Do Parents Matter?

Genetics Over Parenting or Common Sense Over Science?

Over the years of being a psychologist and a mom, I have heard “parents don’t matter” sprinkled into the downpour of parenting trends, strategies, and advice. It’s actually tempting at times to believe we don’t matter. What a relief it would be to stop overanalyzing every decision and interaction. On the other hand, this is really hard emotional and physical work no matter what, and it’s demoralizing to feel like it’s for nothing. So what’s the verdict?

My husband and I sat in a circle of parents, each of us dwarfing the child-size chairs not meant for our bodies, and listened to our son’s preschool teacher. It was open house night and we were there to learn more about policies, curriculum, etc. As the teacher rattled through the Montessori practices and what we parents can do, I felt us both wanting to shrink, and not just to fit better on the chairs.

The teacher hailed the virtue of independence, pleading with the parents to not carry our children into the classroom, or put on their shoes for them. Our son insists we do both of these things daily. Someone asked about naptime policies (kids don’t have to sleep, but they need to stay on their cots in dark quiet). “We just can’t have kids walking around the room, pulling up blinds . . .” That was very likely our son — we had several weeks of a nap showdown with us wanting him to skip nap and the school insisting on it.

While one mother asked about how to help her (preschool) son with multiplication at home, and the teacher talked about the 3-year-olds reading books in class, I envisioned our son eagerly tracing lower case letters as he learns the alphabet. We left feeling as if the whole hour was a referendum on our poor parenting. 

How much does this all matter? Montessori. Helicopter parenting. Baby Einstein videos. Attachment parenting. French parenting. Using time-outs. Not using time-outs. Giving consequences. Empathizing with roots of bad behavior. Does it all really make a difference, besides adding pressure and stress to the minutiae of our modern parenting?

I looked at the genesis of this “parents don’t matter” line of thinking, the research behind it, and took a step back to use plain old common sense.

Do Parents Matter? What Research Tells Us

There has to be a reason for the parenting self-help industry besides millions of us being irrationally neurotic.

We can blame psychologists and psychiatrists for placing the onus on us, well mothers, to be exact. Famously, Freud linked cold and aloof mothering to autism and schizophrenia, obviously without any scientific evidence. Theories of personality and childhood development abounded, again some with little research to actually back up theories that sounded enticing.

This set the scene in 1998 for a controversial argument by psychologist, Judith Rich Harris, that parents have a lot less influence than they think. This unpopular conclusion generated backlash, but she actually had the science to back it up, with studies of personality showing genes consistently overpowering environment.   

In my opinion, she also had common sense in her corner, as she echoed in a Scientific American article what has been swirling around in my own mother/scientist brain: “People are the same as ever. Despite the reduction in physical punishment, today’s adults are no less aggressive than their grandparents were. Despite the increase in praise and physical affection, they are not happier or more self-confident or in better mental health.” (For the record, I have a strong stance against physical punishment based on LOTS of research on the negative effects.)

Parenting practices change by generations, but we are surely not a more evolved species due to these “better” parenting practices. Our children are not happier and better adjusted, or at least there’s not evidence to support that. In fact, rates of anxiety and other mental health diagnoses have increased steadily, although there could be several explanations besides true changes in the population (eg, more awareness, more diagnosing).

That also leads to questions about how to think about qualifying parenting as “good” or “bad” when we look across cultures. In Japan, co-sleeping is an accepted practice; in the U.S., pediatricians have officially opposed it due to risks of death, specifically SIDS. But Japan’s rates of SIDS are half that of the United States. Hmmm. (This is hotly debated and I am NOT promoting any specific practice!) Mayan parenting practices have been showing up lately as a stark contrast to our protective American parenting, as Mayan children are apparently incredibly self-sufficient at a young age due to parenting practices our legal system would likely prosecute.

Other aspects of cultural experiences that may differ between children – like racism, poverty, and poor education — have shown time and time again to affect outcomes for kids long-term. These environmental factors add chronic stress that definitely affect behavior, although this takes away from the “genetics only matter” argument.

But one of Harris’ simple explanations makes sense: what we do in the home matters for how kids behave IN THE HOME. They may be totally different at school, with their friends, or in the world at large. We could be executing the most flawless parenting skills at home (whatever that looks like), and our child’s inherited personality would still be more of an influence on how they interact with all these other parts of their lives.

Do Parents Matter? What Instinct Tells Us

So do we stop worrying and pour ourselves a generous glass of wine or fresh cup of coffee to finally relax about all this parenting stress?

Unlikely. Maybe we are genetically hardwired to worry about our children – it seems that would be adaptive to our survival as a species. There has to be a reason for the parenting self-help industry besides millions of us being irrationally neurotic.

As important as I believe science is to help relieve some of our emotional burden as parents, research has its limitations. Not every experience or data point can be neatly measured and broken down into a number that fits a statistical equation. It’s common sense that we are building relationships where how we speak to our children, what we say, how we support them, spend time with them, and show our love, all matters. It seems like a positive shift from the “children should be seen and not heard” parenting model, although I would also argue we may have swung too far toward children being the centers of our worlds, and there may be a more balanced middle ground.

The danger of our modern parenting culture, though, is that the worries and over-analysis can turn into a noisy traffic jam in our brains, paralyzing us and stressing us out. How we promote calm and wellness in our parenting selves comes back to balance. How? Let go of what is likely unhelpful worries (eg, your 3-year-old who doesn’t want to potty train will eventually use the toilet), to better focus our energies. Selecting the right daycare? Yes, quite important. Modeling in the home behaviors we want to teach our children? Yes, it matters. Having a day with more yelling than we want? Let that one go.

Carrying our persistent child with clear preferences rather than getting into a power struggle about it? Slipping his shoes on his feet despite him being perfectly capable of doing so because we need to get to work or home more quickly? I don’t think it matters, especially since he seems to have plenty of other indicators of high independence. But check back with me in 20 years — maybe I’ll still be putting on his shoes and carrying him around.

My Theory: Bell Curve Parenting

Do Parents Matter? All I have to do is snuggle and make really good food

Do Parents Matter? All I have to do is snuggle and make really good food

Since everyone gets a theory, why not me? I envision the bell curve of parenting as a visual representation that most parenting is messy and imperfect, falling under the large part of the curve representing “normal,” even as there may be wide variations. The outliers, like abuse and neglect, are where parenting matters in the worst way.

But of course we matter and are making a difference — children without parents suffer. But as long as we stay connected, make our best efforts, and show up most days, we can let go of a lot that we might be losing sleep over right now. They will be fine, or they may not be fine, but it is both because of us AND more than just us.