Nurture In Reverse

This is obvious, but often forgotten:

It stands to reason that parents would adapt to their kids this way. In fact, we would hope that to be the case. Responding to facts on the ground is peak parental performance, so long as you don’t overdo it. The temptation to stick to your guns is often stronger.

When we talk about helicopter parenting and free-range parenting and the superiority or inferiority of the models, we tend to think in absolutes when the truth is different kids need different amounts of attention. When we talk about strict or lenient, different kids will likely respond to each with different degrees of favorability and unfavorability. This has to be especially frustrating in families where one kid responds better to better to more rules and the other to less, because you need a degree of uniformity.

The other side, though, is that while parents are adaptable they are not infinitely so and in some cases shouldn’t because they’re not good at it. For example, I don’t think I have it in me to be a particularly strict parent. If I were to have a child who needed that, I am not sure how well I would respond. It’s not just that I would be reluctant to crack down, it’s that I would do it all wrong. I don’t have the intuitions to make it work. My wife does, though, so I would have to take my cues from her. And vice-versa.

This makes things really quite difficult on not just a family level, but a societal one. What’s true of families is also true of schools. What’s true of families and schools is also true of family law. In the latter two cases – especially the law – we have to have uniformity across a lot of different scenarios. So while parents can adapt to take care of their one or two or three or however many kids, the general rules cover millions. That’s difficult to adapt.

But back at the nuclear family level, that hardwiring affects parenting is an important thing to consider not only when we talk about parenting styles, but when we talk about data and outcomes. You know those stories about child behavior with authority-driven parents? Causality there isn’t necessarily unidirectional.


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Will Truman is the pseudonym of a former para-IT professional who is presently a stay-at-home father in the Mountain East. He has moved around frequently, having lived in six places since 2003, ranging from rural outposts to major metropolitan areas. He is also on Twitter. ...more →

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8 thoughts on “Nurture In Reverse

  1. My wife and I have always struggled with our different approaches to parenting regarding my stepdaughter. For years it was a point of friction until about a year ago I dug into our Myers-Briggs types as they relate to parenting. It really helped me understand how my wife approaches parenting and also made me more understanding to those traits which made me crazy.

    I will also say that regarding nature vs. nurture…my wife is extremely close to her parents and I have never seen someone that so closely mirrors her parents’ personality traits. It has really made me rethink some of my opinions on nurture.

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  2. Despite having two kids of my own, my instinct is to say this reminds me of how I treat different dogs depending on how they behave. This might just be because I’m a better dog communicator than I am a parent. (In my defense, I have a lot more experience with dogs than with kids and besides dogs are cuter.)

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  3. It’s always the extreme situations that show us how adaptable we are. As our daughter was growing up I was the strict parent (I was the with the nuggets “if you friends all jumped of a bridge…” and “you better go change because the bus will be here in 5 minutes and you’re not going to school dressed like that”), and my wife was the understanding one.

    Our daughter moved home for her last college semester and for a time after that. It was then that her bi-polar and drug addiction manifested. My wife and I reversed our habitual roles even though in many ways I bore the brunt of our daughter’s acting out (a polite way of saying “reign of terror”). I argued for giving her “one more chance” too many times My wife, the famously “easy touch”, was the one to finally say “enough”.

    It’s miracle our daughter is still alive and clean, has a life (albeit a difficult one) and a relationship with us. Looking back, I can’t say which of our actions were the right our wrong thing to do, or what caused what. I do know we spent more than a year trying to figure out where we would spread her ashes.

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  4. Very interesting observations. My son is still too young for much transacting. Right now most interactions involve him laughing at me and his mother while we try to keep him from toddling over a staircase, sticking his fingers in outlets, pulling down furniture, etc.

    But this made me think of my youngest brother. There are big age gaps between the three of us with me being the oldest. Myself and the middle brother have very similar personalities. Crucially we are both self starters and always were through childhood. My parents I think may have over-adapted to that and took a very hands-off approach with all of us. Both of them worked long hours away from home and we were all raised and disciplined in large part by babysitters, grandparents, and daycares.

    The middle brother and I have thrived, a few minor scraps with the law notwithstanding. The youngest though is living with my parents in his mid-20s in perpetual failure to launch mode. He periodically goes back to school or gets an entry level job but for whatever reason it never pans out. He has no diagnosable psychological problems. My theory has long been that my parents needed to give him a kick in the ass or something but they seem incapable and just keep waiting for the day he suddenly gets it. Maybe they went so far down the road on adapting to a particular type of kid they were unable to adapt to one who needed a different type of parenting.

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    • I have 5 children and have long thought that the key to parenting was being able to switch up the parenting style for each individual child’s needs. Not only for the kids who need a kick in the butt, but also for those kids who are crushed by parents who are overly strict.

      But that having been said, don’t discount birth order – some research indicates that different children may end up in different places, with different personalities and motivations because of birth order (other research indicates it’s crap) – and most importantly, the shifting generational component. As we all know it’s really common for people in that age group to be still living at home, having trouble getting started in a career, and research has shown that the cultural environment a person is raised in matters far more than parenting does.

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      • I totally buy that there’s more to it than parenting style. Just to clarify though it isn’t so much the living at home thing as the lack of other successes. I lived at home during law school which my parents very generously permitted so that I could minimize my loan debt. For him the last meaningful credential was a high school diploma. Seven years later he’s flunked out of 4 schools if we count the community college and online education program that didnt work out and failed to hold a job for more than 3-4 months (including a really good one my wife got him from which he was fired).

        College isn’t for everyone and I think the hyper-focus on it can be detrimental and unrealistic. But you have to figure out something and for whatever combination of reasons he hasn’t. It isn’t the moved back in because of debt/cost if living situation. I can say the one thing he’s never had a lot of is accountability and it isn’t something he holds himself to.

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        • I totally get it, just wanted to share the notions that occurred to me as I was reading your comment. I see a lot of people in that age group (including my older kids) who have that failure to launch thing in some greater or lesser degree and I am not sure it means what we think it means. :)

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  5. Not being a parent, this all is for me more an abstract issue than anything else. Growing up, I had thought, and in retrospect still tend to think, that my parents over learned certain lessons from raising my five (much older) siblings and those lessons were probably a poor fit for me, in that they seemed more overprotective than I think may have been good for me.

    However, I haven’t really grappled with what the OP mentions, and maybe there was something about my own personality and temperament that may have influenced my parents to act in a way that I’ve come to think of as overprotective. I tended to be much more bookish and much more of a rules-follower than my siblings seem to have been.

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