Many parents invest their children because of what they could become rather than for who they already are. Intuitively, it makes sense that by learning a particular set of strategies, a parent can build into their child a specific set of traits and characteristics that would, ideally, provide them with advantages in their adult life. However, science has very little to say about the relationships between parenting strategies and their impact on adult life outcomes. While early supports (e.g. pre-school) have been linked to better results, these are more closely tied to the fact that families engaging in these programs tend to have access to more resources (i.e. money, time, parent’s education, etc.) than to the particular programs or strategies themselves.
What is observed, however, is that children, including twins, who are raised in the same house, with the same parenting styles will grow up to be very different people. Genetics aside, this array of outcomes is a feature -not a bug- of how parenting works for adoptive and biological parents alike. In fact, researchers like Alison Gopnik suggest that from an evolutionary perspective, the entire point of childhood is to introduce variability, unpredictability, and to create an environment that allows children to adapt.
It turns that when parents systematically condition a child to do incredibly well at only a few things (e.g. earn high grades), their children are less prepared to thrive in new circumstances later on. In fact, it is believed that when these children enter a new environment during adulthood, the skills mastered as children may be of little use to them. Whereas the resilient child will be able to adjust to something that they have never been exposed to before, the overly-conditioned child would not. In short, parenting children to achieve, rather than fostering resilience in the face of change and importantly, failures, comes at a significant personal, social and financial cost to the child later in life.
Of course, when children are deprived of care, or abused, they will have extra difficulties to overcome as adults. On the other hand, the idea that parenting should be a goal-directed activity to bring about a certain outcome can also be problematic. A much healthier way to think about parenting is as if it were another one of the very important relationships that one has in their life; one that thrives on mutual engagement, care and reciprocal attention, across a variety of contexts and activities. As far as the developing brain is concerned, jokes, hugs and meaningful conversations are far more important than previously thought. Perhaps the best contribution that research can make to the idea of effective parenting is to value and care for children for who they are rather than for what they could become.
About the author: Dr. Rick Smith is an education consultant for Southside Family healthcare’s Child Development Team. He specializes in teaching adolescents how to make better choices.