Long before I had kids, I recall my parents making the case that all of their children had pretty much formed their basic, enduring personalities by the age of two. They said as much more than once, invariably in the act of throwing up their hands in exasperated resignation, for much as they tried to shape their children’s characters further or cajole them into this/that behavior (and trust me: they did this a great deal), fundamental personalities almost always prevailed. On account of this experience, by the time their third kid (my younger brother) had reached high school, my parents had become markedly laissez-faire in dozens of ways that frankly annoyed my older sister and myself. “We never got away with that,” we’d grouse to each other.
Well, as has been the case in myriad respects, my parents were right. My oldest graduates from college this month and while I naturally believe him to be a lovely, capable kid in most every way (ditto for his younger sister), each of these young adults is each remarkably similar — in terms of sociability, focus, ambition, daring and temperament — to their respective two-year-old selves. Yeah, they’ve grown or excelled or lagged or flagged in these and various other respects. And I don’t believe anyone can or should stop parenting (I don’t think that’s possible). But there seems to me a remarkable, observable consistency of character that is more or less resistant to “parenting”.
I’m always amused when I come across yet another parenting book reviewed in The New Yorker or New York Times. I muse at the publishing industry’s having identified and exploited this incredibly willing (read: anxious) audience. Then I laugh outright, at myself, because I nearly always read them, too (the reviews anyway).
The irony is, as parents we have an agency that simply isn’t so strong as we want to believe. Even if we accept our limited impact, on some level, this desire for agency tends to seep into other areas we believe we can control: etiquette, dress and manners; identification and pursuit of extra-curricular “passions”; geography (i.e., buying houses in towns with “good” school systems); self-esteem (i.e. “premier” soccer and other invariably commercial gambits); the entire SAT prep and college admission culture… There’s no harm in trying all this stuff, in doing one’s best. But it’s really a hit or miss affair, I’ve come to believe. Ultimately, 9 times out of 10, it’s down to the kid and his/her fundamental self.
This is not parental fatalism. It is an attempt to recognize (with serenity) the agency one has; to accept (without prejudice) those situations that are beyond one’s control; and (in a perfect world) to capably distinguish one from the other. I held onto this quote from Adam Gopnik’s January 2018 review of yet another parenting book, in the NYer:
As satirists have pointed out for millennia, civilized behavior is artificial and ridiculous: It means pretending to be glad to see people you aren’t glad to see, praising parties you wished you hadn’t gone to, thanking friends for presents you wish you hadn’t received. Training kids to feign passion is the art of parenting. The passions they really have belong only to them.
Surely environment matters. Even then, however, it’s not the environment parents provide that seems to matter most — or so writes Judith Rich Harris in the best book I ever did read on this subject, The Nurture Assumption. In short, Harris argues that we assume our kids turn out the way they do according to a pretty even split between nature (genetic inheritance) and nurture (environment). “The use of ‘nurture’ as a synonym for ‘environment’,” Harris explains, “is based on the assumption that what influences children’s development, apart from their genes, is the way their parents bring them up.”
If this were true, siblings — who are as genetically similar as any humans can be (save identical twins); who are traditionally raised in the same household by the same parents — would all have very similar personalities. Anyone raised in a family of two or more children understands just how ridiculous that idea is.
Ever wondered why the children of recent immigrants don’t speak with accents, even though their heavily accented parents do? Or why the children of deaf/mute parents learn to speak at all? Put simply, Harris argues that a child’s peer group accounts for far more environmental influence in the long run — influence that, since Freud, had traditionally and unduly been attributed to parents. If we’re honest with ourselves, as parents, we’d admit that our children generally do put a lot more stock in the opinions, social mores and examples of their peers. To an extent, parents can help determine or control a child’s peer groups but those peer groups comprise the environment that matters (and the variability of peer groups helps explain why siblings turn out so very differently).
Of course, children do pick up quite a lot from their parents — most of it genetic. This is the other nurture assumption: that we pick up traits and habits and behaviors by copying our parents. Harris argues, persuasively, that we humans don’t do this nearly so often as is commonly accepted; most of those things we attribute to parental modeling are in fact inherited from parents genetically, not environmentally.
I’m on board with this idea of behavioral genetics, too. Growing up, there were dozens of things that my mom and dad did that drove me absolutely crazy — and yet today, at 53, I find myself doing many of these same things! I didn’t “model” my behavior on them in these cases. Far from it. Still, I couldn’t resist these behaviors because they are genetically baked right in.
Which brings me back to my brother, and how my sister and I felt he got a sweet deal — coming third and last, by which time, my parents had given in to the power of personality (and behavioral genetics, though they wouldn’t have put it that way). Invariably, she and I would inveigh against this new libertine parental stance of theirs, or make some wise-ass comment in place of outright carping. At which point my mother or father would issue another pearl of wisdom, one we’d heard before, one that has nothing to do with nature or nurture but still rings true: We’ve never tried to treat everyone exactly the same around here. Everyone gets what they need.