Not as much as we think they do.

mother and childI recently read an article by Malcolm Gladwell in my psychology class asking the question “Do Parents Matter?” and there was another article published in a question and answer format on scientific american of Judith Rich Harris.

As a high school teacher, this becomes clear when you watch the youth interact. They are not talking about their parents, most of the time they are talking about their friends.  They do not dress like their parents, but like their friends.  It was a mother who posited this question.  As she was trying to answer it, she found that she had little reason to believe she did have an effect and more reason to suspect that it was really peers that mattered.

Harris used her own experience as both a mother of a biological child and an adopted child and saw two very different results of the same parental environment.  Her biological child was like her and her husband and became a “brain while Elaine became a dropout.    She reflected “I couldn’t see that I was having any effect on her at all.”  Her lack of seeing the same environment reflecting a similar child in her adopted daughter made her wonder, what did matter?  This is also evidenced in how a parent will treat their children differently according to their temperament, there is no one size fits all parenting style as there is no one size fits all child.  

walking awayIn a study to look at genetic influences, the link between “negative parenting and problems in adolescence vanished“.  It turns out the parent’s negativity was reflecting the child’s negative behavior, instead of contributing to it.  “What looks like nurture is sometimes just nature, and what looks like a cause is sometimes just an effect.”  The idea used to be nature versus nurture.  It morphed into nature intertwined with nurture.  Parents were taking it personally and looked at child development through what they were doing.  Now could it come down to the nurture or imitation of the peer group?  

A great example of this the article suggests is the “Cinderella effect.”  The idea that a person can be one thing inside the home and quite another thing outside the home, that they do more than just code switch, they can even be a completely different person.  This can also be contributed to the release of the birth order effects that exist inside the home, but not outside with peers.  In studies done to look at the effects of family dynamics on children, findings support the idea that “peers trump parents.”  One conclusion showed “a child is better off… living in a troubled family in a good neighborhood than living in a good family in a troubled neighborhood.”  Another found that “the problem with divorce… is not so much that it disrupts kids’ relationships with their parents as that it disrupts kids’ relationships with other kids,” especially when it involved moving.  So this takes parents off the hook, right?  Up to a point.  

hanging outHow would I use this information if I was going to have children?  Get to know their friends.  If their friends play even a minor role in the direction a child will take, doesn’t that require some observations and shared experiences.  You certainly can not tell your children who to like, but you can take an interest in what they are doing and who they are doing it with (editors note, I laughed out when on rereading this as it used to say… an interest in who they do and what….) I have often wondered about adoption.  What effect can you have if the genetics are not yours, if the prenatal environment was not created by you, what are the long term effects of other people’s actions in growing a baby?  If that is only half of the story, then the rest is written by the child and their friends.  Keep open the lines of communication, create a loving and open home environment, invite friends over and above all do fun things together.  If that will keep a partner/ spouse relationship together, it should do the same thing with children.  All of theses are epigentic factors that have a huge influence on a person.

More appropriately for me now, is how do I use this information with my students?  “The teacher’s biggest challenge is to keep this group of kids from splitting up into two opposing factions: one pro-school and pro-learning, the other anti-school and anti-learning. When that happens, the differences between the groups widen: the pro-school group does well, but the anti-school group falls further and further behind.”   Truer words could not be spoken in relationship to what can happen in a classroom and school.  Lots of things can be discussed when trying to avoid this chasm; student to teacher ratio, our idea of different classrooms for different topics, lack of teaching about how to get along and be happy, school schedule, time of day, application of learning to the real world and student’s experiences, asking children to think for themselves instead of by rote memorization, equal access to high quality preschool, our overemphasis on specific intelligences and pushing others to the sidelines, a necessary shift from teacher centered instruction to inquiry and student driven curriculum with teachers in the role of facilitator… This could be a whole post in itself.  

skate parkWhat I do know right now is that this dichotomy does occur.  A tactic in dealing with or trying to prevent this is creating and building a classroom environment collaboratively with the students.  Striving for an environment where children become the experts and help to teach each other, where truly no one is left behind.  This cannot just be some slogan, it must be common practice within each classroom and it should be student generated.  Remember they do things based on their peer group, not ours.  This year was my most well attended back to school night, yet my students do not have overall better grades.  A big focus needs to be teaching children to be discerning, to think for themselves, not just waiting to be told what to do, say and think.  And even re-imagining our whole educational system.

Three different children coming together from the mixture of 23 chromosomes from mom and 23 from dad to make our individual 46, all neatly paired up.  We have also made our own decisions about how to live our lives and have been shaped by our choices epigenetically, from our environment.  Genes are not the whole story contrary to what you are hearing in commercials now, even if  you know your whole genome, you cannot know what kinds of mutations will occur from living life, especially in the day of chemicals sprayed on our food, land and water, GMOs, consuming meat and the paralleled environmental degradation, over prescribed pharmaceuticals, dioxins, flame retardants… the list goes on.  We might not know what these things are doing to us right now, but it’s a safe bet to make that, like BPA, we will find out later that- yeah we maybe should not have put that in everything.  {And how harmful is the stuff they replaced it with?} And when it really comes down to it, who is at risk for the highest exposure, children.  

sunset friendsHow do parents matter then, to educate themselves about what we are doing to the planet we hope to will to our children and their children.  To try to do the least amount of harm we can.  As Harris said “Questioning a cherished cultural myth is always risky.”  We might not have the luxury of waiting.  Our children are growing up in the environment that is outside our home as well as inside it, exposure leads to consequences.  What kind of exposure do we want for our children?  What do we want them dealing with as adults, a slew of health problems and deciding what to buy, or how to best enjoy nature and each other?  I have sincere hopes for the latter.  If that means a few of us need to stand up and question some myths, then I say, I wonder if…”

What do you wonder?

 

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