Parents: are we being too hard on ourselves?

Parents: are we being too hard on ourselves?

My oldest son starts high school tomorrow. Yikes!

Like most parents, I’m proud of my kids. But I also worry. Have I done enough – am I doing enough – to help raise my sons to be good, responsible, happy, curious, adventurous, young men who are prepared take on the world and to chase their dreams? Are they ready to handle adversity and failure, as well as success? Am I too involved: a helicopter or lawnmower parent? Or am I not involved enough, like a distant 19th century father sitting in a den with my pipe?

One thing that hasn’t helped me is the conflicting parenting advice I’ve read over the years. At the turn of the 20th century, experts told parents in Australia to take care not to “spoil” their kids with two much attention or affection, and to discipline kids firmly when they broke rules. At the turn of the 21st century, many experts’ advice was the exact opposite – that we needed to take special care not to damage our children’s self-esteem; that we needed to shower our kids with unconditional affection, praise, and support.

Who’s right? Are kids these days turning out OK? Are they happier or better adjusted, or less aggressive, or less anxious than kids of our generation?

Recently, I’ve been pondering a more provocative idea from the realm of behavioural genetics: What if parenting itself doesn’t have as much as influence on a child’s outcomes as we might believe?

Both nature and nurture affect outcomes

  • 150 years ago, Francis Galton coined the phrase “nature and nurture”, which triggered a debate between psychologists about influences on personality and behaviours that continues today (Galton, 1869). One reason the question is so hard to answer is that it is almost impossible to separate out genetic and environmental factors when studying kids growing up with their parents (the gene-givers) at home (a key environment).
  • During the last century, the pendulum of expert opinion has swung from favouring nature (genetics) to nurture (environment). Arguably, it’s is now swinging back towards nature as more large twin studies are published in peer-reviewed journals.
  • Many behavioural geneticists think that both genetics and environment contribute substantially to people’s differences in traits (e.g. Plomin et al., 2015). For example:
    • a multivariate genetic analysis of intelligence, reading, maths and language in over 5000 pairs of 12 year-old twins showed that genetic factors consistently accounted for more than half of the phenotypic correlations (correlation between two traits in a person) (Davis et al., 2009).
    • Over the last 20 years, some researchers have begun to take a closer look at what we mean by a child’s “environment”. There is growing evidence that at least some children’s behaviours may be context-specific: i.e. that a child’s behaviour at home with parents and siblings is often very different to a child’s behaviour in other settings (e.g. at school, while working a summer job, or hanging out with friends) (e.g. Rich Harris, 2000).

Babies are not blank slates

  • When babies enter the world, their minds are pre-programmed for learning. Interestingly, babies seem to know from a very young age that what they learn in one situation might not work in another, something shown in ground-breaking studies by developmental psychologist Professor Carolyn Rovee-Collier.
  • Babies are also primed to categorise. By the time they are one-year-old, babies can divide up the people around them into basic social categories such as age and gender: they can distinguish adults from children; and men from women.

Evolutionary biology: Parents then playgroups

  • In many traditional cultures, babies were coddled for two or three years (often by their mothers), and then, when the next baby came along, sent off to play with other kids in mixed age “play groups”, often under the eye of an older brother or sister (Eibl-Eibesfeltd, 1989). In these playgroups, the older kids explained and enforced the rules.
  • As we’ve written before, by playing freely with peers, young kids learn which rules they must obey to be part of the group. These rules are often very different to the rules used when playing with parents at home.
  • Young children in many cultures show an early preference for members of their own “social category”. For example, many young kids are attracted to other kids (even strangers), but are wary of strange adults. Many (but not all) two year-olds show a preference for hanging out with other members of their own sex. When they have a choice of playmates, many (but not all) kids, across many cultures, show a tendency to divide into “boy” and “girl” groups.
  • When kids are divided (or divide themselves) into two groups, the groups can sometimes become hostile to each other, something that was seen very dramatically when Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues divided 22, 11 year-old boys into two groups (“The Rattlers” and “The Eagles”) and sent them to “Robber’s Cave” summer camp out in the wilderness in Oklahoma in 1954. (You can read more about this amazing experiment here.) A second tendency – also seen in the Robber’s Cave study – is for each group to see the other group as different in an unfavourable way, which in turn makes members of the group want to be as different as possible from the other group. This is called the “group contrast effect”.

A harsh truth: many young kids and teenagers aren’t trying to be like us

  • Freud proposed that kids grow up by trying to be like their parents, and that children learn how to behave by imitating their parents. But parents in all cultures do all sorts of things that kids aren’t allowed to do! And, in many cultures, kids who act too much like grownups are considered precocious and impertinent. While kids do sometimes pretend to be adults, they also pretend to be monsters and dinosaurs and babies.
  • Learning how to behave properly in a big society is complicated because it depends on which social category you are in. Children have to figure out the social categories that are relevant in their society, then decide which category they belong to, and then tailor their behaviour to other members of that category.
  • The “group-contrast effect” can be seen in full glory during the late pre-school and teenage years. Many of the things we associate with four year-olds and teenagers – risk-taking, joke-making, rule-breaking, hyperactivity – are in stark contrast to behaviours kids see modelled by their mostly law-abiding, rule-making, sometimes sedentary, often serious, laundry-folding, parents.

So are there limits to what we parents can do to help their kids?

  • The worrying, but also kind of liberating, answer to this question might be “yes”.
  • Some researchers think that, over time, culture acts on kids, not through their parents, but principally through their peers (Rich Harris, 1999). If this is true, there may be a limit to what parents can do to shape their kids’ success past a certain point:
    • As noted above, the major contribution of parents may be genetic (Davis, et al., 2009).
    • A child’s first job is to learn how to get along with her parents and siblings, and to do the things expected at home. Parents have a big role to play in helping their kids to do this.
    • A child’s second job – which becomes more important the older she becomes – is to learn how to get along with her peers and to do the things expected of her outside the home in her social groups (e.g. at school, outside school with friends, at work, team sports, etc.).

In other words, most children learn separately how to act at home, and outside the home; and they learn to behave differently in different settings because different behaviours are required by different groups. This might be one reason why some kids are angels at school, and difficult to manage at home (or the other way around); and why sometimes teachers have very different views on a child than the child’s parents.

Bottom line

Parents play a big role in determining how their children behave at home. They can make lots of decisions about the environment in which their children will grow up, how they will interact with their kids, and – at least in the early years – who they will hang out with. But, as a child grows up, his or her social groups outside the home become a bigger influence.

As individuals, parents may not have much power to influence the culture of a child’s peer group(s) outside the home. But, if groups of parents act together and play an active role in what their kids do outside the home (e.g. sports or musical instruments they play, hobbies they enjoy, media they consume, games they play), parents can have a great deal of influence to work with their kids to set expectations and to shape norms and values across different environments.

Principal sources:

  • Rich Harris, J. (1999). How to succeed in childhood. The Wilson Quarterly, 23.1, 30-37.
  • Rich Harris, J. (2000). Context-specific Learning, Personality, and Birth Order, Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol 9(5), 174-177.
  • Plomin, R., DeFries, J.C., Knopik, V.S., & Neiderhiser, J.M. (2016). Top 10 Replicated Findings from Behavioral Genetics, Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11(1), 3-23.



Man wearing glasses and a suit, standing in front of a bay

Hi there, I’m David Kinnane.

Principal Speech Pathologist, Banter Speech & Language

Our talented team of certified practising speech pathologists provide unhurried, personalised and evidence-based speech pathology care to children and adults in the Inner West of Sydney and beyond, both in our clinic and via telehealth.

David Kinnane
Speech-Language Pathologist. Lawyer. Father. Reader. Writer. Speaker.

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