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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Pinker on why it doesn't matter that parenting has little effect on children

"“I hope to God this isn’t true,” one mother said to the Chicago Tribune. “The thought that all this love that I’m pouring into him counts for nothing is too terrible to contemplate.” As with other discoveries about human nature, people hope to God it isn’t true. But the truth doesn’t care about our hopes, and sometimes it can force us to revisit those hopes in a liberating way.

Yes, it is disappointing that there is no algorithm for growing a happy and successful child. But would we really want to specify the traits of our children in advance, and never be delighted by the unpredictable gifts and quirks that every child brings into the world? People are appalled by human cloning and its dubious promise that parents can design their children by genetic engineering. But how different is that from the fantasy that parents can design their children by how they bring them up? Realistic parents would be less anxious parents. They could enjoy their time with their children rather than constantly trying to stimulate them, socialize them, and improve their characters. They could read stories to their children for the pleasure of it, not because it’s good for their neurons.

Many critics accuse Harris of trying to absolve parents of responsibility for their children’s lives: if the kids turn out badly, parents can say it’s not their fault. But, by the same token she is assigning adults responsibility for their own lives: if your life is not going well, stop moaning that it’s all your parents’ fault. She is rescuing mothers from fatuous theories that blame them for every misfortune that befalls their children, and from the censorious know-it-all who, make them feel like ogres if they slip out of the house to work or skip a reading of Goodnight Moon. And the theory assigns us all a collective responsibility for the health of the neighbourhoods and culture in which peer groups are embedded.

Finally: “So you’re saying it doesn’t matter how I treat my children?” What a question! Yes, of course it matters. Harris reminds her readers of the reasons.

First, parents wield enormous power over their children, and their actions can make a big difference to their happiness. Childrearing is above all an ethical responsibility. It is not OK for parents to beat, humiliate, deprive, or neglect their children, because those are awful things for a big strong person to do to a small helpless one. As Harris writes, “We may not hold their tomorrows in our hands but we surely hold their todays, and we have the power to make their todays very miserable.”

Second, a parent and a child have a human relationship. No one ever asks, “So you’re saying it doesn’t matter how I treat my husband or wife?” even though no one but a newlywed believes that one can change the personality of one’s spouse. Husbands and wives are nice to each other (or should be) not to pound the other’s personality into a desired shape but to build a deep and satisfying relationship. Imagine being told that one cannot revamp the personality of a husband or wife and replying “The thought that all this love I’m pouring into him (or her) counts for nothing is too terrible to contemplate” So it is with parents and children: one person’s behaviour toward another has consequences for the quality of the relationship between them. Over the course of a lifetime the balance of power shifts, and children, complete with memories of how they were treated, have a growing say in their dealings with their parents. As Harris puts it, “If you don’t think the moral imperative is a good enough reason to be nice to your kid, try this one: Be nice to your kid when he’s young so that he will be nice to you when you’re old.” There are well-functioning adults who still shake with rage when recounting the cruel times their parents inflicted on them as children. There are others who moisten up in private moments when recalling a kindness or sacrifice made for their happiness, perhaps one that the mother or father has long forgotten. If for no other reason, parents should treat their children well to allow them to grow up with such memories.

I have found that when people hear these explanations they lower their eyes and say, somewhat embarrassedly, “Yes. I knew that.” The fact that people can forget these simple truths when intellectualizing about children shows how far modern doctrines have taken us. They make it easy to think of children as lumps of putty to be shaped instead of partners in a human relationship. Even the theory that children adapt to their peer group becomes less surprising when we think of them as human beings like ourselves. “Peer group” is a patronizing term we use in connection with children for what we call “friends and colleagues and associates” when we talk about ourselves. We groan when children obsess over wearing the right kind of cargo pants, but we would be just as mortified if a very large person forced us to wear pink overalls to a corporate board meeting or a polyester disco suit to an academic conference. “Being socialized by a peer group” is another way of saying “living successfully within a society” which for a social organism means “living”. It is children, above all, who are alleged to be blank slates, and that can make us forget they are people."

--- The Blank Slate / Steven Pinker
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