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So Long, Superparents

The limits of parental influence: Why
good parentsneed not attempt
superhuman feats.

Nature's Thumbprint

Pushy parents have long been the butt of jokes-you know, the kind who sign their kids up for classy kindergartens as soon as they leave the delivery room. They weave times tables into lullaby lyrics and expect their toddlers to memorize their alphabet soup. Childcare experts have urged them to downshift and relax-they're hurrying childhood.

Now comes the insult. "Good enough" parents do the child-rearing job just as well as superparents, claim psychologists Sandra Scarr, Ph.D., and David Rowe, Ph.D. Middle-class parenting styles vary significantly, but the kids all turn out okay regardless of most differences, say the respective University of Virginia and Arizona professors.

Abusive and neglectful parents crank out problem kids who later become delinquent adults. But as long as kids get parental warmth, care, and encouragement to develop their talents, they have an equal shot at success in school and work. What really counts is the emotional and physical security parents can provide.

People pay a lot of attention to nuances in parenting style-how much parents hug their kids in public, whether or not they buy their kids an abacus. But they should pay more attention to genes, says Rowe. Inheritance is more important than many realize.

Consider the results of twin and adoption studies. When adoptees grow up in the homes of folks like lawyers and academics, they have a 50-50 chance of above average performance in life. The biological kids of those educated parents have an 80 percent chance of being above average. Genes at work, observes Rowe in the Journal of Counseling and Development (Vol. 68, p. 606).

Several studies have uncovered uncanny similarities between identical twins separated at birth and reared in completely different families. One such study found a set of twins obsessively compulsive about neatness even after one twin grew up with slobs, the other with neatniks. Nature's thumbprint, again.

Child behaviors such as fearfulness are often blamed on parents when they are really sparked by inborn personality traits. And parents who bombard their kids with learning materials might be wasting their time; you can't force kids to be intellectual when it's not in their genetic makeup.

Besides, parents aren't the only people kids learn from. "Children can learn from any source-parents and other adults" says Rowe, "A child from a bookless home can be stimulated by a good teacher. A poor economic environment doesn't necessarily mean a poor social environment."

Family background doesn't significantly influence how kids do in school, declares Scarr; kids' grades and test scores are similar as long as parenting is normal.

The moral is that people can be good, caring parents, without knocking themselves-and their kids-out. Adds Scarr: "Parents should be given less credit for kids who turn out great and blamed less for kids who don't."

Another '80s icon bites the dust. So long, superparents.