I recently came across an article by Brian Boutwell, “Why Parenting May not Matter and Why Most Social Science Research Is Probably Wrong” (Quillette, December 1, 2015). Boutwell is an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Saint Louis University. Here’s some of what he has to say about nature, nurture, and behavior:
Despite how it feels, your mother and father (or whoever raised you) likely imprinted almost nothing on your personality that has persisted into adulthood…. I do have evidence, though, and by the time we’ve strolled through the menagerie of reasons to doubt parenting effects, I think another point will also become evident: the problems with parenting research are just a symptom of a larger malady plaguing the social and health sciences. A malady that needs to be dealt with….
[L]et’s start with a study published recently in the prestigious journal Nature Genetics.1 Tinca Polderman and colleagues just completed the Herculean task of reviewing nearly all twin studies published by behavior geneticists over the past 50 years….
Genetic factors were consistently relevant, differentiating humans on a range of health and psychological outcomes (in technical parlance, human differences are heritable). The environment, not surprisingly, was also clearly and convincingly implicated….
[B]ehavioral geneticists make a finer grain distinction than most about the environment, subdividing it into shared and non-shared components. Not much is really complicated about this. The shared environment makes children raised together similar to each other. The term encompasses the typical parenting effects that we normally envision when we think about environmental variables. Non-shared influences capture the unique experiences of siblings raised in the same home; they make siblings different from one another….
Based on the results of classical twin studies, it just doesn’t appear that parenting—whether mom and dad are permissive or not, read to their kid or not, or whatever else—impacts development as much as we might like to think. Regarding the cross-validation that I mentioned, studies examining identical twins separated at birth and reared apart have repeatedly revealed (in shocking ways) the same thing: these individuals are remarkably similar when in fact they should be utterly different (they have completely different environments, but the same genes).3 Alternatively, non-biologically related adopted children (who have no genetic commonalities) raised together are utterly dissimilar to each other—despite in many cases having decades of exposure to the same parents and home environments.
One logical explanation for this is a lack of parenting influence for psychological development. Judith Rich Harris made this point forcefully in her book The Nurture Assumption…. As Harris notes, parents are not to blame for their children’s neuroses (beyond the genes they contribute to the manufacturing of that child), nor can they take much credit for their successful psychological adjustment. To put a finer point on what Harris argued, children do not transport the effects of parenting (whatever they might be) outside the home. The socialization of children certainly matters (remember, neither personality nor temperament is 100 percent heritable), but it is not the parents who are the primary “socializers”, that honor goes to the child’s peer group….
Is it possible that parents really do shape children in deep and meaningful ways? Sure it is…. The trouble is that most research on parenting will not help you in the slightest because it doesn’t control for genetic factors….
Natural selection has wired into us a sense of attachment for our offspring. There is no need to graft on beliefs about “the power of parenting” in order to justify our instinct that being a good parent is important. Consider this: what if parenting really doesn’t matter? Then what? The evidence for pervasive parenting effects, after all, looks like a foundation of sand likely to slide out from under us at any second. If your moral constitution requires that you exert god-like control over your kid’s psychological development in order to treat them with the dignity afforded any other human being, then perhaps it is time to recalibrate your moral compass…. If you want happy children, and you desire a relationship with them that lasts beyond when they’re old enough to fly the nest, then be good to your kids. Just know that it probably will have little effect on the person they will grow into.
Color me unconvinced. There’s a lot of hand-waving in Boutwell’s piece, but little in the way of crucial facts, such as:
- How is behavior quantified?
- Does the quantification account for all aspects of behavior (unlikely), or only those aspects that are routinely quantified (e.g., criminal convictions)?
- Is it meaningful to say that about 50 percent of behavior is genetically determined, 45 percent is peer-driven, and 0-5 percent is due to “parenting” (as Judith Rich Harris does)? Which 50 percent, 45 percent, and 0-5 percent? And how does one add various types of behavior?
- How does one determine (outside an unrealistic experiment) the extent to which “children do not transport the effects of parenting (whatever they might be) outside the home”?
The measurement of behavior can’t possibly be as rigorous and comprehensive as the measurement of intelligence. And even those researchers who are willing to countenance and estimate the heritability of intelligence give varying estimates of its magnitude, ranging from 50 to 80 percent.
I wonder if Boutwell, Harris, et al. would like to live in a world in which parents quit teaching their children to obey the law; refrain from lying, stealing, and hurting others; honor their obligations; respect old people; treat babies with care; and work for a living (“money doesn’t grow on trees”).
Unfortunately, the world in which we live — even in the United States — seems more and more to resemble the kind of world in which parents have failed in their duty to inculcate in their children the values of honesty, respect, and hard work. This is from a post at Dyspepsia Generation, “The Spoiled Children of Capitalism“ (no longer online):
The rot set after World War II. The Taylorist techniques of industrial production put in place to win the war generated, after it was won, an explosion of prosperity that provided every literate American the opportunity for a good-paying job and entry into the middle class. Young couples who had grown up during the Depression, suddenly flush (compared to their parents), were determined that their kids would never know the similar hardships.
As a result, the Baby Boomers turned into a bunch of spoiled slackers, no longer turned out to earn a living at 16, no longer satisfied with just a high school education, and ready to sell their votes to a political class who had access to a cornucopia of tax dollars and no doubt at all about how they wanted to spend it. And, sadly, they passed their principles, if one may use the term so loosely, down the generations to the point where young people today are scarcely worth using for fertilizer.
In 1919, or 1929, or especially 1939, the adolescents of 1969 would have had neither the leisure nor the money to create the Woodstock Nation. But mommy and daddy shelled out because they didn’t want their little darlings to be caught short, and consequently their little darlings became the worthless whiners who voted for people like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama [and who were people like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama: ED.], with results as you see them. Now that history is catching up to them, a third generation of losers can think of nothing better to do than camp out on Wall Street in hopes that the Cargo will suddenly begin to arrive again.
Good luck with that.
I subscribe to the view that the rot set in after World War II. That rot, in the form of slackerism, is more prevalent now than it ever was. It is not for nothing that Gen Y is also known as the Boomerang Generation.
Nor is it unsurprising that campuses have become hotbeds of petulant and violent behavior. And it’s not just students, but also faculty and administrators — many of whom are boomers. Where were these people before the 1960s, when the boomers came of age? Do you suppose that their sudden emergence was the result of a massive genetic mutation that swept across the nation in the late 1940s? I doubt it very much.
Their sudden emergence was due to the failure of too many members of the so-called Greatest Generation to inculcate in their children the values of honesty, respect, and hard work. How does one do that? By being clear about expectations and by setting limits on behavior — limits that are enforced swiftly, unequivocally, and sometimes with the palm of a hand. When children learn that they can “get away” with dishonesty, disrespect, and sloth, guess what? They become dishonest, disrespectful, and slothful. They give vent to their disrespect through whining, tantrum-like behavior, and even violence.
The leniency that’s being shown toward campus jerks — students, faculty, and administrators — is especially disgusting to this pre-boomer. University presidents need to grow backbones. Campus and municipal police should be out in force, maintaining order and arresting whoever fails to provide a “safe space” for a speaker who might offend their delicate sensibilities. Disruptive and violent behavior should be met with expulsions, firings, and criminal charges.
“My genes made me do it” is neither a valid explanation nor an acceptable excuse.
Related reading: There is a page on Judith Rich Harris’s website with a long list of links to reviews, broadcast commentary, and other discussions of The Nurture Assumption. It is to Harris’s credit that she links to negative as well as positive views of her work.