I always said the key to parenting was to have wonderful children who make you look good. Then remind them that their function is to be wonderful children and make you look good.
That was truer than I knew. In the time we were having children, nurture was perhaps at its highest ascendancy over nature in the common belief. I believed far more in nature than most people, but that wasn’t very much. I believed there were a few traits, even important traits, which were genetic but people were reluctant to admit it – and I knew enough to be careful where I said that out loud. I was already suspicious that boy-behavior and girl-behavior might be more hardwired than Montessori directresses acknowledged. Yet I believed that around the genetic core there was still a great deal of molding and shaping that could, and should be done. It was not only my education, but my new evangelical friends that reinforced this. Though the authors of my psychology textbooks and James Dobson might disagree as to what the final product should look like, both agreed that the child’s environment and parenting were the overwhelming influence in how they turned out.
There are more stepfamilies, er, blended families now, and that may have in itself undermined the belief that environment is all. I was in one of those, a dog in a cat family, as they say, so you would think I might have noticed more. But when you are the son of a man whose wife divorced him because he molested little girls, you likely have a more extreme interest in denying that the nature side of the equation is powerful. So it was a very gradual process for me, learning how much of a child’s development is only partly influenced by what his parents intend.
There was first the observation of my two very similar sons, who nonetheless showed divergences in personality right from the start, and the similar experiences reported by our Bible study group. Professionally, the heritability of some psychiatric disorders was being established, and the powerful presumption that pathological parents, especially mothers, were the primary drivers was ebbing. Sociobiology, now better-named evolutionary psychology, came into the public discussion just after I left college and became hot in the early 80’s. Reading in that field pushed me to the “nature” side as well. Perhaps most powerfully, learning how hard it was to change my own behavior called into question the ease with which others’ behavior might be changed.
I still believe nurture is a powerful and necessary influence. Why else would we adopt children if we didn’t believe that? But I now think that much of the power is in rescue – in preventing catastrophic things from happening and providing some good things for the child’s personality to feed on and grow. I believe you can make placid children nervous with abuse, or intelligent children dull through understimulation, but in both cases I think the pathology has to be sizeable to make those things happen. In the reverse, making a nervous child placid or a dull child intelligent, I think the environment can only move the dial a bit.
I think that is true for schools and Bold New Initiatives as well. Schools that are physically dangerous, or where teachers undermine character and learning, can damage children. But exceptionally good schools don’t improve kids that much. I think we should hope to rescue a few from the flames, and inspire a few to learn on their own. For the rest, they are being given what is proper for their development, and someone has to do it. You might think this downplays the importance of teachers – or even parents, but I think the opposite. What they do is a necessary part of a child’s development, like meals, or clothing, or affection. Or oxygen. It is valuable in and of itself, even if done only adequately. The absence of parents or teachers is so huge that you don’t have to be Queen of the May to be valuable. If 90% of life is showing up, huge credit to those who do that. I believe that last 10% is also important. (It may be that one has to believe that the last few percent are really 90% to put in the amount of effort needed to excel. In which case I am screwing up the system by reassuring parents and teachers and taking the edge off their fanaticism. But tiger moms are working on their own descendants – their own intelligent, healthy, talented, driven descendants. It matters.)
A regular reader has asked me to comment more about family and society, and I think I will. Yet it is ironic perhaps that now I am much less certain, much less prone to pronouncements, than I was, oh, a decade ago.