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The Difference a Mother Makes

By Anne-Christine Strugnell

WO Difference a mom makes art v2I’ve always been interested in brain development, but having two teenagers has driven me to learn more. Like any mom, I want to provide them what they need—and figure out how to make them into the people I want them to be.

So at 5:30 a.m. every school day I’ve been getting up to exercise on the elliptical trainer in my living room and watch the latest DVD installment of a 36-part Teaching Company series on neuroscience. At 6:15 I finish the lecture and start my mom day: knock on my son’s door and my daughter’s, make her a cup of sugar-free non-fat hot cocoa, and put it on the bathroom counter so she will unknowingly build critical bone mass while applying thick black eyeliner. I make lunch for the kids—sandwiches and organic apples—and watch the clock to keep our carpooling commitments. And in the midst of all this nurturing, I think about neuroscience.

I got off to a good start with this course. In one early episode, the lecturer, neuroscientist Sam Wang, talked about the Mozart effect, a concept that infants who listened to Mozart became more intelligent, creative, and focused than those whose neglectful mothers—like me—played mostly rock. The Mozart effect was all the rage when my kids were babies, and some women in my newborn’s play group looked at me like I belonged in mommy prison when I turned down the chance to buy the CD, the book, and the video. Dr. Wang dismissed the Mozart effect as sense- less hype. From then on, he had total credibility with me.

There were other reasons to listen to him: he’s an associate professor at Princeton, coauthor of a bestselling book about brain function, and the winner of some major awards in his field. I had to remind myself of his credentials just a few episodes later, when I felt tempted to write him off after his teachings put me in the maternal doghouse. Turns out, I should have taught my kids to speak a foreign language before they turned three. I should have played specific games designed in the clinic to build their intellectual and social abilities. But now it was too late. I had doomed them to being outpaced and humiliated by all those kids whose parents had trained them properly. I crept off the elliptical at the end of that lecture, chastened. Why had I not carried out extensive research and acted on the latest findings when they were infants? What could possibly have been more important?

I returned the next morning grimly determined to hear the worst. Dr. Wang was going to talk about personality, heredity, and environment. I thought for sure that this lecture would unleash a withering internal blamestorm. But I was wrong.

Dr. Wang informed me that heredity determines between 30 to 50% of personality and intellectual potential. No blame here: I got my genes without choosing, and passed them on the same way. And since their dad contributed the other half, I’ve decided only to claim the qualities that I like. When they show artistic gifts, I remind them about the artists in my family. If they later develop any tendencies toward addiction or depression—well, those could have come from anywhere.

Environment shapes the remaining 50 to 70% of personality. I perked up. Though I’d have to take the blame for everything they do wrong, I could also claim credit for some of their accomplishments. Good grades—well, who reviewed all those flash cards with them? Self-confidence and poise—who sent them to drama camp? Who always encouraged their dreams, praised effort but not accomplishment, and linked actions with logical consequences to help build strong characters? That would be me.

But Dr. Wang wasn’t dishing out either blame or praise. He said that though parents love to think they can make a difference, children have innate tendencies that are very hard to influence—which I have to admit I had already noticed. In fact, he said, parents have relatively little influence over how personality develops.

As with all the most important teaching points in the lecture, the words appeared on screen. “Parents have relatively little influence over how personality develops.”

The most influential factors are pre-natal health, environment, the presence of siblings, peer groups, and chance events. Parents, not so much.

At first this seemed like bad news. Bad, as in, “I’ve wasted the past 16 years.”

The lecture ended and I automatically went about my cocoa-making, door-knocking, and sandwich-stacking, mulling it all over. If parenting has “relatively little” influence, let’s say that’s about 10 percent of environment. Environment is the shaping force for only 50 percent of personality, which would mean parenting style has about a five percent influence on my children’s personalities. And since my children spend half their time with their father—who raises them with near-total disregard for my input—that cuts my influence on them in half, to a mere 2.5 percent. The smallness of that number, its ridiculous insignificance, might have tipped a more conscientious mom into an existential tailspin. But in my shock I saw the upside of buying into that number: If my children drop out of college, fall in with a bad crowd and become criminals, or never master the basics of personal hygiene, I’ll be able to say it’s really not my fault.

For the first few days after this revelation, knowing that I just wasn’t that important was freeing. So what if my kids turned projects in late, did sloppy work, or wore wrinkled clothing? Their victories and failures were their own, nothing to do with me. And just to make sure my fellow moms knew that I was not to be judged by my kids’ actions, I spread the word about the 2.5 percent. Every time, it was like instant Botox on furrowed maternal brows.

But before I took this point to its logical conclusion—buying a one-way ticket to Costa Rica to wait out the rest of their adolescence in peace—I looked again at the categories and realized something key.

News flash for those statisticians out there: “environment” doesn’t just hap- pen. Baked into that bland term is all the work that parents do every single day to raise their children well. It takes me and all the moms and dads on my street hours of work each day, both inside and outside the home. It takes our silent competitiveness, our parental arms race of checking what the other parents are doing, what scores the other kids are getting, and how our kid comes off in a group. Those “environment” numbers submerge my nutritional nagging and card-flashing into the bigger pool of my fellow camp-sending and homework- policing parents, but my individual contribution counts for my kids—way beyond 2.5 percent.

So instead of waking to the sound of monkeys and jungle birds, I still start each morning with my alarm clock. I make cocoa, nudge my teens to eat right and exercise, check in about homework, set boundaries, and ask whose house they’ll be at that afternoon. It’s what they need me to do. Still, I find myself longing to make a difference to my children, in my own particular, individual, slightly off-beat way. Two point five percent suggests that would they be pretty much just the same if one of the other moms in the carpool raised them.

I told my friend Varda about the 2.5 percent. Varda has always seemed supremely confident and happy about her four “fantastic!” grown children and her three grandchildren. She smiled and brushed past the surface topic, getting right to the heart of what was troubling me.

“You know the moment when I knew I was a good mom?” she asked me.

I shook my head. I couldn’t imagine her ever questioning whether she was a good mother.

“It was when my kids were very young—between four and eight—and the doctors told me I had cancer and would be dead in two years,” said Varda. “That’s when I knew that nobody—nobody!— could raise my children like I could.”

I understood what she meant. Maybe my unique contribution is only 2.5 five percent different from all the things any mom in my socioeconomically homog- enous neighborhood would do. But look at any recipe: 2.5 percent could be the vanilla that makes a sugar cookie not just sweet but delicious, the yeast that lifts the loaf, or the chilies that transform, define, and even rename an otherwise bland bean stew. It can make all the difference.

Author’s Note: Several times a week, at least, I remind myself—with gratitude and relief— that I have only so much power to shape the direction of my children’s lives. Freed from the crushing sense of complete responsibility, I can focus more on that elusive 2.5 percent. I ask myself, What do I value about myself that I want to show my children in this moment? And the beauty of it is, it’s usually the fun- loving, whimsical part of me that emerges in response to this question. I think we’re all richer as a result.

Anne-Christine Strugnell is a mother of two teens and a self-employed professional writer whose personal essays have appeared in MORE, SELF, Christian Science Monitor, and three volumes of the Cup of Comfort anthology series. Although learning about brain science didn’t help her to transform her teens, she still enjoys starting her mornings with scientific, philosophical, and historical lecture series from The Teaching Company.

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