Ran has a couple of links about parenting at the moment, the first in particular caused me to send a spluttering email his way and I thought I might use is as a basis for a blog post.
I really don’t think the first article is very good. Essentally, it examines the issue of parenting without ever mentioning the context (ie society) that we parent in. It also talks about ‘good’ parents without defining what a ‘good’ parent is. I’ll assume their definition is our society’s usual one (they use the word ‘consistant’ after all) in which case a large number of things a supposedly good parent does (leaving their baby to cry is just one) are actually bad for a child and might explain a few of the issues they are discussing.
Whether you agree with me about this depends a bit on whether you agree that we live in a messed-up society. If you do agree with me then it’s likely that you won’t be surprised that what our society considers to be normal people are turning out ‘bad’ children.
Scientists may have an opinion on the state of our society but they never let it ‘interfere’ with their work. Yes that’s deliberate sarcasm - scientists usually aren’t allowed to criticise society because that’s seen as ‘getting political’ or stepping outside their area of expertise. At the very least it’s opening a can of worms that most of them want to steer well clear of and so they are left with the options that the either parents are the cause or that the problem is inherant to the child – which they appear to oscillate between. For more about why scientists, pychiatrists and other professionals voluntarily shackle there minds like this I always reccommend the book Disciplined Minds.
The article completely fails to mention really obvious stuff too, like that children have different personalities and will react differently to the same parents. This fact is readily apparent to every parent with more than one child but is often overlooked by experts when they attempt to come up with their ‘perfect parenting model that will work on every child!’ (Yes, more sarcasm)
Nor does the article talk about the effect of modelling. Criticism of parents is especially tricky in our culture, if you succeed in showing a link between parenting and bad behaviour amongst children (especially without showing a societal link) you’re going to piss off a lot of parents. More insidious though is the unspoken power rule in our culture which states that you’re not allowed to criticise people above you in a hierarchy. I reccommend reading Derrick Jensen, who explains the rules of abusive cultures with great gusto, for more on this subject. These issues help explain why an absurd commment like; “We have racked our brains trying to figure why our son treats us this way” can go completely unchallanged in the article.
Alice Miller, in one of her books, has a case study of a murderous maniac who liked to slice his vicitms up. His parents (and the parent’s friends) were also quoted making the same sort of comments. Alice Miller then showed exactly what the parents had in fact done to nudge their child in this direction and also tied it in to societal concepts of parenting. I should mention that the way she ties everything to societal concepts of parenting is quite alarming but well worth reading.
I see the dreaded ‘permissive’ word was used as well. The mother was basically accused of being permissive, which apparently is a big thing in the US. The problem I see is that what causes her to be ‘permissive’ is that she loves and has empathy for her children, and consequently doesn’t enjoy punishing them. It’s a credit to her that she has still reatained some empathy and it’s probably the reason that all her children didn’t turn out ‘bad’.
I’m not sure how I feel about Ran’s next link. The article is discussing the supposed evolutionary causes of empathy and to be honest I found the whole thing slightly disturbing. It took me a while to figure out why I was reacting this way but I think it’s got something to do with the way the theory of evolution has taken on an kind of religious status to a lot of people.
I sort of get the feeling that the author and scientists involved want to tie the concept of empathy into the theory of evolution in order to give it more validity. Perhaps in a world dominated by market values and the primacy of the ‘selfish actor’ there is some sense in this but the whole thing feels odd to me.
Maybe in the context of evolution theory it’s necessary to show how we have changed from our ancestors but even then they are comparing humans to modern apes (who surely must have evolved away from our common ancestor too). I also note that there are quite large behavioural differences between the various species they mention so I’m even more dubious about this.
All that aside though, I just don’t see the point. Empathy is very real, and important, in my life. I can readily observe it happening all around me – and within me. I don’t need scientific evidence that it is real, nor do I even need to rationalise it’s use because it’s a very essential part of being human. Seriously though, how far have we fallen that we have people who see the necessity in rationalising empathy?
To resolve all this we have to delve into the way we raise our kids (of course) and discuss the issue of whether empathy is learned or an innate characteristic. Again any parent with minimal observation skills, and a child that they show love to, will see empathy shown in very obvious ways. In fact I’ve observed empathy in very little babies as they react to a sibling who is crying so you know I’m going to go for the innate characteristic option. The problem comes with common child rearing techniques that tend to destroy empathy (did I mention leaving a baby to cry already? What about the problem with excessive praise then?) and create adults with a poor ability to empathise.
It’s no surpirse then, if you’re unware of some important issues regarding child-rearing, that you would conclude that adults with poor empathy skills come about because they weren’t properly taught empathy during childhood. It also then follows that you’ll continue to make mistakes in attempting to address the issue.
Funnily enough I agree with the basic idea espoused in the article; that being raised by lots of adults is good for us, but the way they got there, with all the strange assumptions and blindspots that scientists have, makes me think that our agreement is no more than a happy coincidence. For a full-bodied rant from me about scientists and childhood empathy (amongst other things) I can reccomend my old post; Stupid Stupid Stupid Scientists (an objective assessment of what they can teach us about raising kids). (Obviously been struggling with an excess of sarcasm for some time now)
To be sure parenting is a complex thing and very hard to do well but if we are unable to step outside of our societal assumptions and examine whether there might be something more to this problem we’re just going to go around in circles.
What I really think is that we should forget all these complications and just focus on trying to love our kids. It’s not easy for some of us because we’ve been trained to focus on all these big ideas but if we can ignore the distractions created by wondering if we’re being consistent enough (consistency is for machines) and just focus on our kids in the here and now we’ll stand a much better chance of turning out loving empathetic adults – and who knows, they may still like us at the end of the process.
I’m not saying it will be easy, we live in a very messed up culture and things will still go wrong – I believe that kids are born with a full capacity to love and show empathy and that our society is very adept at stripping them of that capacity but we need remember that no one ever did any harm by being loving