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What Makes Children Turn Out The Way They Do (And Can We As Parents Just Stop Giving A F*ck?)

[ 3 min read ]

Are you familiar with this whole discussion whether it’s the parents or the experiences outside their homes what makes children turn out the way they do?

Judith Rich Harris wrote a book in which she attempted to debunk the myth, as she describes it, that what makes children turn out the way they do, aside from their genes, is the way their parents bring them up.

The sales pitch (description of her book on amazon) promises that she has a message that will change parents’ lives. It doesn’t say whether it will be for the better, or for the worse. It only says that it will change those lives.

By the way I made the same mistake, so I’m in no position to ridicule that pitch. And I’m not ridiculing it. I assume the real (hidden) message was that this book will change those lives for the better. They just forgot to mention it.

Harris argues that the “nurture assumption” (the belief that what makes children turn out the way they do, aside from their genes, is the way their parents bring them up) is nothing more than a cultural myth. And in that book she “explodes some of our unquestioned beliefs about children and parents and gives us a radically new view of childhood”.

I must admit I love her for that. I love people, who (like myself) attempt to explode some of our unquestioned beliefs and give us a radically new view of things we thought we knew well. Beliefs about anything. And especially about parenting and child-parent relationship.

Harris concludes that it is what children experience outside their homes, in the company of their peers, that matters most. Parents don’t socialize children; children socialize children. Thus parents have little power to determine the sort of people their children will become.

I beg to differ.

The one, but critical, missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle in Harris’ argument was that she forgot to mention (didn’t factor in actually) who influences the children who then influence my child outside my home.

Parents don’t socialize children; children socialize children — that’s Harris’ main thesis. Then who the hell socializes the children who socialize other children?

Something doesn’t add up here. Or, maybe I’m the only one who doesn’t get it.

If a child is to influence other children, it’s pretty obvious that this child needs something (some kind of programming, an imprint, some pre-existing set of beliefs) which he / she will then pass down to other children. Something with which he / she will be able to pollute the minds of other children.

Where does he / she acquire this programming? Is it possible that he / she will develop a totally autonomous view of the world? That what this child will pass down to other children will come out of a vacuum?

My take, in the grand scheme of things and for most children in this world, how their parents live their lives is everything.

How their parents live their lives determines:

  • the work ethic they and their acquaintances have,
  • the beliefs they and their acquaintances hold,
  • the attitudes / mindset they and their acquaintances have (towards other people, work, and life in general),
  • the definitions of ‘success’, ‘happiness’, and ‘good life’ they and their acquaintances espoused,
  • the messages they and their acquaintances will send their children on a daily basis for roughly 20 years!

It’s obvious that parents will hang out with people who are very similar to them. It’s how we as species always formed alliances, how we chose the tribes we wanted to be part of, and what kind of people we avoided.

If we hate complainers, we will not seek out and want to hang out with people who are complainers. We will run away from them.

If we have the work ethic of a go-getter/ top achiever, we will not seek out losers and whiners and want to be friends with them — we will have neither time nor willingness to interact with those people.

If we are intolerant or unsympathetic assholes, who think that their roots, genes, family name, excellent education, powerful and prestigious position, and money is the reason to treat people with less like a piece of shit (and we hang out with similar people — and we always do), that’s what our children will soak up. 100%!

And so on and so forth.

So, is it really so that parents have little power to determine the sort of people their children will become?

I don’t believe it to be a true statement. And I’m convinced that what parents do and who they hang out with matters a lot.

In other words, for the vast majority of us, our parents’ attitudes / mindsets determine the environment, which, in turn, ends up shaping us. And we should not forget that our parents remain part of that environment.

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The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do — Kindle edition by Judith Rich Harris

I used excerpts of the sales pitch.