Parents Have an Impact on How Their Children Turn Out, But Maybe Not As Much As Most People Think

a child's painting of a house
Image by Pixabay / CC 0

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had.

And add some extra, just for you.

 

But they were fucked up in their turn

By fools in old-style hats and coats,

Who half the time were soppy-tern

And half at one another’s throats.

 

Man hands on misery to man

It deepens like a coastal shelf.

Get out as early as you can,

And don’t have any kids yourself.

 

-Philip Larkin, “This Be The Verse

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It’s an extremely popular and widely accepted idea that parents have a huge influence over how their children turn out. Self-deprecating parents are known to quip, “Well, this is going to land them in therapy someday,” as they’re recovering from some kind of child-rearing mishap.

In its own infancy, psychology was obsessed with the role of the parent. In particular, with a misogynistic bent, old time-y psychologists often solely blamed mothers for how children turned out. For example, schizophrenia at one time was believed to be a direct result of maternal neglect — and not the biochemical disorder that it’s now understood to be.

Even after psychology began to be properly researched empirically and not simply be based on the hunches of theorists with untested hypotheses (say, someone with mostly sketchy and quite subjective ideas like Sigmund Freud), the role of parenting has remained a large focus in the study of human development.

While some commonly held beliefs haven’t held up under scientific scrutiny (for example, birth order theory hasn’t), one arm of research has proven particularly fruitful. That’s attachment theory.

Attachment theory states that the first year or two of life is a radically important time for us emotionally. While we continue to learn about trust and social relationships over the course of our life (and experience another notable period of turbulence at puberty), the bulk of how we learn to be in relationships takes root when we’re infants. The way we come to feel supported or unsupported by our caregivers profoundly shapes the way we feel in all kinds of relationships, whether they’re friendships, romantic, or something in between. This baseline unconscious expectation we develop is called our attachment type.

The integral role of parents in the first year or two of life is indisputable. Therefore, parents often have a huge degree of influence over our attachment style.

But what about past the first year or two of life? What is the role of parenting there?

Maybe not as much as we culturally think. And one researcher famously got in trouble for studying this in more depth and stating it.

Fifteen Percent Isn’t Everything, But It’s Not Nothing Either

Researcher Judith Harris  found in her groundbreaking work The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do that while parents do influence their children, peer groups have an even more profound effect. Of course, parents can actually play a role in monitoring and guiding their child’s social life, and severe deprivation and abuse produce profoundly negative consequences that are borne out well in the research. And neglect, especially in the first few years of life, can disrupt the development of secure attachment, how we learn to be in social relationships.

So parents aren’t a child’s entire world, especially once they start venturing out to school and/or forming friendships, but the research says it’s important that parents do an okay (but not necessarily perfect) job.

How much influence do parents exert? It’s perhaps a little funny for most to quantify it in numerical form, but Harris did just that. After extensive statistical analysis and study, Harris found that parental influence seems to make up about 15% of the big picture of how any particular child turns out.

Fifteen percent isn’t everything, but it’s not nothing either.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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