Here’s Brian’s article.
And here’s my response, Q & A style:
Do parents really matter?
Everything we thought we knew about how personality is formed is wrong
14 Jun 2017
Jeff in blue, in italics.
Here’s an experiment. I wanted to read this article through, and maybe critique it if it really was something in my crosshairs, but I had that first answer below immediately, so then it occurred that that was the way to tackle it, point by point, logical step by step, in real time, during my first read, see where Brian takes me.
Brian in black, in Georgia.
Parenting does not have a large impact on how children turn out.
I’m sorry, I’m gonna stop you right there. How is that possibly true when some parents have killed their children, beaten them to death? Is “bad stuff” exempt from your science? May I guess? The dead ones are deemed not to have turned out at all and therefore don’t meet study criteria?
An incendiary claim, to be sure, but if you can bear with me until the close of this article I think I might be able to persuade you — or at the very least chip away at your certainty about parental influence.
. . . this I imagine, for the right and lofty goal of convincing parents that their abuse doesn’t work anyway, that they can give it up? That is a takeaway worth trying to create. Kudos.
First, what if later today the phone were to ring and the voice at the other end informed you that you have an identical twin. You would have lived your entire life up to that point not realising that you had a clone. The bearer of this news says arrangements have been made to reunite you with your long-lost sibling. In something of a daze, you assent, realising as you hang up that you’ve just agreed to meet a perfect stranger.
There was a time when separating identical twins at birth, while infrequent, did happen thanks to the harsh nature of adoption systems. One of the people who helped reunite many of them was the great psychologist Thomas Bouchard. I first read about Professor Bouchard’s work, wonderfully described by the psychologist Nancy Segal, when I was a graduate student. I still think about it often. What would it be like to live a large chunk of my life not knowing that I had a twin, and then meet him as an adult? Would our conversations ever go beyond polite small talk about the weather, sport or current events?
I’m sure similar thoughts went through the minds of the people in Bouchard’s study, and yet person after person realised — happily, I suspect — that they had a lot in common with the image of themselves sitting across the table. Their characters were often remarkably in step, as were their intellects, their behaviours, even their hobbies and eccentricities. The similarities often ran deep, cutting to the bone of their beliefs and their morality.
Our intuition sometimes seems to testify against the work of Bouchard and his team.
There’s a world of dialogue available here: are we sure that voice is our intuition? Have brain scans shown the intuition lobe to light up when people fixate on the power of nurture? (I have a new idea about where that voice comes from, please ask.) And ‘against the work?’ You mean against the conclusions they’re hearing from the work, right?
The emphasis on nurture dictates that identical twins, reared apart and reunited later in life, should not be all that similar.
I’ve heard it that way many times, but “the emphasis” doesn’t require that we think nurture has the lion’s share of the power – only that we know that it’s the only power we have for influence, however small it is. IRL, once you have your children, the genetics of the matter have been settled, and nurture is all we have left. So, sure, we exaggerate our influence, but the “importance” of our ability to nurture is irrelevant. If we think we have a single percent of influence, we are obliged to attempt it. With that reality check, you sound a little like you’re suggesting we abdicate all responsibility for teaching our children: we already know how little power we have, we are using all our energy to leverage any small chance we have to influence – and you’re here telling us, no, don’t bother doing what we can, it’s not enough anyway . . . again, that’s what it can sound like if it’s not this: you can’t influence them, so stop beating them.
Because if I am beating my children, and you tell me what I do doesn’t matter, then I want to agree, don’t I? And guess what else? Ninety-five percent of Americans are. Corporal punishment hasn’t dried up and blown away, so one step more brutal: are you telling parents who “spank” that what they do doesn’t matter? This is your mission in life? I tell you, if you do not clarify this, you are tacitly supporting the existing system, corporal punishment. This is why I’ve felt obliged to fight you.
And yet they are. Contrastingly, adopted children who share no distinguishing DNA with one another but are raised together should be quite similar.
It bears repeating, if yours did, I guess: parents don’t think nurture is where the most power is, they only know that it’s the only little power they have. If the families of these separated twins raised the twins to be normal, reasonably happy people, they wouldn’t be hurt to know they turned out identical, they, like all parents would just be happy their kids didn’t wind up in prison or mental institutions.
Yet they are not, and this poses some problems for traditional ideas about how parents shape children.
Mostly for the authors of parenting books, I imagine.
It’s not just Bouchard’s work that suggests parents have less influence than we think. Decades of research into behavioural genetics — twin studies, family studies and the adoption and identical-twin stories I have already mentioned — all point in the same direction. The shared environment, the experiences that create similarities between siblings raised together — the part of the environment that most often captures parenting influences — are all secondary when it comes to personality, behaviour or intelligence. What’s more, my own work as a criminologist, and that of my colleagues, has revealed the same pattern of findings when applied to violence, antisocial behaviour and crime.
OK, up to this point I’ve kept my answers in the old world, within your conversation, to some degree, but to answer this, we may have to leave your world and enter mine. In my world, nurture has more power, but in my world, parenting is not a purely positive influence: beatings have power. Abuse is where the power of “nurturing” is, and where the evidence is that parenting damned well does matter. Unfortunately, as per your main point, parents all seem to think they have this power and the obligation to use it, so there is no control group for parental abuse. Who wasn’t punished, who wasn’t spanked, whose parents didn’t believe this?
A note regarding corporal punishment: it’s a dodge. If a child misbehaves and we decide to spank him, that’s corporal punishment, the pain is the penalty. If, however, a child misbehaves and we decide he must do the dishes for his error, and he refuses, and an argument ensues and a fight results to impose the dishes penalty, and the child gets hit (not for the original offense, but for this new insubordination, I guess), then that is technically not “corporal punishment” (at least of the first offense). I respectfully suggest to all concerned that the child’s biology doesn’t appreciate the difference.
The upshot here, is of course, is abuse not a part of “ . . . the shared environment, the experiences that create similarities between siblings raised together — the part of the environment that most often captures parenting influences”?
It is my contention that it is indeed abuse that proves the power of “nurturing,” and that this is the reason for our “nurture assumption,” because when we beat a child, especially regularly, we see changes. Again, for a perfectly normal, moral and intelligent person to say, “parenting doesn’t matter” can only mean that parenting is defined as abuse free, which – epic fail, I’m sorry. This mistake on the part of a century’s socialization researchers is a classic. We think it’s here, so we’re looking here. A century later, parental influence doesn’t exist because we didn’t find it here, the only place we ever looked. And biology, in the form of one Brian Boutwell among others, has apparently accepted this mistake.
No blame, there is a strong, perhaps species wide self deception in place. We made this difficult for ourselves on purpose: nurture/child abuse is a protected behaviour. We aren’t supposed to see it.
This apparent puzzle (which is something of a scientific heresy) becomes clearer if we accept that genetic factors play an important role in making us who we are. Yes, the environment matters, but not just the environment that the child experiences in the home. The environment in this sense is far more nebulous and hard to nail down — behavioural geneticists call it the ‘non-shared’ environment and it includes anything that causes two siblings to be different from each other.
It is indeed hard to nail down, and it’s a point that they certainly hadn’t nailed it down during the twin studies, where it seems the different homes were supposed to be different environments, but along no particular vector, in some unknown, “families are all different” way that really had no detail, it was a black boxing exercise.
And I really mean anything. The psychologist Steven Pinker puts it this way: ‘A cosmic ray mutates a stretch of DNA, a neurotransmitter zigs instead of zags, the growth cone of an axon goes left instead of right, and one identical twin’s brain might gel into a slightly different configuration from the other’s.’ In other words, we should not presume that random chance plays a vanishingly small role in making us the people that we are today.
Beyond the randomness of life, we already have a window on to what parts of culture children are swayed by. Both Pinker and the psychologist Judith Rich Harris remind us that the children of immigrants adopt and speak with the accent and language of their peers. The movies people watch, the music we listen to, and much else that we’d put under the general heading of ‘culture’ are deeply affected by our peers. What else would you expect, really? Wanting and needing to fit in is not just a passing phase of childhood. To some extent, it’s essential for living.
So ‘the environment’ does play a role in shaping who we are, but it’s not ‘the environment’ in merely the conventional sense of how your folks parent you and your siblings.
The children’s peer group changes nothing regarding abuse. Allowing the children to abuse one another counts as parental abuse and/or neglect. The children’s stress is not smaller because it’s the older kids who will beat him into conformity rather than the parents. In fact, gene theory says the children have less reason not to finish him off, whereas the parents may think about their genes.
All of this is indicative of something deeper — an aspect which is less arcane and more relevant to daily life. A great many pundits, advice givers, and professional psychologists have spent decades being wrong about why people turn out the way they do.
. . . and I have found it. Not “why they turn out the way they do” in terms of small differences, the twins who shared flushing the toilet before and after, these sorts of traits, but I’m pretty sure I’ve found your “something deeper,” the real mystery that these problematically powerless questions are trying to get at. Again, a protected behaviour, so within its logic, we can’t pose the right questions to crack the code; I came to it the long way around, very much by accident. Turns out it’s analogous to dark matter, invisible (that “nurture” means beatings and that “good people” means warriors, this, the core of what I call Antisocialization Theory, is sort of invisible), but comprising ninety percent of the matter in the universe. Ninety percent of our abuse is non-statutory and so invisible, and ninety percent of our social lives are lived in both halves of the causal realm around it, we abuse, and we are hurt, abused creatures, nine times more than we are happy, healthy ones. This is the ratio R. D. Laing was pointing us to when he said that “the disaster has already happened.”
When we start to see how the dark matter of generic, non-statutory abuse distorts and bends what we can see, the visible light in the universe, when we factor all that dark matter in, we will see our calculations making ten times more sense.
A child is not a blank canvas.
No, but the child is what it is, the point is what we paint and how we attempt to paint it, despite whether there was already a picture there or not. Not being “a blank canvass” hasn’t saved any kids their beatings, has it? The religious don’t think Blank Slate, doesn’t stop them. Biologists don’t think Blank Slate – has it stopped you? (I know your complaint. Blank Slaters are indeed guilty of child abuse, being one didn’t save kids either, and some of the abuse was in trying to eradicate some built-in natural thing because of the BS idea, but this is one of the ways the conversation needs to change to deal with the negative reality of what “nurture” really has been.)
How many books have been written about the way people should and should not parent their children? How many approaches have been suggested by experts who are not really in a position to know? Yes, they may hold advanced degrees, but the truth is that the advice they offer tends to ignore the genetic influences that we now know to be at work. The studies that identify those influences often find that parenting — unless it is actually malign — has very little impact on how children turn out. The huge ‘parenting advice’ industry is largely bunkum.
OK, so there it is, the exemption, “ . . . unless it is actually (malicious) . . . “
So, you do get that, it’s maybe you’re just a positive guy, you assume that malignancy is rare or something. It is getting more so, and that is terrific (also per Pinker), but that is putting the aboriginal truth of this situation further out of view: rare now is not meaningful as to why it never has been rare before, not useful in understanding just what this behaviour really is that we’re hoping to escape.
What does this mean for you if you’re a parent wanting to know how to raise a happy, well-adjusted child? I generally loathe parenting advice columns, so that is not what is on offer here. I can sympathise with the idea that having a child brings with it a host of responsibilities that are exciting but also terrifying.
At this point, I would turn again to the psychologist Judith Rich Harris, who authored the definitive book on this subject. Harris writes: ‘We may not hold their tomorrows in our hands but we surely hold their todays, and we have the power to make their todays very miserable.’
Pinker, meanwhile, makes the point that it should be enough for us to remember that our children are human beings, worthy of the same ethical treatment we give to our friends, other relatives, and even to strangers. So protect your children, provide for them, be good to them, and make memories with them. Apart from that, don’t expect to have very much say in how they turn out.
Hey, that’s getting better, Brian! You gave ‘em the hint. I can’t help but wonder if you’ve been reading me, or if for some other reason you felt you needed to do more than the Rockwell version after the first one of these that I saw. Whatever, you’re trending in a direction I can approve of, well done.
As for parenting advice, I agree, but I think I have a solid reason now. Parents should keep in mind that discipline makes warriors and out of work warriors are what we call criminals.
June 15th., 2017
I see I started angry and relaxed as I read. The ‘real time’ idea may not have been the best after all; I could have been kinder: “This is your mission in life? Of course it’s not.”
Also, ” I tell you, if you do not clarify this, you are tacitly supporting the existing system, corporal punishment.” This sounds like I’m saying you do this on purpose. I don’t think that, despite the name of your employer – my employer certainly does not own the rights to my ‘mission in life.’ I think we have a myth that corporal punishment is on the ropes, and that we are trying to reinforce what gains we have made and we all need to think that battle has been won or something. There’s a certain aspect of trying to take pressure off of parents in this series, “parenting doesn’t matter,” a certain amount of if it doesn’t matter, they won’t be so stressed, so they won’t be so hard on the kids, like an attempt to apply reverse psychology – but what about straight up, not reverse psychology, as I said? What about if I’m one of the ninety-some percent of people still using corporal punishment, “spanking” my kids, and I see the headline, “it doesn’t matter?”
The very first opening aggression, “Is “bad stuff” exempt from your science?” – I think this is an opportunity, to bring social science back to real science. It sort of is exempt, right? And the “bad stuff” is where the connection may be found between the better parts of social science – harm reduction, a focus on at least statutory abuse – and the life sciences, wait, let me give something like a parable:
When we identify a gene and an epigenetic effect associated with “corporal punishment” or abuse of a child during the epigenetically dynamic years of development, what are we going to do with that information? Have we proved that some subset of humans would suffer from abuse and perhaps we’ll treat just those folks better, or would we perhaps view this as a “bad” gene and go to some eugenics or gene therapy “solution?”
One would think, from the literature, that the behaviour is not in question, that indeed, it will be the scalpel we are looking to for the solution.
I mean, as long as only statutory abuse is acknowledged by either side of the science house, social or biological, and the dark abuse, our dark socialization remains beyond our reach.
This paragraph of Brian’s wants another answer:
“How many books have been written about the way people should and should not parent their children? How many approaches have been suggested by experts who are not really in a position to know? Yes, they may hold advanced degrees, but the truth is that the advice they offer tends to ignore the genetic influences that we now know to be at work. The studies that identify those influences often find that parenting — unless it is actually malign — has very little impact on how children turn out. The huge ‘parenting advice’ industry is largely bunkum.”
On this we are in agreement, except I’d add a second ending:
“How many books have been written about the way people should and should not parent their children? How many approaches have been suggested by experts who are not really in a position to know? Yes, they may hold advanced degrees, but the truth is that the advice they offer tends to”
…ignore the basic choice, whether a parent is going to make something happen one way or the other or not. They mostly give you new ways to phrase your demands and leave you to it when the new language leaves your kid unimpressed. And “how many approaches” is a myth, there aren’t an unlimited number of ways. Parents either get a thing their way, or they don’t and if they always do, then it’s a matter of force and/or violence, however it may look. Parenting books are either old or religious and unapologetic, or they give you things to try “first,” right? You’re right, they ignore genetic differences, they just beat everyone into conformity, some are just more work than others…
The huge ‘parenting advice’ industry is largely bunkum.”
Again, agreed on that last bit.