The Limits Of Passionate Parenting

October 4, 2012

Education, Mores, Parenting, Psychology

Philip Larkin’s poem below sums up the prevailing view that parents are the most important influence on children, and that they have it in their power to produce either intelligent, well-adjusted young adults or below average social misfits. Because most parents believe that their actions can significantly affect their children’s beliefs, morals, actions, health, IQ, future success and happiness, it’s not surprising that parents carry an enormous burden of guilt if their children somehow fail to live up to their expectations. Fortunately, then, according to a remarkable book by Judith Harris called The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out  The Way They Do, none of these beliefs are true.

Children are socialized by their peers not by their parents. Consider the facts that children of immigrant parents learn the language, accents, values and norms of their peers and not of their families, or that a pair of identical twins reared in the same home is no more alike than a pair reared in separate homes. Or consider that studies of adopted children consistently show that their personalities and IQ scores are correlated with their biological siblings not with those of their adopted siblings. It is genes and chance that determine personality and IQ, not parents. The bottom line, according to Harris, is that you could mix up all the parents in your children’s school and with the exception of cases of serious abuse and neglect, your children would basically grow up the same as if they had stayed with you. Counter intuitive though her thesis may be, Harris’ work is endorsed by numerous luminaries in the field including Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at MIT and Robert M. Sapolsky, Professor of Neuroscience and Biology at Stanford University.

One result of this mistaken ‘nurture assumption’ is that parents have become relentless in their parenting, chauffeuring children everywhere, checking up on both their children’s friends and their friend’s parents, micro-managing their children’s diets, paying for ‘enrichment’ classes and camps and in short, attempting to stimulate their every waking moment in an attempt to release the sleeping genius within.

As part of this attempt to ‘nurture’ our children we have also wrapped them in a protective cloak designed to filter out the smallest shred of violence. Steven Pinker notes in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined  that:

“Children are not allowed to be outside in the middle of the day (skin cancer), to play in the grass (deer ticks), to buy lemonade from a stand (bacteria on lemon peel), or to lick cake batter off spoons (salmonella from uncooked eggs). Lawyer-vetted playgrounds have had their turf padded with rubber, their slides and monkey bars lowered to waist height, and their seesaws removed altogether (so that the kid at the bottom can’t jump off and  watch the kid at the top come hurtling to the ground – the most fun part of playing on a seesaw).”

Fairytales used to teach children valuable life lessons in a graphic but non-threatening manner, but nowadays the original plot is often deemed too violent for children to absorb without substantial revisions.  In the oldest versions of the story a slightly sinister Cinderella actually kills her first stepmother so her father can marry the housekeeper instead. Similarly, in the original version, Sleeping Beauty is impregnated by a monarch and wakes up to find out she has twins. At the end of the brothers Grimm version of Snow White, the wicked queen is punished by being made to dance while wearing a pair of red-hot iron shoes until she falls over dead. Finally, Disney had to change the bad ending of The Little Mermaid in case children learn the harsh, but realistic lesson, that not every story has a good ending. In the Hans Christian Andersen tale, Ariel does not defeat the wicked witch and then swim off to marry the man of her dreams. Instead, the prince marries a different woman, and the Little Mermaid throws herself into the sea, where her body dissolves into sea foam.

While the general decrease in the level of tolerance for violence is laudable, as usual society has gone overboard and thrown away the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Parents of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.


This Be the Verse

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Philip Larkin

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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7 Comments on “The Limits Of Passionate Parenting”

  1. paulineos Says:

    My parenting experience fits with Harris’ theory. I raised my son by myself in Germany, speaking only English to him. From 15 months old, when he started morning daycare, he only spoke German, presumably because the other toddlers did. For 8 years we each spoke a different language to the other, then he started school in Ireland and switched to English.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Paulineos, thank you for your comment. I recollect that Harris described similar cases in her book where children only spoke the language of their peers or adopted the accents of their friends as opposed to the language and accents spoken at home.


  2. chr1 Says:

    Sir, are you suggesting that parents bear primary responsibility for socializing their children?

    Such a modest, simple proposal will surely run into problems with many of the people who run our institutions of education and theorize about them. For many of them, the primary moral good is equality, and there’s never enough of it.

    Allowing parents and citizens the freedom and responsibility to manage their own lives and raise their kids as they see fit only works for some people, they argue. They’ve got a point up to a point, and their solution is that instead of free association of parents to be alone, or in Churches, or with like-minded groups, or economic areas with better school districts of their choice and a politics to allow such freedom…

    …Mr. A will tax you, Mr. B, in order to help Mr. C, who can’t raise his own kids. A set of top-down ideas guides them into what is essentially a moral mission, convinced that the problems they are seeing of orphans, kids raised by kids, parents in and out of prison, and many of the irresponsible will be solved by the right institutions and people with the right ideas (their ideas). The bill never comes due and they rarely change their stripes as their lives, careers, and identities depend upon it. Humanity can be molded and perfected with the right guiding institutions. It’s kind of a secular moralism with a big State.

    They’re quite entrenched, I’m afraid, and our education system is a third rail for our politicians, despite the simple point of your post.

    I’m with Larkin up until the last couplet.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I’m afraid you seem to have completely misunderstood the point of the post, which is that children are socialized by their peers and not by their parents. This is not a question of politics or preferences, it is simply that genes and chance play a much bigger role in determining IQ and intelligence than was previously thought.

      If, as you point out, the State insists on trying to socialize children to bring about some degree of equality, they will be just as unsuccessful as parents. As Judith Harris says “The idea that we can make our children turn out any way we want is an illusion. You can neither perfect nor ruin them. They are not yours to perfect or ruin: they belong to tomorrow.”


  3. chr1 Says:

    Got it. Not a good showing. Thanks for the response.


  4. Margot Johnson Says:

    Malcolm, the problem is that parents often don’t start early enough with intervention. Therapy works, and lots of kids need one sort or another.


  5. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Margot, thank you for your comment. It is difficult to do justice to Harris’ argument in three paragraphs but she certainly does not say that parents don’t have any influence on children at all. She admits that parents can influence their children’s behavior at home and also things such as their career choice and leisure-time activities. I think her answer to your question would be that children’s medical and psychological problems have a significant genetic component i.e. they are not caused by their parents’ behavior. I am also certain she would not deny the beneficial effects of early intervention for a medical and/or psychological problem so, to that extent, parents can influence their children’s health and well-being.


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