I have known so many parents in my life that repeatedly, and habitually, take credit for their children’s good behavior and achievements in life. I have a somewhat contrary view of assuming the acclaim or glory for a child’s success and accomplishment, and this is a view that doesn’t win over proud parents. If a child grows up to be a compassionate, well adjusted, and flourishing member of the human race, the parent is in no position to take credit for these personal triumphs and should let the child feed on his/her full share of glory. However, if the child grows up to be a sociopath and an ax murderer, then the parent is squarely to blame. Not exactly the nicest thing to tell a proud parent waiting for a slap on the back, but in my experience, it rings sort of true.
A recent article by Dr Richard Freeman, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan writing for the Science Times section of the New York Times, calls into the question the whole equation of parental influence and their children’s receptivity; specifically the question of “should good parents be blamed when kids go bad?” As goes conventional thinking, parents are most often to blame when their children degenerate — whether it is a toddler in full tantrum mode or a young adult exhibiting antisocial behavior. Fingers of accusation almost always point squarely at the parent for everything from spoiling the child to neglect, but as Freeman puts it, “…while I do not mean to let bad parents off the hook — sadly, there are all too many of them, from malignant to merely apathetic — the fact remains that perfectly decent parents can produce toxic children.”
Toxic children seems like a harsh designate, but for years, mental health professionals were trained to see children as mere products of their environment who were intrinsically good until influenced otherwise; where there is chronic bad behavior, there must be a bad parent behind it. Not exactly true says Freeman. We are encouraged, if not amazed, by stories of personal triumph when an individual, growing up with abusive parents or in a harmful home environment, moves beyond the prevailing negativity and carves out a life of personal growth and actualization, but the idea of good parents and a good home producing a maladjusted child is just a little difficult to swallow.
While Freeman is persuasive in the New York Times piece, he falls short of making a truly convincing case for the bad seed theory (not a whole lot of scientific evidence sited). He asserts, “It is because everyday character traits, like all human behavior, have hard-wired and genetic components that cannot be molded entirely by the best environment, let alone the best psychotherapists.” But does this semi-pessimistic thinking let parents off the hook too easily? Aren’t nature and nurture working in tandem, rather than canceling one another out? Are we to assume that parents treat all of their children equally? If parents can mold a child, why is it that identical twins behave nearly identically even when they grow up with completely different parents? So many questions and so few answers, unless you care to offer up some enlightenment?