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Parents, peers and genes

Kevin Baldeosingh Friday, March 5 2004

Waiting for a pizza at Mario’s in San Juan on Carnival Monday afternoon, I watched a little girl chattering away to her mother. She was about six or seven years old but she had the kind of face where you could tell exactly what she would look like at 30: thick eyebrows, close-set eyes, a small and thin-lipped mouth. It was a bad-tempered face and, as I watched her thinking about the influence of genes on personality, the mother reached out and flicked the child across her mouth. The girl didn’t cry, although her eyes brimmed. Instead, she pulled back and went and sat next to her brother, who was about nine years old and whom the girl resembled closely. I couldn’t see the mother’s face because her back was to me, but I could tell she was middle-aged. The son said something, and the mother flicked him across the mouth too. Both children looked poor; and I assumed the children’s father had left the mother. Later, though, I realised that the mother couldn’t be that badly off, since she was buying high-priced fast food.

When I collected my pizza and walked out, I gave the mother a hard watch. She didn’t resemble the children, and I thought that, when she was old and her children didn’t come to see her or didn’t help to support her, she would wonder why. I also thought that, if the children grew up to be violent adults, most psychologists would blame this on the mother’s behaviour. But this isn’t necessarily so: in fact, it is probably not so. Think of murdered teenager Kamilah Townsend. She came from a respectable, well-off family. Her father said she was a well-behaved girl and that “she knew not how evil the world could be because she did not grow up around that”. Yet, according to a schoolmate interviewed by Newsday’s Samuel McKnight, Kamilah was the kind of girl who frequently came to school with extra clothes so she could break biche. And, so far, it appears that she was murdered by someone she knew well.

I do not think either the father or the schoolmate is being dishonest or even mistaken in their description of Kamilah. Her parents would have known one side, her friends another. And, if Kamilah did have delinquent tendencies, no blame can be attached to the parents because, save in the most indirect manner, parents have very little to do with their children’s behaviour or value systems. You may think this an obviously absurd assertion. All the time we see pleasant children with nice parents, smart kids with educated parents, obnoxious children with disagreeable parents, and so on. And, for those of us who attend to experts, we always read about this and that study proving that how parents treat their children is strongly correlated with how their children behave. But here’s the problem. Every study which has found a strong correlation between parents’ practices and children’s behaviour is flawed: the reason being that such studies don’t control for the effects of genes; don’t distinguish between parents affecting children and children affecting parents; don’t look at how children behave outside the home rather than inside; and don’t test older children and young adults to see if the effects parents have are permanent or temporary.

Take genes. By studying twins and adopted children, psychologists who respect biology are reasonably sure that the following five character traits have a genetic basis: whether a person is open to new experience or conservative, conscientious or careless, extroverted or introverted, agreeable or antagonistic, neurotic or carefree. How strongly or weakly these traits are expressed, and whether they are expressed constructively or otherwise, is mediated by environment and experience (and, in my layman’s opinion, intelligence, which is also genetic): but not, strange as it may seem, the home environment. Studies of adopted children and twins separated at birth show that these traits aren’t affected by the adopted parents, but are genetically inherited. Then there’s the matter of children affecting parents’ behaviour. The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, whom teacher and columnist Debbie Jacob loves to quote, blamed mothers for autism. It was the mothers’ cold attitude, said Bettelheim, which caused the children to be unable to socialise with other human beings. Scientists now know that autism is caused by a neurological defect, and that the reason a mother may be less affectionate to her autistic child is because such children do not respond to smiles or give hugs or pay attention to other people. And, naturally, a child who is loving and sociable gets more love and attention from parents than a child who is irritable or reserved.

The next problem is that children are often different people outside the home. Judith Rich Harris, author of The Nurture Assumption, argues, “A child’s job is not to learn to behave like all the other people in his or her society, because all the other people do not behave alike…Children have to learn to behave like the other people in their own social category.” What this means is that learned behaviour is not fixed: how a child behaves at home may not be appropriate for the schoolyard (may, in fact, get him beaten up). So children modify their behaviour - dress, walk, talk — to fit in with their peers. Nor does it seem that what parents do, or don’t do, has any lasting effect. In his book Aging Well, George E. Valliant cites the Harvard Study of Adult Development which included 41 Inner City men who came from extremely dysfunctional families. “Such families received ten points or more on a scale of troubles so stringent that a family’s being known to five social agencies was worth only half a point,” writes Valliant. Yet, at age 47, these 41 men who got ten points or more were not more likely to be chronically unemployed or below the poverty line than men from more functional families and, at age 70, only nine of these men were classified as Sad-Sick while 13 were in the Happy-Well category: the same proportion as those who came from happier families.

All this is not to say that it doesn’t matter how parents treat their children. You should treat your children kindly because it is the right thing to do, and because you want to have loving relationships with them. Moreover, children are socialised indirectly by adults, since young people always look to those slightly older than themselves for behavioural cues, while the adults themselves are strongly influenced by the practices of persons with high status. Thus, if any adults are to be blamed for the growing delinquency among the nation’s children, it’s not parents but those adults who shape the norms and institutions of the wider society - i.e. our leaders in politics, religion, education, business, media and culture.

E-mail:kbaldeosingh@hotmail.com
Website:www.caribscape.com/baldeosingh

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