Nothing strange about a stranger in the nest

Psychological Notes
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The Independent Culture
EVERY CHILD travels in unique, sometimes surprising psychological directions. Now this can be gratifying, even thrilling, when achievements go far beyond what a parent ever hoped. Yet it can be disappointing, even painful, when a child turns out misguided, mean-spirited, or so different in interests and attitudes as to seem a stranger in the nest.

"Talk shows," grumbles one observer,

regularly feature psychiatrists who explain why John suffers from anxiety (his father was overprotective), why Jane abuses drugs (her parents subconsciously rejected her), or why Tom is a mass murderer (his father was cold and unfeeling - or perhaps overaffectionate and threatening) . . . What's more, according to many psychiatrists, even the most minor of parental faults - cutting the apron-strings too late, assigning too many chores, or attending too few Little League games - can lead to disastrous consequences.

To remedy such self- destructive finger-pointing, we must appreciate just how much a child's biology limits a parent's influence and therefore personal responsibility for how that child turns out. That means confronting certain facts, in particular two rather spectacular ones. Adoptively related siblings - children genetically unrelated to their sibs and parents - show just about no family resemblance for personality and IQ, as if they were strangers reared apart. Yet identical twins reared apart with different parents and sibs are often remarkably alike, as if they had been reared together.

Clearly, genetic factors go a long way to determining what kind of person our child is likely to be. But genes are only one part of the biological story. Prenatal events also limit a parent's influence, as evident in those identical twins who, right from birth, display striking lifelong differences in personality or mental health.

What then should we make of all that genetic and prenatal influence? Let's say we or our children mostly can't help being more (or less) intelligent, sociable, moody or antisocial than other people. Does that mean that our emotional problems are much more determined by our biology than we ever thought? Indeed, but so are our capacities to manage those problems, to cultivate self-control and strive to improve our behaviour.

As individuals, we have a responsibility to behave well even when our biology is against us. Likewise, as parents we have a responsibility to help our children behave well even when their biology is clearly against them. A biological view thus reinforces the traditional approach to parenting that combines discipline and love to encourage what is best and inhibit what is worst. But, even with the most devoted parenting, we get no guarantees. In some cases - with severely hyperactive, autistic, or psychopathic children - the limits of both our influence and our personal responsibility are readily evident in years of devoted efforts that come to naught.

Yet blaming ourselves for our "failures" denies our children's biologically inspired genius for determining their own destiny. For, while they feel pressure to conform to parental hopes and expectations, children must follow an inner agenda that makes them go their own separate ways. A belief that they can be anything we want is therefore a destructive delusion. After all, if our children really could be anything we wanted, we could be anything our parents wanted.

We can better appreciate a child's development by grasping biological realities than by sticking with alternatives that resentfully point fingers. With biological realism comes a new respect for the individuality of each child, and something more: liberation from self-destructive guilt over what we parents did or might have done. We are essential but we can do only so much - with some kids more, with others less. That's the way it is and the way it has always been.

David B. Cohen is the author of `Stranger in the Nest: do parents really shape their child's personality, intelligence, or character?' (John Wiley, 15 April, pounds 18.99)