I panicked as I read a recent article in the New Scientist. Geneticist Robert Plomin believes that DNA makes us, and our children who we are. Because of this, parenting matters less than we think. Good readers, athletes, and musicians, are all genetically predisposed to do well. It is not the efforts of parents getting them to read, run or play the piano that lead to success. Children succeed because of their own natures. Robert Plomin's latest book is Blueprint:How DNA makes us who we are.
But what about my hard work and sacrifices? What about my efforts to nurture? I'll come back to this. Let's look at what the geneticists say.
Geneticists study twins a lot. They've made some startling discoveries. Twins separated at birth can live different lives: raised by different parents, in different cities, and in different circumstances. But they are as similar in personality as twins raised together. Because DNA is more important than environment in forming personality. No amount of tofu, beansprouts or spirulina will change a child's DNA. Not even Broccoli. Dr. Plomin's research into obesity in twins revealed that body weight was not influenced by parenting styles or family habits.
Does this mean all our efforts to help our children are pointless? If DNA determines personality, not nurture, then what is a parent's role? For 15 years I taught in a Steiner School that believed nurturing was everything. As a young parent I pounced on this idea. My wife and I dedicated ourselves to nurturing. Wooden toys. woolen clothes, everything as natural as possible. Bed time stories, family walks, meal times together. For years I put my life on hold: I stopped seeing friends, I stopped going out. I lived for my children.
Dr. Plomin's message for parents like me, is that they:
Should lighten up and enjoy their children. Because, despite what they think, parent's aren't in control. If you think your kids are clay that you can mould, forget it. It's better if we think of parents as resource managers, whose job it is to find out what their kids like to do and give them opportunities to do it. Why not accept that it's a relationship-enjoy it as best you can, and watch who your children become.
I liked Dr. Plomin's conclusion. In the face of billions of years of evolution, parents should lighten up. We are not as important as we think. Our children are carried by life itself. Folk traditions tell of babies carried by storks into the world. This is a wise way of reminding us that we are not in charge. We don't get to call the shots. Our children are brought to us on the wings of life. They have flown in on the feathers of evolution. Borne by the wings of their DNA. When my panic subsided I remembered an old poem by Khalil Gibran. I read it before my daughter was born, 22 years ago. Now she has flown the nest. She is living her own life.
Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth. The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far. Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness; For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.
With thanks to Clare Wilson for her article 'Why parenting matters less than you think', published 25th May 2019 in New Scientist.