Nature and nurture

The new issue of Brain, Child has an essay by Katy Read on "Mom Blame."  Read argues that society gives parents way too much credit — and too much blame — for how children turn out.  She bases this both on her experience as the mother of a "spirited" child, who was unruly regardless of how faithfully she followed the guidance of various parenting books, and on the findings from twin studies, which suggest that parenting styles have very little effect on children’s personalities.  In the "nature versus nuture" debate, she’s strongly in the nature camp.

In the author’s note, Read comments that she was recently interviewing "the author of a particularly reprehensible parenting book" who asked her if she’d "like some help changing them" when she commented that her sons were often difficult.  I’d bet dollars to donuts that this author was Phil McGraw and the parenting book Family First (see Tuesday’s post for my review).  McGraw explicitly states that he holds parents responsible for how their children behave — he thinks that if your children are unruly, it’s because you haven’t created sufficient consequences for such behavior.

My position is generally closer to Read’s side of the spectrum.   I’ll never forget the woman I once overheard at a party saying "I thought I had this whole parenting thing down cold until I had my second child."  She had mistakenly attributed the results of her first child’s compliant nature to her skillful parenting.  Children clearly have their own personalities from quite young, and they respond very differently to the same treatment. McGraw says that you have to model the behaviors you want your children to adopt.  Well, we model adventurous, healthy eating to our kids and have one who will eat anything that he can swallow and one who lives on peanut butter crackers and chicken nuggets.

But what Read seems to miss is that there’s a difference between personality and behavior.  I’m not sure where my older son got his extroversion — he sure didn’t learn it from my husband or me.  But I do know where he learned to say please and thank you.  So, if her kid is running all over the place in a fancy restaurant and bumping into people, I won’t blame her for not having the kind of kid who can sit quietly and draw for half an hour.  (Mine can’t either.)  But I will blame her for not taking him outside, or getting a sitter.

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