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June 28, 2011

Parenting philosophies range from “Helicopter” to “Free Range.” For any parent, the humiliation of discovering that no matter how diligent you were in taking classes, reading books, debriefing your parents or diving into the Internet-fueled maelstrom of Parent Culture is undeniable when you realize a central truth – the plain old fact that Nature kicks the living tar out of Nurture.  As long as you don’t give birth in a crack den or have a violently abusive spouse, or live in a country that has dirt as one of the major food groups, parents run eventually into the wall that their children are born with a fairly fixed psychic armature.

That armature can have many things added to it, and as a card-carrying member of the over-parenting Boomer generation, I can warrant that despite freakishly over-programming our kids to “max-out” any drop of talent in sports, music or academic performance, it ultimately becomes clear that we are merely beating against the tide of pre-existing genetic proclivity.

This realization runs counter to popular culture’s preference, which, after disastrous flirtations with eugenics, Aryan musings, and the specter of in-utero genetically-modified offspring, is loathe to acknowledge that genes matter.  We desperately want to believe that every human being has control over who he or she becomes, no matter what was baked into our cake before we popped out of the oven.  But self-determination has to overcome a few hundred million years of aligning chromosomes.

There are clearly moments and situations that shape the rest of our lives in ways that are extremely potent. I was the youngest of three children born in the 1950s when mothers over 40 were virtually antique, and frequently heavily self-medicated.  Growing up the youngest in a Mad Men family I was more or less feral, fending for myself.   “Free Range” indeed.

Being brought up by wolves essentially does free you up but it also shapes you. For me, having no sense that there were underpinnings only abetted my inherent Type A characteristics.  In the absence of parental control, my need for control got full reign, and the fear of a lack of it defined my personality.

The second great imprinting that I have personally observed is parenting.  As noted, the fundamental parental humiliation is the realization that your primary job is simply not to screw things up.  Feeding them well, making sure that they get enough sleep, clothing them in clean garments and preventing them from activities that could end up killing them represents about 90% of what makes a difference in kids’ lives.

Clearly, self-destructive acting out or morbidly depressed teenagers need the heroic efforts of parents simply because there are times when that empowered immaturity can actually be dampened down by parental power.   But those extreme examples are the enablers of our absurdly self-indulgent (and ultimately fruitless) desire to be indispensable, versus merely helpful.

Most of us have found out that goosing underperformance into stellar aptitude is not in the cards.  Having said that, having children imprints you.  Before having children, you are in a world that is easily centered about your axis but the minute the life and death of another human becomes the central focus of your life, you can’t think of anything else in the same way.  So when a 47-year-old mother of three comes home four hours late, her 80-year-old father says to me, “She’ll never understand, she’ll always be 14.”

When our 21-year-old son went off to the other side of the country to take on a job, there was the instant parental reaction that he had died a horrible and tragic death and since we often did not hear from him but once or twice a week, conceptually he had died several dozen times.

Imprinting at a lower level of impact happens in ways that can have nothing to do with weighty matters such as parenthood or birth order.  Like almost everyone else that I know who took school seriously, the “academic terror dream” of finding out that A) you had forgotten that you had registered for a course, B) had not attended it in six or eight weeks, C) the final and/or midterm was happening in an hour or two and D) you were in fact naked as you walk into the room to take the test, is such a common refrain that only the shared imprinting of high-pressure academics could have that effect on ongoing millions of dreamscapes.

“I yam what I yam” – so sayeth sage philosopher Popeye – and for the most part that is true of each and every one of us.  We are in fact the product of millions of genetic experiments that either succeeded or failed, winnowing out characteristics that were problematic for survival and reinforcing those that abetted it until new genetic creations could be made with each birth.  That hard-wired biology-based superstructure that all of us have built into our beings can clearly be polished, acknowledged or denied in the way that we live, are parented, educated and experience life – but it never goes away.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2011 1:01 pm

    Techniques in the “nurture” category that probably make a huge difference include: not giving the kids high fructose corn syrup, letting them ramble about without micromanaging, and spending some time talking to them.

  2. June 29, 2011 1:06 pm

    I was not aware there was any food product without corn syrup as part of it’s deliverables

  3. Aari permalink
    June 29, 2011 10:08 pm

    Very well written. My current working belief is it’s mostly all nature but as parents we can get in the way or ease the path. Of course most parenting philosophies are born of (& skewed reactions to) one’s own upbringing. It took me twenty years of adulthood to unlearn the worldview my parents imprinted me with, which was counter to my nature & caused me much depression. A great patch of my productive adult years was lost to un-nurturing. I hope as a parent to let Simon hit the ground running (boy do I hope that, because we won’t be around to help if he doesn’t), so he can head right into his life & his destiny. I saw other kids who were able to do that as early as college, and I’m sure some of it was nature, but it also had, I am hoping, an element of being seen as a valid human being, being raised to have thoughts & to believe people want you to do well. Who knows. I have no ambitions for him beyond that he has the power of empathy & adequate sense of self to make the most out of whatever talents & inclinations he has. (I know, good luck with that.)


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