Culture, biology, parental character, and chance account for the vast majority of variance in the way children turn out. Culture, whether located in family patterns, neighborhood norms, religious rules, ethnicity, or political divisions, pressures people to conform, to act the same as others within the culture. It’s not a pervasive influence on any level, of course—even twins raised together differ from each other—but it sets a context for any particular parenting style. You can limit screen time, but you are unlikely to raise Katniss Everdeen or Tom Sawyer in a world of screens.
Biology provides the raw material for culture, parents, and chance to work on, and the influence is hard to measure but obviously significant. Indeed, the question of how to raise a child absorbs way too much parental energy, in my opinion, that would be more usefully spent on the question of how to enjoy my particular child. I think we worry too much about molding children and not enough about discovering them. Birth order—for one example that is less controversial than intelligence, sensitivity, or sex—is not a destiny to overcome but a situation to adapt to.
Chance or randomness is frightening to all humans, as it undermines most answers to the question of whether life has a purpose. We want credit for our achievements and we want a reason for our setbacks, but usually, instead, we are trying to make sense of a randomness that has little or no meaning. Parents are especially vulnerable to the dread of chance, since their fragile new loved ones are so incapable of protecting themselves from the whims of fortune. How children turn out is largely a matter of luck.
Parental character accounts for most of what parents do. When people become therapists, character is also crucial—but for 50 minutes at a time, therapists can to some extent shape, manage, and subordinate their character to technique. When people become parents, the long stretch of hours over the course of years ensures that technique will waver and character win out. The most important character issue in parents, according to Karen Horney, is the ability to impart a sense of belonging by accepting all the most important aspects of the child’s real self. Parents who can’t accept a girl’s aggression, say, or a boy’s sensitivity cannot disguise it with technique. Parents who hate their kids or respond to them sexually cannot disguise it, either, over the long haul. You can fool people in a job interview or a social encounter, but in the long run, you can’t fool your own children about what is welcome and what is not. Well, you can fool them consciously, but their evolving personality knows what’s welcome. Positive or neutral character traits in parents give a desirable shape to children’s personalities in a way that is much steadier and more influential than any technique can produce.
Parenting strategies thus amount to little more than tinkering, choosing the drapes in a room outfitted by culture, chance, biology, and character. The three kinds of mistakes that parents typically make are abuse, neglect, and spoiling. Each of these kinds of mistakes is self-propagating. Neglectful parents see signs of neglect, which are aversive, and they respond by avoiding their children. Abusive parents see signs of abuse, which reflect badly on the parents and make them angry, leading to more abuse. Helicopter parents see signs their children are spoiled or delicate and resolve to read more, obsess more, and monitor more. The vast majority of parents seek confirmation in the parenting literature, and tend to find it, for what they’re already doing. Spoilers do the most reading, and reading itself tends to confirm their sense that a lot more attention to parenting is needed.
I do have some advice for parents, but I am aware it won’t be taken, and the reason is often because culture, biology, character, or chance gets in the way of implementing (or even recognizing) good advice. It’s also unclear whether any techniques have any long-term effects. For example, it is very clear that efforts to boost intelligence in early childhood level out by adolescence. Still, here are five ideas.
1. Childhood is not all preamble. Too much thinking about parenting, in my opinion, is organized around the eventual adult instead of trying to make life better now. A focus on life now will improve the chances of the child developing a secure attachment, which has much to do with meeting a baby’s physical needs. If you make your baby happy, you will facilitate a secure attachment, which is a function of caregiving. If you make yourself happy, too, you will have a better life while raising your children. A friend of mine used to say about us helicopter parents, “Everything you need to know, they tell you on the plane.” She meant that you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first and then on the child. This would be bad advice for neglectful or abusive parents.
The reason I am so passionate about a regular bedtime is not that it builds character in children or gets them enough sleep, even though it does both. Bedtime makes parents happier and life more pleasant, because everyone knows that the little darlings will disappear at exactly 7:30 or whenever. The kids, too, look forward to a break from the constant need to learn and acculturate. The reason I like to remind parents that life has become a zero sum game—whatever time a parent takes for herself, she takes from the other parent—is not just to bolster the couple’s collaboration but to ensure that each parent gets some time and space for self-indulgence.
2. Protect them from disaster. If your child has never had a bruise, you are definitely over-protective. If your child has never had a cut or fallen off a bike, you may be over-protective. Concentrate on protecting them from disaster, not from everything.
3. Develop self-acceptance to provide acceptance of children. You might be able to change your character if you show the unacceptable parts of yourself to people, like therapists are supposed to be, who take the real you in stride, allowing you to integrate more of yourself into your persona. Then you will be more accepting of yourself, and more accepting of the various aspects of your children. Acceptance means taking things in stride or welcoming them, not approving of them. Participation medals do not convey acceptance; shrugging off failure does. Generally, neglectful parents need to accept the child’s existence, abusive parents the child’s childishness, and spoiling parents the child’s autonomy.
4. Keep a sense of humor. When a bunch of us were raising kids together, one of the moms said once, looking at the kids, “And you wonder why guppies eat their young.” The parents picked this up, and we would refer to the kids as guppies. They thought it was a term of endearment. I couldn’t guarantee that my children would appreciate life as a comedy when they were surrounded by other messages that life’s a tragedy. But at least I could enjoy my own comedic sensibility and show them that it’s possible to enjoy the ride.
5. Find things to do besides parenting. This will allocate your emotional investments to protect against setbacks with your kids, enabling them to see that their failures do not reverberate throughout the known world. Further, it will give your kids some freedom from the unendurable scrutiny of their output that would make anyone feel trapped or deified. Again, this is not good advice if you’re neglectful.
Parenting books tend to feed parents’ self-consciousness and self-criticism way out of proportion to the actual effect of parenting techniques. I don’t mind them when parents are genuinely curious, rather than obsessional, about raising children. But I object to raising children under a regime of improvement rather than one of fulfilling human needs, because it makes life a tragedy of imperfection rather than a comedy of errors or an adventure of discovery. I object especially to parenting books when mothers get the message that parenting is one of the few proper foci of their intellectual curiosity, which I think happens far more frequently than we often acknowledge.