Has there ever been another art so devoutly converted into a science as the art of parenting?

Over the recent decades, a vast and diverse flock of parenting experts has arisen. In her book “Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advices About Children” Ann Hulbert documented how parenting experts contradict one another and even themselves. Their banter might be hilarious were it not so confounding and, often, scary.

For giving you some paradigmatic examples of this endless contradiction, Gary Ezzo, in the Babywise book series endorses an “infant-management strategy” for moms and dads trying to “achieve excellence in parenting,” stressing how important it is to train a baby, early on, to sleep alone through the night. Otherwise, Ezzo warns, sleep deprivation might “negatively impact an infant’s developing central nervous system” and lead to learning disabilities. On the other side, the advocates of “co-sleeping,” meanwhile, warn that sleeping alone is harmful to a baby’s psyche and that he should be brought into the “family bed.” And what about stimulation? In 1983 T. Berry Brazelton wrote that a baby arrives in the world “beautifully prepared for the role of learning about him- or herself and the world all around.” Brazelton favored early, ardent stimulation—an “interactive” child. One hundred years earlier, however, L. Emmett Holt cautioned that a baby is not a “plaything.” There should be “no forcing, no pressure, no undue stimulation” dur- ing the first two years of a child’s life, Holt believed; the brain is grow- ing so much during that time that overstimulation might cause “a great deal of harm.” He also believed that a crying baby should never be picked up unless it is in pain. As Holt explained, a baby should be left to cry for fifteen to thirty minutes a day: “It is the baby’s exercise.”

The typical parenting expert, like experts in other fields, is prone to sound exceedingly sure of himself.

But no one is more susceptible to an expert’s fearmongering than a parent. Fear is in fact a major component of the act of parenting. A parent, after all, is the steward of another creature’s life, a creature who in the beginning is more helpless than the newborn of nearly any other species. This leads a lot of parents to spend a lot of their parenting energy simply being scaredThe problem is that they are often scared of the wrong things. It’s not their fault, really. Separating facts from rumors is always hard work, especially for a busy parent. And the white noise generated by the experts — to say nothing of the pressure exerted by fellow parents — is so overwhelming that they can barely think for themselves.

Obsessive or not, any parent wants to believe that she is making a big difference in the kind of person her child turns out to be. Otherwise, why bother?

But the main question is: How much do parents really matter?

Clearly, bad parenting matters a great deal. As the link between abortion and crime makes clear, unwanted children—who are disproportionately subject to neglect and abuse—have worse outcomes than children who were eagerly welcomed by their parents.

But how much can those eager parents actually accomplish for their children’s sake? A long line of studies, including research into twins who were separated at birth, had already concluded that genes alone are responsible for perhaps 50 percent of a child’s personality and abilities. So if nature accounts for half of a child’s destiny, what accounts for the other half? Surely it must be the nurturing — the Baby Mozart tapes, the church sermons, the museum trips, the French lessons, the bargaining and hugging and quarreling and punishing that, in toto, constitute the act of parenting.

But how then to explain another famous study, the Colorado Adoption Project, which followed the lives of 245 babies put up for adoption and found virtually no correlation between the child’s personality traits and those of his adopted par- ents? Or the other studies showing that a child’s character wasn’t much affected whether or not he was sent to day care, whether he had one parent or two, whether his mother worked or didn’t, whether he had two mommies or two daddies or one of each?

These nature-nurture discrepancies were addressed in a 1998 book by a little-known textbook author named Judith Rich Harris. The Nurture Assumption was in effect an attack on obsessive parenting, a book so provocative that it required two subtitles: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do and Parents Matter Less than You Think and Peers Matter More. Harris argued, albeit gently, that parents are wrong to think they contribute so mightily to their child’s personality. This belief, she wrote, was a “cultural myth.” Harris argued that the top-down influence of parents is overwhelmed by the grassroots effect of peer pressure, the blunt force applied each day by friends and school- mates.

Still, the question of how much parents matter is a good one. It is also terribly complicated. In determining a parent’s influence, which dimension of the child are we measuring: his personality? his school grades? his moral behavior? his creative abilities? his salary as an adult? And what weight should we assign each of the many inputs that affect a child’s outcome: genes, family environment, socioeconomic level, schooling, discrimination, luck, illness, and so on?

For the sake of argument, let’s consider the story of two boys, one white and one black.

The white boy is raised in a Chicago suburb by parents who read widely and involve themselves in school reform. His father, who has a decent manufacturing job, often takes the boy on nature hikes. His mother is a housewife who will eventually go back to college and earn a bachelor’s degree in education. The boy is happy and performs very well in school. His teachers think he may be a bona fide math genius. His parents encourage him and are terribly proud when he skips a grade. He has an adoring younger brother who is also very bright. The family even holds literary salons in their home.

The black boy is born in Daytona Beach, Florida, and his mother abandons him at the age of two. His father has a good job in sales but is a heavy drinker. He often beats the little boy with the metal end of a garden hose. One night when the boy is eleven, he is decorating a tabletop Christmas tree—the first one he has ever had—when his fa- ther starts beating up a lady friend in the kitchen. He hits her so hard that some teeth fly out of her mouth and land at the base of the boy’s Christmas tree, but the boy knows better than to speak up. At school he makes no effort whatsoever. Before long he is selling drugs, mugging suburbanites, carrying a gun. He makes sure to be asleep by the time his father comes home from drinking, and to be out of the house before his father awakes. The father eventually goes to jail for sexual assault. By the age of twelve, the boy is essentially fending for himself.

You don’t have to believe in obsessive parenting to think that the second boy doesn’t stand a chance and that the first boy has it made. What are the odds that the second boy, with the added handicap of racial discrimination, will turn out to lead a productive life? What are the odds that the first boy, so deftly primed for success, will somehow fail? And how much of his fate should each boy attribute to his parents?

We should never forget that there is also a huge random effect that rains down on even the best parenting efforts. If you are in any way typical, you have known some intelligent and devoted parents whose child went badly off the rails. You may have also known of the opposite instance, where a child succeeds despite his parents’ worst intentions and habits.

 

Let’s go back to the the two boys, one white and one black. The white boy who grew up outside Chicago had smart, solid, encouraging, loving parents who stressed education and family. The black boy from Daytona Beach was abandoned by his mother, was beaten by his father, and had become a full-fledged gangster by his teens. So what became of the two boys? The second child, the black one, now twenty-eight years old, is Roland G. Fryer Jr., the Harvard economist studying black underachievement.
The white child also made it to Harvard. But soon after, things went badly for him. His name is Ted Kaczynski.

 

References

Taken from Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt  and Stephen J. Dubner