After writing my last post, I had a lot of interesting side discussions about the old nature versus nurture debate. Some of those discussions happened in the comments on my last post. Some of them happened on twitter. Some of them happened in person. While I think I have made it fairly clear that I do not believe that everything about a child is a product of good or bad parenting, people have been wondering where I do stand on this issue. After all, if I don't think that parenting is important, why would I write about it? If I don't think that parenting choices are important, why would I write in support of certain parenting practices or speak out against others?
Where did I come from?
I don't believe that any one factor is paramount in determining how our lives will turn out. I think that the person I am, the person you are, the people our children will be, is determined by many different things. I think, however, that those things can be broadly put into three categories.
It is important to recognize that depending on what each of these circles contains, they may or may not be equally shaped. Someone with significant privilege stemming from their genes and environment, for example, may have much more opportunity to influence their life through individual choice than a non-white, disabled person growing up in an environment characterized by poverty, violence and abuse. The contents of the circle, as such, influence its size relative to the other two circles.
When I talk about the influence of our genes on who we are, I mean the things that we are born with that we have no influence over. This can include:
- Physical abilities/disabilities
- Mental abilities/disabilities
- Sexual orientation
- Physical attributes
- Some elements of personality
The extent to which these things influence our lives, positively or negatively, does depend to some extent on our environment and our personal choices, which is why the circles are overlapping. However, the genetic material that we are born with can and does create both barriers and opportunities.
The second circle refers to the environment that surrounds you. It can be supportive or it can present hardships. The environment includes factors such as:
- Socioeconomic factors
- Religion and culture
- Environmental factors (e.g. exposure to chemicals, smog, pollution)
- Access to necessities, such as food and water, health care, housing, and so on
- Events or circumstances (e.g. accidents, incidents, natural disasters, wars)
- Home life
These are not listed in order of importance, however I did place peers at the top and home life at the bottom for a reason. I did so based on reading and research that I have done that indicates the extent to which each of them influences who we will become. Some authors put a positive spin on that (society or "peers" can undo any harm done in the home) and others put a negative spin on it (that peer orientation is a threat and we need to combat it by fostering a stronger attachment to our children). Whether they look at it positively or negatively, those who have done research on this topic (versus just spouting opinions like "your kids are your fault"), do point out that peers do have a stronger influence than parents.
The individual choices we all make can influence the direction our lives take. Whether we take advantage of opportunities and overcome challenges has a lot to do with the choices that we make. The factors included in individual choice include:
- Education (formal and informal)
- Outlook on life (half full, half empty)
- ....and more (there are many more factors here and I couldn't begin to list them all)
Our genes and our environment may limit the choices that are available to us or may make it easier or more difficult to make certain choices. They may also impact our ability to decipher between good choices and bad choices or our interest in making good choices and avoiding bad choices.
Where does parenting fit in?
There are parents and authors who seem to feel that their influence on their child is paramount. Personally, I think that point of view puts too much pressure on parents and also devalues the child as an individual. When I look at these three circles, I see a place for parenting to influence them. However, I also recognize that parenting plays only a limited role compared to all of the other factors that will impact who an individual becomes.
So where do parents fit in?
- Genes: This one is fairly obvious. Children get their genes from their biological parents. While parents obviously influence this, they do so indirectly through their choice of a partner and decision to procreate, rather than influencing it directly through their parenting choices. That said, it is still a lottery. You do not know which elements of your vast gene pool will get passed down.
- Environment: Parents do have some influence over environment and parents with privilege have more influence over environment than others. For example, some parents can choose to live in a country or neighbourhood that will provide their children with many environmental advantages, but others may not be able to do so. That is where environment starts to overlap with individual choice. Parents certainly choose the home life that they provide for their children. However, there may also be factors there that are not entirely under their control (e.g. abusive spouse, disintegrating marriage, the parent's own abilities).
- Individual choice: When children are small, parents make most of the choices for them. As they grow up, they will make fewer choices for them. So while the parent may determine exactly what goes into the mouth of a 3 month old baby, they will not be able to exert the same level of influence or control over a teenager (or even a toddler). I think that is a good thing. As humans grow up, they are given more and more opportunity to make their own choices and they are able to learn how to make good choices along the way. If parents make too many of choices for their children, they will not learn to make good decisions themselves.
I see parents in the role of a facilitator across all three of these areas. Parents can help their children to deal with the genetic cards they have been dealt, they can help their children to navigate the environment that they live in, and they can help guide their children to make good decisions. But, they also need to realize that they are only one of the facilitators in their child's life. Others will be facilitating too, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively.
I am not parenting with the aim of achieving a specific set of results. My goals do not focus on having a child who behaves, excels in school and sports, is popular and talented. My goals focus on having a close relationship with my children and providing a supportive and healthy environment for them to grow up. If that contributes to their success in life, then great. If it doesn't, I'm okay with that too because the relationship is my goal.
I think that making their future success my parenting goal is not only unrealistic, but also stupid. For better and for worse, there are many other things that will influence who they become and tying my own sense of self-worth to their success wouldn't be much smarter than depending on a lottery win to meet my financial goals.
Parenting is important to me. Parenting choices are important to me. But I am realistic about how much influence I have, which I think gives my children room to develop on their own and also keeps me from beating myself up over my parenting mistakes or my children's faults.
In my next post, I talk about some of the books that have influenced my thoughts on this topic and introduce you to the research and opinions of some of the authors who have influenced me as a parent and as a parenting writer.