Sunday, November 13, 2005

Parenting and the kids one ends up with

This may be an ongoing post, as I am ruminating over a number of different sub-topics. . .I'm simply going to post what I come up with and then edit and add as I can. So, my small readership, you might want to re-visit as this post evolves.

And now I am going to lunch. So, more later.

And back from lunch. One of the ruminations stems from the consideration of two children that are friends with two of my own kids.

Ever considered whether the behavior traits we exhibit are functions of genes (inherited traits, "nature) or are learned behavior (nurture)? This is a perennial topic in the psychology class I teach, and the answers always seem appealingly easy. . .and then we come across anecdotes that blow our handy little theories right out of the water.

Often, the conclusion we come to is that a majority of our traits are learned. The odd facial expression that a person exhibited we later discover was also made in almost exactly the same fashion by the boy's father. The studious girl is found to have been mothered by a woman with a Ph.D and the same penchant for careful scholarship.

There are exceptions. There are studies out there that have determined with fair surety that there are many kids that are born with an inherited (genetic) tendency towards either shyness or boisterousness. (Twin studies. . I won't bore you with the details.) But even then, one may be born with these tendencies and later on habituate themselves into the opposite behaviors: The wallflower may turn into a good public speaker, while the born extrovert may learn to quietly meditate for hours on end. And of course, there are some behavior-pattern disorders that have a very clear genetic component (mood disorders, alcoholism).

But, for the most part, random polling (at least that I have conducted) indicates that most people believe the majority of their behaviors are learned. And in general, I would agree with them.


From this belief model comes a very heavy burden upon parents. Since much of behavior would seem to be learned, we as parents have a tremendous responibility to then teach our children as best we can to "behave" properly (whatever that looks like). And this burden is well illustrated in society. The parents of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris (the Columbine terrorists) came in for a great deal of public opprobrium after that tragedy; the basic nut of the criticism was that the Harris and Klebold parents were bad parents; if they had done their duty properly, none of this would have happened.

Some of the onus was also placed upon the school itself; in allowing bullying behavior, the school helped send the terrorists "around the bend"; in short, their environment led them to anti-social actions.

That is an extreme example. But I cannot count the number of times some poor social misfit blundered about the landscape, and the question then arises: "What were the parents of that poor sap doing?" Even the parents flagellate themselves, staying up hours upon end, asking themselves what they could have done different so that poor Joey wouldn't have turned into such a whatever.

So much of learning, of what we are, comes from our parents. Freud, somewhat deranged sex-fiend that he was, is greatly admired by many current therapists, not least because of his insistence on this piece of reality.


And yet, it doesn't always parse.


Let me give you a series of examples:

Example #1: I have an uncle whom I greatly admire. He and his wife had 9 children. Interestingly, the first one suffered organic brain damage due to some serious birthing complications. . . he has needed some type of institutional care his entire life. It was evident when he was born that he would need this care. And yet, my aunt and uncle went on to have 8 more children. But I digress.

Now, save for the aforementioned disabled cousin of mine, 7 of the remaining 8 are well-adjusted, devout, "pillar-of-the-community" type citizens. But the 8th, a female cousin, is not. Was rather the rebel as a teen, and has had spotty marriage record, not very devout. . .I need not go on.

Example #2: We recently played host to a young person whose mother and step-father were out on a hunting trip. This young person comes from a family environment that is essentially agnostic, verging on white-trash, indifferent to the general welfare of their children. Yet the kid in reality is remarkably polite, devout, friendly, considerate, hard-working. . .destined, I would think, for great things.

Example #3: We have another young person who is a friend of the household. This young person is raised by devout Christians, who run a loving, tight household generally free of "redneck" strife (sorry for the generalization. . but I am trying to reach for a common understanding in few words), and who are most solicitous of the overall welfare of their child. Yet this child is generally speaking spoiled, self-centered, rather inconsiderate and possessed of a teasing streak that often verges on being outright malicious.


Now, if our behavior traits are mostly learned particularly from our parents, then we would expect the following outcomes for the previous three examples:

Example 1: The 8 cousins with no devlopmental disorders would be expected to turn out more-or-less consistently. The black sheep really ought not to exist. Yet we all know of large families with at least one kid who simply did not fit the mold in some fashion or other. For large families, the black sheep syndrome is seemingly very common.

Examples 2 & 3: You would expect that the temperaments/tendencies of the kids in question would be exactly reversed. Kid #2 ought to be the hellion and miscreant, while kid #3 ought to be more. . ."angelic".


Granted, we are talking about individuals, and we all know that such limited anecdotes are not good for making future predictions. Furthermore, there is -I am sure- a great deal of mitigating data that I have not reported (and probably do not know) that could shed some further light. . .at least on examples 2 & 3.


But they will serve as illustrations of a greater whole.


There is no mistake that parents bear a huge responsibility for the formation of the children they are blessed with. And a large portion of their future behavior will come about from the modeling that my wife and I provide. Therefore, we have a solemn and sometimes enormous burden of fulfilling that responsibility properly. And, God willing, our kids will turn into the generally good people most of my cousins have. Every parent should sometimes stagger under that awesome responsibility.


But they should not be paralyzed by it. At the end of the day, God loans us our kids, and in that loaning, suffuses them with the same free will that He has given to us and the rest of humanity.


And some of humanity may choose to use that same Free Will poorly, to the grief of their parents.


Just so long as that grief is not paralyzing.
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