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.