Does parenting matter?

by: Tirta Susilo, Hanover

Much ink has been spilled on Amy Chua’s extreme parenting style, as told in her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. But almost no one asked the simplest yet most fundamental question in parenthood: Does parenting actually shape children?

The fact that musical parents beget musical children, for example, is usually taken as proof that musical parenting works. But it could also be the case that musical parents passed on genes that predispose their children to music, parenting notwithstanding.

In typical families, the two factors are impossible to tease apart: Parents give both genes and upbringing to their children. To circumvent this problem, scientists have resorted to studying a special population, namely twins.

The trick is to compare identical twins, who share all their genes, and fraternal twins, who share only half. Assuming equal treatment by parents, any excess of similarity between identical twins relative to fraternal twins must be attributed to genes.

It turns out that for a variety of important traits and outcomes such as health, intelligence, educational attainment, family income and personality, identical twins are much more similar than fraternal twins.

This finding, demonstrating substantial effects of genes and not parenting, has been consistently replicated for thousands of twins in Australia, Denmark, Sweden and the US.

Evidence also comes from observations of identical twins reared apart, where one twin was adopted early on and raised in a different family.

Parenting effects should cause identical twins reared apart to be more different than identical twins reared together.

But they’re not. Identical twins raised by different parents are just as similar as identical twins raised by same parents, arguing against parenting effects.

The same story goes for comparisons of biological and adopted children in the same family. Parenting effects predict siblings that are equally similar to their parents. Yet biological children are much more similar to their parents than adopted children are.

Taken together, the bulk of the evidence shows that while parents do shape children (via genetic influences), parenting doesn’t.

Now it is not the case that parenting is never effective. First of all, some studies have found parenting effects on religious and political affiliations, smoking and drinking behavior, and choice of occupation.

Parenting also has clear short-term effects. Telling your children not to scream in the library, for instance, will surely keep the patrons calm.

And finally, all of the above studies pertain to ordinary middle-to-upper class families in first-world countries. As noted by economist Bryan Caplan in Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, the findings do not apply to children who are raised by wolves or abandoned in Haiti.

But for most families, parenting has no observable effects in determining how well the children do later in life. What Chua and her critics have been debating in the last six months are mostly empty points.

Now you may think I am saying it does not matter how we treat our children. But consider the following question by psychologist Judith Rich Harris in The Nurture Assumption: Does it matter how I treat my spouse?

Parenting matters not because it determines what kind of people our children are going to be. It matters because of the shared experience we enjoy and relish with them.

Good parenting is not about molding children to be our perceived ideals. It is about providing a loving home where our children grow up in joy and happiness.

As is often the case with deep and profound truths, a great sage had it figured out.

In the opening of his poem On Children, Kahlil Gibran says, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”

The writer is a researcher in cognitive neuroscience with a background in psychology.


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