Why Parenting May Not Matter (A Casual Rebuttal)
An article published on the 1st of December titled, Why Parenting May Not Matter and Why Most Social Science Research is Probably Wrong, is making it’s way across the interwebs in viral fashion. I saw the article the day after it was published and had a lot of issues with it. But when it showed up in our Revolutionary Parenting Facebook group only 2 days later, it motivated me to respond.
I know you’re busy, as am I, so I going to make this casual. If you like minimal fluff, you’ll enjoy this format…
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.
Right off the bat the author struggles with their use of grammar and rhetoric. The act of “shaping someone as a person” is never defined. What does that mean? The same mistake is made with the word “personality.” What’s a personality, to this author?
It’s tough to come to conclusions when foundational terms aren’t defined. But he does end up alluding to what he considers parts of a personality…
The knowledge that some people are more trustworthy, honest, violent, impulsive, and aggressive than others is essential to navigating life. It’s simply not a good personal policy to assume that everyone you stumble upon in life has your best interest at heart.
So from this allusion, I’m expecting the article to make the case that parenting does *not* have a meaningful impact on these things. Keep that in mind as we proceed.
In terms of compelling evidence, let’s start with a study published recently in the prestigious journal Nature Genetics.1 Tinca Polderman and colleagues just completed the Herculean task of reviewing nearly all twin studies published by behavior geneticists over the past 50 years.
It’s interesting that the setup for the opening argument is a meta-analysis (basically an analysis of a collection of studies in order to create more statistical relevance). For the sake of time, I’ll direct you to an external explanation of the problems with meta-analysis so I don’t have to list them all here.
Before progressing, I should note that behavioral geneticists make a finer grain distinction than most about the environment, subdividing it into shared and non-shared components.1,2,3,4 Not much is really complicated about this. The shared environment makes children raised together similar to each other.3 The term encompasses the typical parenting effects that we normally envision when we think about environmental variables. Non-shared influences capture the unique experiences of siblings raised in the same home; they make siblings different from one another. Another way of thinking about non-shared environments is that they represent the parts of your life story that are unique from the rest of your family. Importantly, this also includes all of the randomness and pure happenstance that life tends to hurl in our direction from time to time. Returning to the review of twin research, the shared environment just didn’t matter all that much (that’s on average, of course, for some traits it mattered more than others). The non-shared environment mattered consistently.
While this paragraph contains a lot of words, it only ends up making one argument: [Shared environments don’t do much while non-shared environments influence children most].
And don’t forget, that argument is made based on a meta-analysis, of twin studies no less which are problematic in and of themselves. Hang on to that argument…it’s going to matter shortly.
You’ve read that twin studies contain an insidious flaw that causes them to underestimate shared environmental effects (making it seem like parents matter less than they do). The assumptions of twin research, however, have been meticulously studied. The methods of twin researchers have been around for decades and have been challenged, critiqued, refined, adjusted, and (perhaps most importantly) cross validated with other techniques that rely on different assumptions entirely.3,4 They work, and they work with impressive precision.
Man, nothing like dismissing opposing views with nothing more than an appeal to antiquity (“the methods…have been around for decades”) and a pseudo-argument (“they work” is not an argument supported by, “they have been challenged, critiqued, refined, adjusted, and cross-validated”).
In other words, you can’t reasonably say that the research methods are valid because “they’ve been around for a while” and “have been scrutinized” (especially when you don’t list the arguments against the methods). If that’s not problematic enough, suggesting the methods “work with impressive precision” is exponentially problematic.
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.
The author apparently wants us to dive into the studies to look at the data ourselves rather than using the data to make specific arguments. In other words, the approach here amounts to nothing more than, “take my word for it.”
What’s very problematic here is that the important terms still haven’t been defined. We still don’t know what “personality” or “shaping” or “development” mean in specific terms, nor do we have detailed examples.
And now we’re throwing a very convoluted term, “parenting,” into the mix. Were different types of parenting analyzed, or just parenting in general? It seems the detail has been limited to “permissiveness” (and by whose analysis were these parents permissive?), reading to children, and “whatever else.”
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).
Again, the author is sharing conclusions without sharing data, details, or examples. Your choices are: take the authors word for it or go read The Nurture Assumption yourself and analyze the data yourself.
What’s the point of writing an article that makes the argument, “parenting doesn’t matter,” if you’re only going to provide conclusions without arguments or examples while simply referencing where the data can be found?
This is fundamentally important. We don’t even know if the author is talking about children raised full time by their parents (perhaps, home educated) or if we’re talking about children who are sent to school for 8 hours a day and who do 2 hours of after school activities.
Obviously, if you don’t play much of a role in your child’s life, it’s going to appear that you don’t play much of a role, isn’t it? Where are those key details?
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.
The failure to define terms is an epidemic. The author now introduces the convoluted term, child abuse, without defining it.
You can’t say, “child abuse is not pervasive in the population” when you haven’t defined the term. What is child abuse? Is that hitting kids with belts? Starving them?
What about spanking? I consider spanking to be child abuse (and the research on brain development would tend to agree). Since spanking is approved in America by a 2-1 margin, can we really say that “child abuse” is not pervasive?
What about chopping off a boy’s foreskin? I’d consider that child abuse as well. And since 81% of American boys are circumcised, it seems we have pervasive child abuse occurring inside our borders.
Was the trauma from spanking or circumcision included in this analysis? And let’s keep in mind that those are only two examples of dozens.
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.
In other words, “we’re ignoring, for the sake of our argument, that destructive parenting practices can have major negative consequences on children due to the false premise that destructive parenting practices aren’t a widespread problem.”
False premise, meet false conclusion.
Children who are spanked (not abused, but spanked) often experience a host of other problems in life, including psychological maladjustment and behavioral problems.8 In a study led by my colleague J.C. Barnes, we probed this issue in more detail and found some evidence suggesting that spanking increased the occurrence of overt bad behavior in children.8 We could have stopped there. Yet, we went one step further and attempted to inspect the genetic influences that were rampant across the measures included in our study. What we found was that much of the association between the two variables (spanking and behavior) was attributable to genetic effects that they had in common. The correlation between spanking and behavior appeared to reflect the presence of shared genetic influences cutting across both traits.
And there we have it. Spanking, to this author, is not abuse. And again, he’s going to make an argument without citing specific evidence, details, or examples, leading you to yet another study that you have to read and interpret yourself.
This matters because most of the social science research that rockets into the headlines, grabbing your attention when you fire up the web, is likely wrong.
Whether it’s a study purporting to link some aspect of parenting to child development, or a study intended to link some new diet fad to weight loss, the results are unclear if they did not control for genetics.
One glaring issue with not providing specific examples to back up arguments is that it makes your “case” hard to argue against.
“This matters because most of the social science research that rockets into the headlines, grabbing your attention when you fire up the web, is likely wrong.” — How do I argue against this without an example?
“Whether it’s a study purporting to link some aspect of parenting to child development, or a study intended to link some new diet fad to weight loss, the results are unclear if they did not control for genetics.” — Can we have an example to work with?
CAN WE HAVE AN EXAMPLE PLEASE? OF ANYTHING? <tap tap tap…is this thing on?>
All fluff and claims. Little evidence. Little substance.
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.
Oh boy. “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” is a blend of straw men and red herrings.
Who is arguing that parents are responsible (in some direct fashion, I assume) for their kids having autism? It’s certainly not the majority making that argument. So this is a rebuttal to an argument that was never presented.
But wait…he threw in ADHD there. That complicates things. Are we sure that parents have no hand in their child developing ADD/ADHD? Gabor Mate, MD seems to think they do.
Any time someone starts a sentence with “What we do know…” it’s time to get skeptical. Do we really? Who is “we?”
“…and they likely bear zero responsibility for injecting general intelligence or a personality into the heads of their children.”
Since we still haven’t defined “personality,” it’s hard to come to this conclusion isn’t? This conclusion is especially problematic when we include the early allusion to how personality is defined: “trustworthy, honest, violent, impulsive, and aggressive.”
The ACE study has shown quite clearly a distinction between adverse childhood experiences and negative physical and psychological outcomes in life, including the use of coping mechanisms in addictive ways (of which Gabor Mate concludes that ADD is a coping mechanism).
If we’re going to be assessing the outcomes of honesty and trustworthiness, for example, we would need to first assess the honesty and trustworthiness of parents. This is highly complex. Every parent who tricks their child into believing in Santa Clause is presenting one blow to honesty and trustworthiness. That’s just one example of thousands. Was any of this analyzed? We don’t know, because the author provides no details.
He also mentions intelligence. And again, he doesn’t really define the term. Intelligence by what measure? IQ? What about emotional intelligence? What about the capacity to love and have deep, lasting relationships? What about social intelligence?
And again, this talk about parents as “puppet masters” in our lives is difficult to assess because we still haven’t been told how much time the kids in the studies were spending with their parents verses with other people and in other institutions.
It’s also problematic that the focus on genetics in this article did not mention the study of epigenetics and the ability for genes to be turned on and off by…tada…the environment in which children are raised in.
Going back to Gabor Mate on this:
It’s a common mistake to think that everything that’s biological is genetically caused. Biology is greatly affected by what happens in a person’s life, in her family, in the society around her, and so on. For the most part genes don’t predetermine or “cause” anything that happens – they just lay out a set of potentials that might happen, given the right (or wrong) environmental inputs. Especially in early childhood, our brains are very much affected by social and psychological relationships. And, in fact, for its lifetime the brain is in constant interaction with the environment. So something can absolutely be biological without therefore being written in genetic stone.
Why was the capability of genes to lead to different “expressions” (outcomes) not highlighted in this article? The entire argument seems to be founded on the premise that genes are just genes and they create outcomes regardless of environment factors. At least, that’s the feeling I got from it.
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)?
So, we’re getting down to the “lesson” this article offers. But again, it leaves us only with disappointment in the form of yet another straw man argument.
“Why parenting may not matter and why most social science research is probably wrong” has nothing to do with “If your moral constitution requires that you exert god-like control over your kid’s psychological development…”
That seems like it came out of left field. So all people who pay attention to social science research and parenting advice are being defined as people who want god-like control over their kids?
What an absurd notion.
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.
So here we have a prescription with, again, no details. What does “be good to them” mean? What are people supposed to glean from this article and this advice? What action can they take or stop taking to better the lives of their children?
None. Nothing. Nada. And the same conclusion, which no real evidence has been provided for, is reiterated at closing: “Just know that it probably will have little effect on the person they will grow into.”
No, we don’t know that. In fact, all of the actual evidence points to the opposite conclusion.
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.
The real conclusion here: Parents will do and say anything to not have to take responsibility for the negative outcomes of their children.
Secondary conclusion: I’m very sad now.