever raised you) likely imprinted almost nothing on your personality that has persisted into adulthood. Pause for a minute and let that heresy wash across your synapses. It flies in the face of common sense, does it not? In fact, it’s the type of claim that is unwise to make unless you have some compelling evidence to back it up. Even then it will elicit the ire of many. Psychologists especially get touchy about this subject. I do have evidence, though, and by the time we’ve strolled through the menagerie of reasons to doubt parenting effects, I think another point will also become evident: the problems with parenting research are just a symptom of a larger malady plaguing the social and health sciences. A malady that needs to be dealt with.

    This is a controversial hook into a very interesting article at Quilette.com: “Why parenting may not matter and why most social science research is probably wrong”.

    A Gallery Of Pictures Of Awesome Parenting | Ned Hardy

    The main thrust if the piece is that, in analysing an awful lot of predominantly twin study data, the results look to support the idea that parenting has little effect on outcome of a child, and that genetics has a lot to answer for.

    For those knowledgeable about this, it is perhaps not the most surprising conclusion. Indeed, I reposted the news that twin studies at King’s College London had found that genetics were the most important causal factor in educational outcome of children. Indeed, as Steven Pinker stated in The Blank Slate:

    Identical twins think and feel in such similar ways that they sometimes suspect they are linked by telepathy. When separated at birth and reunited as adults they say they feel they have known each other all their lives. Testing confirms that identical twins, whether separated at birth or not, are eerily alike (though far from identical) in just about any trait one can measure. They are similar in verbal, mathematical, and general intelligence, in their degree of life satisfaction, and in personality traits such as introversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. They have similar attitudes toward controversial issues such as the death penalty, religion, and modern music. They resemble each other not just in paper-and-pencil tests but in consequential behavior such as gambling, divorcing, committing crimes, getting into accidents, and watching television. And they boast dozens of shared idiosyncrasies such as giggling incessantly, giving interminable answers to simple questions, dipping buttered toast in coffee, and — in the case of Abigail van Buren and Ann Landers — writing indistinguishable syndicated advice columns. The crags and valleys of their electroencephalograms (brainwaves) are as alike as those of a single person recorded on two occasions, and the wrinkles of their brains and distribution of gray matter across cortical areas are also similar.[i]

    The Quillette piece continues:

    Based on the results of classical twin studies, it just doesn’t appear that parenting—whether mom and dad are permissive or not, read to their kid or not, or whatever else—impacts development as much as we might like to think. Regarding the cross-validation that I mentioned, studies examining identical twins separated at birth and reared apart have repeatedly revealed (in shocking ways) the same thing: these individuals are remarkably similar when in fact they should be utterly different (they have completely different environments, but the same genes).3 Alternatively, non-biologically related adopted children (who have no genetic commonalities) raised together are utterly dissimilar to each other—despite in many cases having decades of exposure to the same parents and home environments.3

    I have twins; fraternal twins (non-identical). And they are very different. Very different indeed. My sister in New Zealand has twins who are also fraternal and they are very different indeed. So I think on that anecdotal evidence, I would agree!

    In fact, Pinker is brought into play by the author (Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University):

    One logical explanation for this is a lack of parenting influence for psychological development. Judith Rich Harris made this point forcefully in her book The Nurture Assumption (an absolute must read). 6 As Harris notes, parents are not to blame for their children’s neuroses (beyond the genes they contribute to the manufacturing of that child), nor can they take much credit for their successful psychological adjustment. To put a finer point on what Harris argued, children do not transport the effects of parenting (whatever they might be) outside the home. The socialization of children certainly matters (remember, neither personality nor temperament is 100 percent heritable), but it is not the parents who are the primary “socializers”, that honor goes to the child’s peer group (a fascinating topic, but one that merits its own separate discussion).

    Now, the astute critic will respond with their own research in hand, papers centering on the deleterious impact of child abuse and severe neglect. There is a wealth of evidence linking child abuse with all sorts of developmental delays, and Harris fully acknowledges this. Mercifully, child abuse is not pervasive in the population, meaning that most kids don’t experience it and it is unlikely that it explains large swaths of why some kids are more extroverted or intelligent than others.6 That said, consider an analogy shared with me by the psychologist Steven Pinker: dropping your iPhone from six floors up is guaranteed to ruin it—iPhones don’t bounce. The impending destruction awaiting your phone as it plummets toward the Earth is assured, and the fact that you played no part in designing or building your phone will not atone for your slippery fingers. The same analogy applies to parenting, in some respects. It is possible for parents to wreck something that they did not construct (i.e., their child’s healthy development, language growth, cognitive ability, etc.) if their parenting style is harsh enough. Hopefully it is evident that this type of “parenting” is not the topic at hand.6

    Part of the problem with research that looks into parenting is that it rarely, if ever, controls for genetics.

    Let’s return then to the overarching theme of our discussion, parenting. Is it possible that parents really do shape children in deep and meaningful ways? Sure it is. In line with the phrase often trotted out by my ilk: “it’s an empirical question.” The trouble is that most research on parenting will not help you in the slightest because it doesn’t control for genetic factors. What we do know (largely from twin studies) is that beyond the genes they contribute, parents are not responsible for autism (or schizophrenia, or ADHD, etc.), and they likely bear zero responsibility for injecting general intelligence or a personality into the heads of their children. So, why the dogmatic adherence to the idea that parents are the “puppet masters” in our lives? The are many reasons, some of which are explicitly religious (the whole “spare the rod spoil the child” bit) and some are more secular, rooted in dubious research, but we should nevertheless let them all go.

    Parenting and environment, shared or otherwise, can provide an obvious overlap:

    You must remember that parents share genes with their children and that overlap must be accounted for in research design. As psychologists pointed out years ago5, because parents pass along two things to their kids: genes and an environment, it shocks virtually no one that the two would be correlated. It is not surprising, based on shared genetics, that children resemble their parents, not only in appearance, but also in temperament, behavior, intellect, athletic prowess, etc. The environments that parents construct for their children when they are young, moreover, tend to mirror their natural inclinations (bright parents provide enriched environments). So if you’re wondering whether parents might selectively foster certain preexisting skill sets (i.e., buying an instrument for a child interested in music) the answer is, sure.6 In that case, parents might also shape things further by deciding on the type of instrument (guitar over drums, etc.).6 However, when you introduce controls for that genetic overlap in studies probing the impact of parenting on some outcome more generally, the effects that we often see can vanish.

    The article is a very good read, and certainly, as a parent and a hard imcompatibilist/determinist, gives much food for thought. It rings true, both from experience and from what I have read.

    But that is not to abrogate parenting from any kind of causal role. Sure, rather like the effects of schools from the linked study above, the extremes matter. But in a general sense, the outcome of the child is determined.

    In fact, to connect this to the academic outcome study from KCL, I can tell you from my teaching experience that the bright children can be picked up and broadly be put into almost any school and you know they will do well. Likewise for the academically/cognitively poor children, but in reverse. Very good and bad schools will have a greater effect, but in general terms, just like schools, parenting has only a limited effect on children’s life outcomes.

    Natural selection has wired into us a sense of attachment for our offspring. There is no need to graft on beliefs about “the power of parenting” in order to justify our instinct that being a good parent is important. Consider this: what if parenting really doesn’t matter? Then what? The evidence for pervasive parenting effects, after all, looks like a foundation of sand likely to slide out from under us at any second. If your moral constitution requires that you exert god-like control over your kid’s psychological development in order to treat them with the dignity afforded any other human being, then perhaps it is time to recalibrate your moral compass; does it actually point north or just spin like a washing machine (see Pinker’s work for this same point made more elquently10)? If you want happy children, and you desire a relationship with them that lasts beyond when they’re old enough to fly the nest, then be good to your kids.10 Just know that it probably will have little effect on the person they will grow into. I think it’s fitting to let Judith Rich Harris6 have the last word. Here is  a short poem from The Nurture Assumption:

    How sharper than a serpent’s tooth

    To hear your child make such a fuss.

    It isn’t fair—it’s not the truth—

    He’s fucked up, yes, but not by us.

    I suggest reading the article in full.


    [i] Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate. New York: Viking, p. 47.


    Category: FeaturedFree Will and DeterminismPsychologyScience


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

    • D Rieder

      Interesting. It seems it may very well be the case that our programming is predominately based on genetics.

      First, it would stand to reason that most of our programming comes via genetics given that language/complex communication would seem to have arisen very recently relative to how long the human lineage has been separate from the other primates. IOW, precursors to humans have been raising families for millions of years, most of that time possibly with no complex language. They had to be pretty much operating with automatic programming that could have ONLY come via genetics. And they survived producing generation after generation that more or less got along…at least well enough to have survived and thrived.

      Second, many many other social species seem to get along fine without complex communication and it seems, almost no parenting. It would seem they have to have a built in program that tells them how to behave.

      That leads to the so what. On the surface, it might seem that parents are hapless fools who are just beating their heads against the rock of genetics. But IF one buys into the fact that we do have little imput (if it is a fact) it could lead to better parenting with less headaches and more effective interaction. I would envision parenting as occasionally being able to supply information to the built in program. For programmers, it would mean the user occasionally gets to update a few parameters that the program uses to make decisions. That doesn’t rewrite the program, just gets it to do things a little differently. The parents should be very judicious in their advice, aiming NOT at correcting personality traits but informing about consequences of given actions/decisions. Even computer programs make better decisions if they have better inputs. The corollary to “garbage in, garbage out” might be value in, value out. If parents knew exactly how they could really influence the child…that would make them more effective with less wheel-spinning and inane ranting about things they actually have no control over.

    • John Grove

      Fascinating. Thanks for sharing.