The Corner

Parenting Follow-up

Just a couple of FINAL follow-ups on the parenting thread.

(1) Lots of readers took umbrage. They are working hard at parenting, and don’t like me saying it doesn’t matter. Well, I didn’t say that. What I said was, it doesn’t matter anything like as much as we are told, or wish. 

A typical extract from a reader email: “My teenage daughter is not allowed to date any boy who does not first apply to me for permission. So far I have turned two down as unsuitable and approved another two. She appreciates my help because it allows her to escape undesirable attentions without embarrassment.” 

Well, I have no problem with any of that, and hope my own daughter will be that compliant when the dating years start.  Whether she will or not will depend on her personality, large components of which are know to be heritable.

The central point is, that to find out what determines adult personality and life outcomes, you have to tease out the various factors. Suppose, for example, my reader’s daughter had an identical twin sister, who had been adopted at birth by a quite different family, one with lackadaisical parenting practices, but in a near-identical neighborhood. Same genes; same outside-the-home socialization opportunities. How different would her adult personality and life outcomes be? We don’t have to guess, because in a world of billions, it happens often enough to tell us. Answer: Much less different than you’d think. With a different set of genes, my reader’s daughter might have run away from home by now, in spite of all his admirable parenting efforts. That happens too. Who doesn’t know this?

(2) “So is child abuse OK then, since it makes no difference?” Well, once again, I didn’t say parenting makes no difference.  And at the extreme left tail of the parenting bell curve, where the parenting is really, really bad–kids locked naked in the basement with cans of dog food–I think it likely does make a big difference.  I taught in a slum school once, and saw some cases, including some not far from the basement-dogfood scenario.  I even suspect–though here I have nothing to go on & am just guessing–that at the right tail of the parenting bell curve the same applies.  That is, really super-duper, all-out 24/7 gut-busting total-attention parenting might make a big difference too.  Still, the kind of parenting that most of us are capable of/willing to do, constrained as we are to make a living & to have some kind of adult social life, makes little difference.

(3) In any inquiry into human nature, it is always instructive to look at what people do when they are free enough to do as they please.  Specifically:  How much parenting is done by people who can afford to hire people to do the parenting for them?  Answer:  Not much (with individual exceptions, of course).  Why do you think that wealthy people employ platoons of nannies, and send their kids to boarding schools?  The old English aristocracy neglected their kids for a thousand years.  Winston Churchill barely knew his parents.  He seemed to work out all right.

(4) Since I’ve made it clear that I’m working hard at parenting myself, why am I, if it makes so little difference?  Possibly no difference at all?  Well, because in a competitive society, even a little difference counts, and I want my kids to do well.  As to the possibility of no difference at all:  It’s like free will—Nobody knows if we really have it, but there is no way to live other than by ASSUMING we have it.  I’m assuming I make some difference to my kids’ outcomes.  Not much; not as much as the child-development industry tells us; nothing like as much as Freud told us; but some.  I hope.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

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