In recent months there has been a show of rebellion against what some have called the fetishization of motherhood, including some articles that even question that most sacred of cows (no pun intended), breast-feeding. The Time Magazine cover story of May 2012, “Are You Mom Enough?” is the most well known, but other similar articles have appeared in the New York Times and progressive magazines and online blogs. No less a mainstream figure than Jane Brody has questioned the science behind breastfeeding!
The critiques are of ‘intensive parenting’ credos, the best known of which is called ‘attachment parenting,’ and they have been of several types. Some attack the science- the science behind attachment parenting claims is essentially non-existent and even our beliefs about the importance of breast feeding in a First World country may not be grounded in fact. Others attack the politics of these practices, and indeed they seem to be practical only for upper middle class women not interested in pursuing a career and not in need of full-time work. Some complaints from a feminist perspective focus on the ways that ‘intensive parenting’ beliefs denigrate women who do not share this parenting style, and particularly less privileged women. And some, mostly from psychotherapists whose data is teens in their own practices, have claimed that intensive parenting is harmful to children.
But I’m going to critique the ‘intensive parenting’ movement from an entirely different place. What if the science is lacking not because attachment parenting isn’t superior to other practices – but rather because it matters not a whit WHICH parenting style you adopt?
That’s the thesis of “The Nurture Assumption,” Judith Rich Harris’s book assailing our core belief that parents matter. It caused a stir when it first came out in 1998, and no less a luminary than Steven Pinker said about the 2009 revision: “Ten years on, this book stands as a landmark in the history of psychology.”
Too bad no one has ever heard of it. So deep is our Western belief that parents shape our offspring in numerous important ways, both good and bad, that we simply won’t accept a book that says parents don’t matter. We didn’t always believe this: as recently as 1934 parental influence was considered so insignificant that a leading child development book in the U.S. didn’t even have a chapter on parents, according to science writer Sharon Begley. But under the influence of Freudian-dominated psychiatry and psychology we all gradually came to adopt the story that we are the way we are because of what our parents did – or didn’t- do to us. Other cultures may blame everything from the stars to ancestors to fate for how children turn out but from the mid-20th century on, Westerners blame their parents for good and ill. And thus our own parenting style is of utmost importance. And Harris not only has to contend with the deep cultural belief in parental influence, but also with an industry founded on this premise – developmental psychology, clinical psychology, psychiatry, and all the clinics, academies, programs, techniques, books, and practices that spring from these fields.
It’s too bad, because acceptance of Harris’s premise is a game-changer that can mean the difference between constant worry, guilt, and self-recrimination and – the freedom and joy that comes from not taking yourself so seriously. If you believe that you matter that much to your kids, that their characters, habits, and future development hinges on your treatment of them, the pressure is enormous: pressure to pay attention to them, to micromanage their lives, and to make sure our own lives are paragons of virtue. Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? The children of Boomers in particular seem to obsess constantly about parenting issues. And for a multitude of women, feminism has led paradoxically to more and not less anxiety about mothering.
But maybe the climate is getting ready for people to listen to Harris’ message. Not known for subtlety, these are her own words:
‘The ‘experts’ are wrong: parental nurturing is not what determines how a child turns out. Children are not socialized by their parents. The nurture assumption (the belief that our nurturing families determine who we will be) is a myth and most of the research used to support it is worthless.’
Harris is not saying that it’s ‘all genetics.’ Just half of it. She cites robust and frequently replicated research findings to suggest that about 50% of our characteristics, traits, and habits can be attributed to direct and indirect genetic factors. We are all familiar with direct genetics – the genes that make one child beautiful and another homely, for example- but few of us recognize the importance of the indirect factors. Using the attractiveness example, solid evidence exists that cute kids are treated better than homely ones – by everyone, including their parents! These are indirect effects, and they can be very important – attractive people are treated better all through life, it turns out. Thus the ‘beauty factor’ has ripple effects that go far beyond the genes responsible. Taking into account these indirect influences, it’s not hard to imagine a 50% hereditary influence on who we are.
But what about the 50% of our outcome and personality that ISN’T ‘nature,’ that hasn’t been determined by the genetic lottery? Isn’t that where ‘nurture’ comes in, where parenting style has impact? Harris demolishes this idea with several types of data. First, she looks at children where there is widespread documentation of differing parenting styles within the same family: first born and later born children. We know that first borns get more undivided attention than later-born kids, that first-time parents are more anxious, that in many ways first borns are treated differently. And yet, despite urban myths that never seem to die, there is no convincing data that first born kids as a group are any different from later borns. Next, Harris looks at identical twins reared together versus those reared separately. If parenting style matters, the twins raised together – presumably treated about as much alike as any two children can be – should be much more similar in personality, behavior, and life outcome than those raised separately. Nope. Identical twins reared in the same family are no more similar than those raised in different families.
Harris shows us that with some exceptions – material deprivation, abuse or blatant neglect – major differences between family structures and styles make no difference in outcome of children. Permissive, strict, or middle-of-the road discipline styles make no difference; child-care at six weeks versus lifetime stay at home mom makes no difference; divorce versus married doesn’t matter (as long as income doesn’t suffer in divorce); only child versus sibs; gay versus straight; planned versus unplanned pregnancy – none of these things have solid evidence to prove that they make any consistent difference in how a child turns out.
What does make a difference is more complicated and deserves a separate blog post at another time. One thing that DOES seem to be true is that parent-child interactions go both ways – perhaps your superior parenting style ‘produced’ your laid back, smiling baby, but it’s equally plausible that your child was born temperamentally ‘easy’, and this easy temperament makes parenting relaxed and rewarding.
But the point is – lighten up. You have less importance than you think you have – less control over the outcome of your children’s lives. And if that’s true, why not have a good time as a parent? I had a dear friend, a child psychologist named Lew Katoff, who used to say, ‘Happy mother, happy baby.’ He perfectly embodied Judith Rich Harris’ philosophy even though he died of AIDS ten years before her book was published. He felt that the best parenting style is the one you feel most comfortable with, not because it fits someone else’s notion of ‘what works’, but because it fits your personality, lifestyle, and habits. And that if you as a parent are happier, you’ll be able to be more loving to your child. Given the evidence that parenting style probably makes no difference at all – Lew’s perspective was wiser than he knew. Throw out the parenting manuals! Make it up as you go along! It doesn’t matter!