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Genetically Oblivious: How "Chinese" and "Western" Parenting Make the Same Mistake

"Chinese" and "Western" parenting both overstate the power of parenting.

Western parents have been even more anxious than usual lately. They spent their lives trying to build their kids' self-esteem with praise and soccer. They thought they were doing a decent job until "Tiger Mother" Amy Chua gave them a piece of her mind. Chua bluntly announced that "Chinese parenting is superior." Good parents struggle to prepare their kids for a tough, competitive world instead of prematurely telling them, "You're all winners."

Chua sparked a national debate about how parents ought to shape their children. (My one-on-one debate with Chua appeared recently in The Guardian). Should parents use strict Asian discipline to turn kids into high achievers? Should they use warm Western encouragement to turn kids into well-adjusted adults? It seems like the two sides couldn't be further apart. But they have one key point of agreement: The way parents raise their kids has a tremendous effect on the kind of adults they grow up to be.

Strange as it sounds, there is solid scientific evidence that this "key point" is false. While upbringing has obvious effects, it leaves little lasting impression. Genes, not parenting, are the prime reason traits run in families.

This is no longer a matter of opinion. Adoption and twin researchers in medicine, psychology, economics, and sociology have spent the last four decades studying almost every trait that parents seek to foster. By comparing adoptees to their adopted families, and identical to fraternal twins, these scientists have finally managed to separately measure the effects of nature and nurture. The effect of genes on health, intelligence, happiness, success, character, and values is glaringly obvious. The effect of parenting on these traits, in contrast, ranges from small to zero. Amy Chua's daughters didn't need a Tiger Mother to succeed; being the children of two best-selling Yale professors was enough.

Many are tempted to treat adoption and twin evidence like a "proof" than 1+1=3: Clearly wrong, but life's too short to figure out why. But science and common sense are closer than they seem. Adoption and twin researchers frequently detect short-run effects of parenting. Young children adopted by high-IQ families do better on IQ tests. Kids in religious families go to church every week, whether they share all, half, or none of their genes. The catch: These nurture effects largely evaporate as kids grow up.

Twin research does admittedly find large effects of upbringing on adult's religion and politics. If your parents are Methodists or Democrats, you probably will be too. Even here, though, the power of parenting is easy to overstate. It matters a lot for lip service - which religion and political party you say you belong to. It matters far less for deeper measures - doctrines, policy positions, church attendance, voting, how religious or political you feel in your heart.

The most meaningful effect of parenting isn't on what your child becomes, but on his appreciation - how he feels about and remembers you. A study of older Swedish twins confirmed that the impression you make on your kids really does last a lifetime. If you're kind, respectful, and have plenty of time for you kids, they'll probably remember it. If you're mean, bossy, or absent, they'll probably remember that, too. The science of nature and nurture may leave you cold, but it has a uplifting and humane message: Good parenting is about enjoying your journey together, not the destination.

Struggling to mold your children isn't just ineffective, but counter-productive. Pushing your child to be something he's not rarely succeeds, but it often sours the relationship between parent and child. The Ask the Children survey asked over a thousand kids in grades three to twelve about their lives. Few kids feel starved for parental attention. Their big complaints are that parents are too tired, stressed, and angry. The lesson: More relaxed parenting is better for everyone. Stop pushing yourself so hard. Your child will turn out about the same, you'll feel better about your life, and your child will feel better about you.

Both Asian and Western parents tell their kids, "I'm your parent, not your friend." The message, in both cases, is that parents have to mold their kids for the future, even if they resent it. The good news of adoption and twin research is that you don't need to be the bad guy to raise a good kid. "I'm your parent, not your friend" isn't a reason to treat your kids worse than their friends do. It's a reason to treat your kids better - to show them that even if other kids are cruel, their parents will raise them with kindness and respect day after day.

P.S. For more on me versus Chua, check out "The Tiger Mother versus Cost-Benefit Analysis," and "If I Could Ask Amy Chua One Question."


About the Author

Bryan Kaplan, Ph.D.

Bryan Caplan is a Professor of Economics at George Mason University and the author of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent Is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think.