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Bad Apples and Good Parents: Can Decent People Raise Indecent Children?

Bad Apples and Good Parents: Can Decent People Raise Indecent Children?

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?

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

110 comments

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9:44PM PDT on Aug 7, 2010

Two parents, two children one home. Same discipline, etc.
One child goes to college and is successful the other drops out of high school and works for minimum wage. Why the difference? Nurture? Nature? Or is it possible they just have different personalities and one has more drive, ambition than the other. Parents can only do so much. Children reach an age where friends and others can influence them. Parents are responsible for some of the successes and some of the failures in their childrens lives. No parent made a good or bad child all alone.

6:37PM PDT on Aug 6, 2010

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5:08PM PDT on Aug 6, 2010

I understand Eric's hesitance not to give parents undue credit for "good kids", but under the same banner, why the solid parent blame for "not good" kids? Aren't they two sides of the same coin? After a certain point, everyone is in full control of the choices they make. Then again, this is America, the land of irresponsibility, where someone stupid enough to spill scalding coffee in their lap while driving actually wins a court case against the establishment who sold the coffee.

1:15AM PDT on Aug 6, 2010

thanks

3:47AM PDT on Aug 5, 2010

Well, we all know that kids don't come with instruction manuals, despite the number of people who've attempted to write them.

There really aren't hard-and-fast rules that will work on every child, because every child is different. Can bad parents raise good children? Yes, but it will be a lot more difficult for a child whose primary influences are detrimental. Likewise, parents can be the best possible examples, but their children can still become appalling examples of humankind. Nature and nurture are both strong influences; we are shaped by genetics, by the environment in which we grow up, and by numerous other factors. There is no simple equation

As to the 'Is spanking bad?' issue that has been mentioned in this thread, I will say this: I was spanked by a parent who never bothered to behave well around me, yet clobbered me for following his example, but never bothered EXPLAINING to me why anything I said or did was wrong. Believing my parents didn't love me, I was hopelessly insecure, bullied, and addicted to sugar. I'm over 30 now and I'm STILL insecure and addicted to sugar.

6:58AM PDT on Aug 4, 2010

Charles W. Referring to Hilter is about as paranoid and extreme as it gets. I feel sorry for children raised with that kind of mentality.

6:51AM PDT on Aug 4, 2010

Yeah, I know. Anything to take away the rights of parents, and control everyone's lives. Hitler had children removed from their homes to be raised by the gov institutions. He convinced the masses that it was what was best for the children. LEAVE FAMILIES ALONE!!!!

6:34AM PDT on Aug 4, 2010

Charles W. asks: Why would other people think they can do a better job raising someone else's kid?

Anyone who has worked with children knows the answer to that question.

4:38AM PDT on Aug 4, 2010

I think the nature vs. nurture debate will continue as long as humans exist. I, myself, have seen too many wonderful parents, who had a child that was horrid, even long into adulthood. It appears to me quite clear that sometimes nature does trump nurture. Environmental and other social factors also play a role, but nature has been determinative in some people I have known.

4:04AM PDT on Aug 4, 2010

Yes, parents need to have the sayso over their children. They need to agree on what is acceptable behavior and what isn't. You have one parent who is strict and the other lenient, and you end up with one screwed up kid. Then you throw in the whole villiage who butt in with their ideas of child rearing, and you screw up the kid even more. He doesn't know which end is up or what's right and what's wrong. Things need to be consistent. Bedtimes, dinner time, waking up, going to school, doing homework, going to worship, etc. It's nice that one kid got rescued from a bad situation, but what's the definition of a bad situation? What's the definition of control? Why would other people think they can do a better job raising someone else's kid? Unless the child is being beaten, abused or starved, butt out. And a well-deserved spanking with a hand on the butt is not abuse.

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