The latest parenting advice: “It makes no difference how you treat your kids”
She is of course right. Many well balanced adults emerge from difficult childhoods and many disastrous kids emerge from good families. She appears not to know why, however.
There is now an extensive genetics literature that tells us most traits are inherited. If you have the genes for emotional stability, for instance, you will mostly be stable even while in the care of a ratty mother. And if you are lucky enough to be born with a high IQ, that will solve most of your problems. Such people can come from very humble backgrounds and reach rare heights with little effort.
You actually have very little control over how your kids turn out. The genetics literature is replete with research reports that show family background to be a totally trivial influence compared to the genetic given. Your kids will turn out how their genetics dictate regardless of what you do. So perhaps the best advice is simply to be kind to them. You can at least make their childhood more or less happy
But while there is little you can do to help your kids psychologically, there are some social advantages you can give them: A good accent, manners, proficiency in social sports (tennis, golf, cricket) etc. But the chief good thing you can do to benefit your kid is undoubtedly to send him/her to a private school. In Britain that opens all doors. One young woman whom her middle-class parents sent to a private school is now set to be Queen of England. Beat that!
Modern parenting literature portrays raising a child as difficult business. Make your own baby food or you risk raising a sugar addict. Letting a bored child play with your phone rather than sustainably sourced wooden blocks is an invitation to delinquency. Such advice is often premised on helping parents raise children “naturally,” perhaps as children were parented at some ideal time in the past. But, notes Jennifer Traig—a book author, humorist and mother of two—in “Act Natural,” the word “parenting” itself “only came into common usage about forty years ago, which I guess means parenting was invented after I was.”
As a frazzled new mother dealing with such deep questions as “Why is there yogurt on the TV?,” Ms. Traig decided to investigate the history of child-rearing practices and advice from around the globe. She discovered that “people have done crazy, crazy things to their children throughout history.” They have convinced themselves that vegetables are dangerous but beer is great. They have let children play with knives or sleep out in the cold, or told fairy tales involving dismemberment.
Her key takeaway is this: “Why do we think any of this matters? The best research indicates that little of it actually does. Above a certain threshold, it makes no difference how you treat your kids.”
In “Act Natural,” Ms. Traig mocks contemporary and historical parenting advice with usually spot-on dark humor. For starters, much of this advice has been written by people—such as monks and clergymen—who weren’t parents (or at least weren’t supposed to be). “It’s easy to think you know what to do when you’ve never actually spent any time with a toddler,” Ms. Traig observes.
Other “experts” had offspring but were terrible parents; Jean- Jacques Rousseau’s romantic conceptions of childhood have garnered fans for centuries despite the fact that he abandoned his own children to a foundling hospital.
Much has been based on pure speculation rather than research. We can laugh about this in historical writings, such as this early-1800s nonsense that Ms. Traig digs up: “In all cases of dwarfishness or deformity, ninety-nine out of a hundred are owing to the folly, misconduct or neglect of mothers.” But we somehow take it seriously when modern writers suggest that day care will ruin a child for life.
Ideally, modern parents surveying history with Ms. Traig will reach this conclusion: You should just relax. Feeling guilty because you only pumped breast milk twice a day at work, instead of three times, seems silly in light of a finding that “out of the 21,000 infants born in Paris in 1780, a full 17,000 were put out to country wet nurses.”
Ms. Traig wagers that modern parental neuroses have created problems where they did not exist before. “A lot of parenting’s thorniest issues—sleep resistance, picky eating—began when we started trying to fix something that wasn’t particularly broken in the first place.” When there’s one pot of gruel, you all eat it, or don’t, but there’s little point in feeling angsty about it. When there’s one bed for the whole family, you sleep when you sleep. The virtues of a strict 7:30 p.m. bedtime are less clear when the clock in the next town says something entirely different from your own. Somehow, the species survived.
How should you raise your children? Long ago, experts offered falsehood, myth and speculation. Modern parenting advice isn’t much better.
Ms. Traig, thank goodness, takes pains not to portray herself as an expert anyone should emulate. She confesses to handling one particular dilemma—that of needing to work but being unable to afford full-time child care—with the time-honored solution of turning on the television. “In our home we do not emphasize attachment parenting but connection of another kind: the entertaining tether of premium cable.”
It is expensive, Ms. Traig notes, “but given how much our children watch, it’s far less than the hourly rate we would pay a human to keep them occupied.” She notes that her children sleep terrifically, but rather than tout her own sleep methods she writes that in parenting “you win some, you lose some.” Her son survives on pizza and revolting sweets. Parenting philosophies probably matter less than genetics and the luck of the draw.
The one flaw of “Act Natural” is that Ms. Traig is so taken with the silliness of her historical material that she starts to repeat herself. The practice of swaddling babies for up to 24 hours at a time, partly so they don’t go anywhere— and perhaps partly to limit the frequency of pre-Pampers diapering to once a day—comes up a lot. Almost every other page has a footnote taking the reader off on a tangent that doesn’t quite fit in the narrative. (A paragraph on how famous teachers disciplined students leads to this: “Still, they got off easier than Beethoven’s cook, at whom he threw eggs,” followed by a discussion of adults biting children in the hopes of teaching them not to.) This can make for a disjointed reading experience. Her dark comedy is occasionally very dark, such as this observation on obstetric innovation: “The invention of the Chamberlens’ forceps meant that a stuck child could be guided out gently, with spoons, rather than piecemeal, with knives.”
The upside of reading “Act Natural” is that you feel better about whatever nonsense your children have committed, which is the point. “That is what the good advice books do,” Ms. Traig writes. “They make you feel like you’re doing a good job, even if it’s simply by reassuring you that someone else is doing a worse one.” So your kid ate Cheez-Its for breakfast. Most of us, at least, do change diapers more frequently than once every 24 hours.