Saturday, October 04, 2008

Parenting Skills

In the below video, Steven Pinker talks about his book The Blank Slate. It's an interesting video in that it talks about the nature vs. nurture principle. It comes up decidedly in favor of nature. He eventually starts talking about what implications this has for parenting. It's near the end of the video, but if you're going to watch it, I recommend not skipping anything. The whole talk is pretty good:

What he suggests is that any parenting skills we develop have very little influence on what happens to our children as they grow up. He tells a very compelling story using studies of twins. I'm inclined to believe his story. If it's true, it means that the parenting skills that I have worked hard to develop has little to do with how my children will turn out. Their character, responsibility, moral fiber, etc do not come from the environment that I provide.

In one sense, this is really freeing. It means that I don't have to stress to much. In another sense, this is rather depressing because I waste a lot of time trying to develop skills in parenting that will have little impact on them. But it also suggests something else. If I do spend all this time on parenting skills that have no benefit to the kids, there must be some other reason to develop these skills. It strikes me as an odd possibility that I develop those skills because they make me feel better about myself. Maybe development of my parenting skills gives me a rationale for the behavior of my children. If they behave well, good job me. If they don't, bad job me. In other words, parenting skills aren't about my kids; they're about me. When the random selection of genes that God has selected for them turns out good, I get to take some of the credit away from God. But when it turns out bad, I suspect I'd be more inclined to blame God for my childrens' dispositions. (I don't really know because I have great kids!)

Nevertheless, while I find the idea that nature plays an enormous role in how people turn out, I can't eliminate environment from the mix. Sure, two twins who are separated at birth and come back together later on might end up remarkably similar. But they had to have sufficient environments to allow them to survive so that they could come back together. If environment played no role at all, you could imagine a set of twins one delivered to a "mostly normal" family, and the other to an excessively violent and criminal family. If the 2nd twin was murdered by that family, then that twin would never grow up to reunite and compare to the 1st twin.

My point with this rather ghastly and extreme thought experiment is that environment must play *some* role. I wonder how much. If a lot, then my parenting skills aren't just an ego trip. They pay some benefit to my children. If hardly any, then I'm even more of an egomaniac than I thought I was.


Niffer said...

I like this topic, but I think that it's one of those things where you can find studies that prove either side of the story.

As for me, I can't help but be convinced that nurture is more important than nature. I think that the model that you present your kids will affect them and who they will become. For example, chances are higher that a child will start smoking cigarettes if his parent smokes. That's not to say that he wouldn't if his parents don't smoke, but the chances are lower when the people he respects chose not to smoke.

I guess that goes to show that you have to have your children's respect in order for your parenting skills to have an effect on them. If they don't respect you, then who knows what they will think of the model you have provided them. Example, my dad is an alcoholic and though I respect him in many ways, I doubt I would ever take his advice on drugs and/or alcohol.

I suppose in the end it's a combination of the two, but when I try to think about it, the examples I come up with are more nurture-related. However, that doesn't explain where my sister gets her strong will from. =)

mjh said...

I really can't avoid the idea that my environment must play some role in the outcome of my children's lives. I'm just too convinced that it matters. If I thought it didn't matter, then I'd really work a lot less at being a good parent than I do. (Just don't ask my wife how much I actually work at it.)

In any case, I would comment that correlation does not equal causation. I'm referring to what you said about smoking. It could be (for example) not the smoking in the house that causes the child to smoke, but rather a shared genetic trait that causes both the parent and the child to be attracted to smoking. The studies that look at this might immediately think that it's environmental. But maybe it's not.

And this is Pinker's point. Until parenting studies that look at the changes in the environment rule out genetic links, you don't know what is really causing the similarities you see. I think that environment must play some role. But it's possible that it plays less than I'd like to think.

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