I recently got a mass email from a parenting website telling me seven ways I can raise a smart child. As a second-time parent, over-scheduled, under-slept parent, I usually delete those emails, but I did open this one.
You see, I just finished reading Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think by Bryan Caplan. Caplan got a fair amount of press on NPR when the book came out in April, a few months after the Tiger-Mama debate. He believes that parents worry too much about raising smart or funny or hard-working kids, and that in the end, it’s all in the genes anyway. Basically, Caplan says, you might have some influence on your child’s functioning in the short term, or how your kids feel about you, but that’s about it. If you really want to raise a child with specific skills or interests or values, you’d better start by choosing a partner who also has those traits, and hope that the right genes get passed along.
Caplan bases his ideas on a number of twin and adoption studies, which are common ways to measure the effects of nature versus nurture. If, for example, being a good citizen was entirely the result of being raised in a law-abiding, volunteering family, then adopted children would be about as civic-minded as their adopted parents. But what Caplan found from these studies is just the opposite—that the adopted children were no more likely to follow in their adopted family’s footsteps than a randomly chosen person. Basically, he says, your kid is going to grow up to be whoever he or she will be, and the most powerful force is genetics.
Caplan’s not saying that we might as well give up on our kids. He acknowledges that children need to have their basic needs met. Assuming, however, that you’re feeding and clothing your kids, keeping them as safe and healthy as possible, and giving them some amount of affection and attention, it doesn’t really matter where you send them to school, or what you let them eat, or whether or not you leave them with babysitters. You might as well enjoy parenting, he says, because in the long-run, most of your decisions don’t really matter.
I struggle with these mixed messages. On the one hand, I can’t stand those mass emails telling me I need to let my infant smell the spices in our kitchen so she develops a proper sense of smell, or that I need to teach my child a second language when I myself am not fluent in more than one. These messages put unnecessary pressure on parents who are already stressed out and anxious about their parenting skills and child’s development.
I must say, I’m less ambivalent about Caplan’s message. Before I had kids, I would have thought he was crazy. And then I met my daughters, and as I watch their personalities and preferences unfold, I realize that he may have a point. My girls are who they are, and as often as I put a green vegetable in front of my toddler, I know she’s not going to eat it. (I didn’t start eating veggies willingly until I went to college.)
On other hand, it’s hard to imagine truly embracing Caplan’s approach (one which, I dare say, would never be written by a mother—but that’s for another post). I don’t know if it’s my genes, or the result of peer pressure from the Mommy culture, but I can’t imagine not spending hours researching (and agonizing) over preschool options or how many hours a week to put the baby in daycare next fall.
Perhaps that’s the point that Caplan doesn’t make in his book, which I wish he would have. Just as our children are who they are and who they will be, so are we, as individuals and parents. Maybe the trick isn’t in trying to be some super-parent I’m not, but focusing on the things I do well. I could read to the girls all day long, but they’re never going to get a gourmet meal out of me. Maybe it’s time I stop trying to change who they will become, and who I am, so we can just enjoy our time together. I’d like to get that in an email from a parenting website.