Monday, March 06, 2006

Do They Really F@#$ You Up?

The English poet Philip Larkin in a famous poem said, "They fuck you up, your mum and dad/They may not mean to, but they do." I always thought he was being very harsh. Parents generally do their best in bringing up their children but all this generally amounts not much to what the child actually grows up to be. Then I read Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate and was confirmed in my beliefs. In his book he discussed and pointed out debates in the developmental psychology academic community regarding the effect of parents vis-a-vis other factors, specially peer-group interaction, on the overall psychological build-up and growth of children. Most of the scientific evidence so far points to the theory that parents have little or even absolutely no effect in directly influencing the psychological make up of the child. Other than passing off their genes, which of course determines child's inherent nature, they can't do much.

I have always found the over-enthusiastic parenting style extremely misguided, even pitiful. I am a firm believer in the hands-off approach. The job of a parent should be primarily protecting the children from harm, both physical or emotional, and to act as a support figure rather than treating the minds of their children as Blank Slates and worse, as their own fiefdom or property and attempting to scribble on to it whatever their idea of the person they want their child to grow up into. It also helps when parents torture themselves with life-long guilt when their children don't grow up into what they had wanted them to be, as perhaps happens in most of the cases. Parents will save so much of their heart-burn owing to the anxiety and guilt if they really believed in this theory!

All of this because I wanted to point to this review of a new book called No Two Alike by Judith Rich Harris on the subject of human personality and its origins. I remembered her name from Pinker's chapter on parenting in The Blank Slate. She had published the book called, The Nurture Assumption in the nineties which became very controversial because she championed the aforementioned ideas much against the prevailing academic orthodoxies, and despite the fact that she didn't have any university degree. You can check out her home page here. It contains lots of articles and reviews of her earlier famous book. And of course the best is this book by Pinker himself.

7 comments:

Guptavati said...

Thanks for these two book links.I had first heard these lines of Larkin on on NPR.As a new parent I have to check these books out. While I am a believer of this hands-off blank slate approach,it is very difficult to keep this emotional distance with your kid however small they may be.Your mind unconsciously tries to influence them one way or the other.

Alok said...

Of course hands-off approach doesn't mean emotional distancing. the child of course will always need emotional and physica support from the parents. but the idea that you can influence your child to have a personality of what you think he/she should have is misguided. also more important is that parents shouldn't blame themselves or feel guilty if their kids don't grow up into what they wanted them to be. i mean there is no harm in trying, just don't think you will always succeed in moulding the child's personality to your ideas!

I haven't read Nurture Assumption yet but Pinker's book Blank Slate is extremely good. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Guptavati said...

Found time to read it.Yes,Blank slate is a good book but somehow I felt that Pinker even if he tries to give a broadened perspective certainly colors it with his own biases and statements, a few of which I didn't find 'scientific'

Alok said...

For example? Which idea did you find unscientific?

I think, if you compare scientific theories in psychology with those in physics or chemistry, they will certainly appear to be biased and tendentious. You can not have a mathematical proof of something like this...

the best that you can do is propose something and gather data to verify the predictions of the theory. most of the truth, as is with all science, will always remain provisional, subject to falsification and update in the light of new evidence but at a particular stage we have to accept a particular theory that best explains the situation... And I think Pinker makes a convincing case that his (or evolutionary psychology) theory is the best so far.

Hope it is what you meant...

Guptavati said...

Agreed that he makes an eloquent,logical convincing case but somehow to me all that well-written eloquence doesn't sound as convincing as a few other EPfolks's works.For want of a better term I used the term 'scientific'.

You might have seen some of the links (not that I subscribe to these views but another viewpoint)
here

Alok said...

thanks for the link. I had read some of the crtical reviews. the common theme among all the critics, at least the sensible ones, is that while he is good in science and gathering and studying data, there are problems when he tries to interpret the theories and starts putting them in some kind of socio-political narrative... And yes we can forever debate parenting, feminism, prison policy, laissez-faire capitalism etc etc but the point is to base these debates on stable scientific grounds rather than tallking in the air. at least, for me, he convincingly demolished the Lockean amd Rousseauean romantic position in philosophy.

one of the best critical reviews of the book I remember reading was in the new yorker. it makes some really good points. worth reading.

link

Alok said...

Also I think, personally, his chapter on Art was entirely wrong-headed. It is just crass and vulgar philistinism to define aesthetic impulse as a quest for attaining social presige.

And I love the modernist writers who he so unjustifiably denounces.