By Katy Read
My son was a couple of months old when he introduced the nightly practice that we came to call The Board.
It would happen at bedtime. The parenting books all said you should establish a soothing routine. I would sit in the gliding chair, turn the lights down, rock the baby as he nursed one last time. I might whisper a lullaby or run softly through Goodnight Moon (or, okay, flip through a magazine or watch ER). The idea behind this peaceful ritual was to send my son the message that it was time to relax and get ready to sleep.
He got the message, all right.
As soon as the lights dimmed and the gliding began, my son would pop his eyes open, fling back his head, straighten his legs, and arch his back. He would turn his tiny body board-like, rigid as a two-by-four.
It wasn’t the rocking, my singing, or even one of those gory surgery scenes on ER. By day, my son loved—indeed demanded, loudly, often in the middle of a store—to be held and rocked. But at night, he would resist it using the only weapon he had (besides wailing, of course, which he would deploy the moment
I set his board-like body into his crib). My son already was learning how to impose his young but steely will. He would not go gentle into that goodnight ritual.
The Board complicated our evenings. But putting babies to bed is always difficult—everyone knows that. Things would get easier, I kept hearing. Sure enough, a few months and many raucous bedtimes later he began sleeping through the night.
Boldly, I got pregnant again.
* * *
A few years ago, I discovered how different my views about raising children had become—different from those of other people, different from those I had once held myself.
I was gossiping over coffee with a group of friends, and the talk turned to one woman’s young nephew, whose recent behavior suggested some kind of problem.
“It’s just what you’d expect,” the aunt said, shaking her head, “the way he was raised.”
The young man, a gifted student, had dropped out of college and moved back home. He had no plans for his future. No job. No friends. Didn’t date. Rarely left the house. Slouched in front of his computer all day.
“No wonder,” the woman continued. “Janet was always so clingy and overprotective. When he was little, she wouldn’t even leave him with a babysitter.”
“Well, but you can’t put all the blame on Janet,” said another family member. “It’s Dave’s fault, too. He stood back and let her smother him.”
I hesitated to add my own opinion. The young man was not my relative. I didn’t have all the facts, and maybe it wasn’t my business. Once, though, when he was little, his family had brought him to our city for a visit. I remembered the parents walking through a hard rain to take their son to a children’s museum.
“Don’t you think it’s possible,” I finally said, “that whatever has caused this behavior, it’s not the fault of either of his parents?”
The faces around the table were frowning, skeptical, perplexed.
* * *
At one time, I might have reacted the same way. I used to see a kid with a problem, from a toddler acting up in a restaurant to an ashen-faced teenager begging for spare change on a street corner, and assume that the parents had screwed up. Spoiled the kid or neglected him, been too harsh or too lenient, allowed too much sugar or too much TV.
It worked the other way, too. If a child was cheerful and responsible, obviously his mother and father had raised him right. The parents were often happy to agree. Yes, well, we always made sure we set limits/were consistent/ate dinner together as a family.
I don’t make those assumptions anymore. Or, if I start to do so out of long habit, I catch myself. These days, when I hear a mom or dad boast about some parenting triumph or other, I have to restrain myself from asking whether their supposedly well-brought-up offspring might simply have been born that way.
* * *
It’s one of the enduring images of my older son’s early years. My husband and I still secretly chuckle about it, not just because it’s funny and cute—my children have said lots of cute things—but because it’s such a textbook illustration of the qualities that would come to define our son. Our laughter is affectionate, even a little proud, but it is tinged with frustration.
Picture him at three years old: sturdy, round-bellied, the size and shape of an elf. He stands in the kitchen wearing green flannel footie pajamas, curls flopping over his forehead, feet firmly planted like a tiny lumberjack about to swing his ax. He has misbehaved in some way, and my husband has warned him that if he keeps it up, he will be placed in time out.
My son glares up at his father from his knee-high level and points at him with a fierce pudgy finger.
“No,” he replies, his little elfin voice stern. “I will put you in time out!”
Struggling to suppress our amusement, we fail once again to grasp the implications. Toddlers drive everybody crazy, right? It will get easier, we keep hearing. Soon, soon.
* * *
Why do we so confidently trace the behavior of children, even of the adults they become, to the actions of their parents? Why are we so certain that fathers and mothers (let’s face it, especially mothers) have control over how their kids “turn out”? It’s a measure of how deeply these assumptions are embedded in our culture that the questions themselves seem almost absurd.
Sure, most people believe, theoretically, in some confluence of nature and nurture. But the nature part is invisible and baffling; even scientists have barely started to grasp the complicated machinations of our genes. Nurture is much easier to sift through for clues.
And, man, we are desperate for clues. Wondering about our own paralyzing shyness or obsessive neatness, we think back to what our parents might have done or said to make us this way. We draw a connection with our father’s aloofness, with our mother’s white-gloved insistence on keeping the bedroom tidy.
The sages who serve as our guides to human nature—philosophers, psychologists, novelists—have compared babies to unmolded clay, white paper, blank slates just waiting for their parents’ chalk. “Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge?” asked seventeenth-century philosopher John Locke. “To this I answer, in one word, from experience.” The importance of family environment in particular in shaping character was touted by early twentieth-century scientists. For those times it was enlightened, if a bit ridiculous, for behaviorist John B. Watson to boast that he could take some random infant and “train him to become any type of specialist I might select—a doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even into a beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”
These days most people, unlike Watson, would consider the difference between an artist and a doctor at least partly the result of talents and penchants. Career choice aside, though, the notion that humans are profoundly malleable—that a model upbringing produces a model child, that a child’s flaws reflect her parents’ mistakes—has taken hold, been culturally internalized, come to seem self-evident. The concept appeals to Americans’ faith in our endless capacity for improvement, in our confidence that hard work—in this case, raising children—pays off. Helping to popularize and legitimize the notion is the ever-growing parenting-advice industry. Desperate parents want suggestions for controlling their children, and a book that throws up its hands is unlikely to rule the best-seller lists.
The idea is entrenched enough to be satirized on The Simpsons. In one episode, Bart gets arrested and sent to jail, and a distraught Marge moans that she’s “the worst mom in the world.”
“It’s not totally your fault,” Homer Simpson consoles his wife. “All these years, I watched you turn our son into a time bomb and yet I did nothing.”
* * *
I started paying attention to the way other children acted. At our daycare center, I noticed that at the end of the day most kids simply walked out the front door. They did not have to be slung over their parents’ shoulders as they thrashed and screamed and kicked off their shoes. At the park, I saw toddlers riding serenely in their strollers, gazing at dogs and birds—not straining against the straps and howling to be freed, as if held hostage by a kidnapper. I observed kids quietly sitting on the sidelines at sporting events, kids waiting patiently in line at the grocery store, kids behaving as if they wanted—even strove for—adult approval.
What was especially mystifying was that the parents in these situations were rarely seen coaxing or scolding or bribing or cajoling or threatening or tricking or punishing to achieve this compliance. I concluded that they had already done all that work behind the scenes, using some carefully formulated mixture of discipline techniques to lay a solid foundation of obedience.
Obviously, I was doing something wrong, though it wasn’t clear exactly what. Should I impose tighter limits or pick my battles? Show more empathy or less? Loosen up or crack down? Be a drill sergeant or a therapist? And whichever course I picked, was I following it with unswerving consistency, or were there times—late at night, in the car, at a party—when I might be letting some slight human variability slip into my approach?
Seeking guidance, I combed parenting books, which assured me that my children’s behavior was well within my control.
“But how do you want your child to turn out? What will your child need from you in order to become the person you want him to be?” ask best-selling authors William and Martha Sears in The Discipline Book: How to Have a Better-Behaved Child from Birth to Age Ten.
The books promised to make our lives easier with endless strategies for taming kids, from putting them in time-out to plunking them in soothing baths, from setting strict limits to offering multiple choices, from pasting stickers on a chart to counting 1-2-3, from gentle reasoning to the robotic suppression of my own anger (which many of the books warned would only reinforce the undesired behavior).
I tried the suggestions (except the soothing baths, grasping at once the difficulty of deploying this technique in the checkout line at Target) but could not manage to achieve the promised results. When I offered my son multiple choices (blue shirt or yellow? broccoli or carrots?), he would pick (c): None of the above. When I drew up a chart to reward obedience, he quickly found a way to beat the system—1) deliberately misbehave, 2) obediently stop when told, 3) receive another sticker—until I caught on to his ruse.
I would muster all my self-control, determined not to lose my temper, but my son was equally determined and far more ruthless. Sooner or later I’d blow and hear myself yelling. And that, all the books said, you must never, ever do.
In the books, time-out meant ordering the child to his room and keeping him there for one merciful minute per year of age, during which he would cool down and emerge ready to play nicely. In our house, time-out meant dragging my son shrieking to his room as he clung to walls and banisters, pinning the door closed with a chair or pulling against the knob with all of my weight while he battered against the other side like a starving wolverine. A handful of minutes in captivity would only enrage him further, so that a five-minute confinement for some minor infraction could turn into an ordeal stretching through the afternoon.
I used time-outs anyway, if only for a few minutes of raw-nerved peace and a sense that justice had been served. But they did not produce any detectable long-term change in anyone’s behavior. Except my own. Which was deteriorating.
* * *
I switched from parenting books written for the general population to books geared for a particular type of kid, manuals whose titles contained words like “spirited,” “challenging,” “defiant,” “explosive.” These euphemistic terms only hinted at my son’s complex character, which blended the qualities of a particularly indomitable two-year-old with those of a particularly self-assured teenager.
My other son, just seventeen months younger, was more cooperative, more even-tempered, more willing to acknowledge adult authority, more eager for approval, more readily repentant, more kid-like. Though they had been subject to more or less the same parental treatment, the boys were developing into different people. That should have been a clue.
But its meaning was obscured for a while by what the two boys, often mistaken for twins, had in common: energy, daring, a sense of adventure. Some kids are content to splash happily at the shore; mine weren’t satisfied unless the waves were lapping at their earlobes. Some kids hide behind their parents when strangers appear; mine would chat up passing pedestrians or the guy repairing the refrigerator. Some kids sit cross-legged and rapt during story time at the public library; mine would become loudly, theatrically bored and have to be taken from the room. While horsing around at a cousin’s wedding reception, they knocked over a potted palm that only a heroic dive by my husband—picture a man in a suit and tie, soaring Superman-style across a hotel party room—kept from crashing onto the wedding cake. I loved my sons, but most days with them were exhausting and exasperating.
This need not be so, people kept suggesting. Teachers, relatives, therapists, friends, and a few total strangers offered advice, solicited and otherwise, on how to discipline my sons, as if the boys were a couple of young mustangs who, in the hands of a skilled wrangler, could be broken. Listening to my stories, friends would ask “Well, have you tried … ?” as if the solution to years of struggle might materialize in a few seconds of reflection. Parents of mild-mannered, compliant children—kids who could be counted on to sit for hours, patiently coloring, while the adults chatted—would give tips for transforming my boys into easy kids like theirs.
The advice-givers were mostly polite, but their words held an implication with which I was already grimly familiar: I was doing something wrong. The proof was in the boys’ misbehavior itself, prima facie evidence that I was screwing up. If I were raising them right, they’d be fixed by now.
“Our kids used to try that kind of nonsense,” my father-in-law remarked. “We got them over it pretty quickly.”
“If you’d just resolve yourself to putting them in time-out whenever they misbehaved, pretty soon you wouldn’t have to do it very often,” a friend advised, as though my sons weren’t already sentenced to their rooms for part of just about every day.
“I see you’ve gotten stricter with them, and I like it!” said a teacher, thinking she was giving me a compliment, on a day when my sons capriciously decided to be more cooperative than usual.
After a while, I began to wonder how many of the advice-givers were really in a position to advise. Sure, most had experience raising kids. But none of them had raised my kids.
* * *
Behavioral geneticists—scientists who study the influence of genes on behavior—have for years been defying the philosophers, novelists, and even many psychologists by arguing that parents do not stamp personality on a child. Though in most cases the powers of nature and nurture are impossibly entangled, these scientists have attempted to tease the two forces apart by studying separated twins (who share nature, but not nurture) and adopted children (who share nurture, but not nature). Researchers involved in ongoing projects at the University of Minnesota and the University of Colorado, among others, claim their studies indicate that genes account for roughly half of a child’s personality—and, still more controversially, that the other half, though apparently shaped by the environment, does not appear to be much influenced by parents.
The Minnesota team found that identical twins raised as strangers in separate homes wound up just about as much alike as twins raised together from birth (and more alike than non-identical siblings raised together). In other words, although none of the twins’ personalities were identical, what differences existed did not seem to come from having different family environments. In similarly surprising research on adoptive families, the Colorado team found that adopted kids and the siblings with whom they were raised resembled each other in personality no more than would any two strangers plucked off the street.
This research suggests that whatever similarities we notice between typical children and their parents comes not from anything the parents say or do, but from the genes they pass along. In other words genes—not rules, habits, or role modeling—are why the children of avid readers become bookworms, why the children of aggressive parents become bullies, why the children of neat freaks grow up to keep the floor under their own beds dust-bunny-free. When kids whose parents smoke or abuse or divorce grow up to do those things too, the research suggests, it’s not because they’re mimicking behavior they witnessed growing up, but because they inherited their parents’ tendencies. Same goes for the offspring of responsible, careful, well-adjusted parents.
Many people are resistant to, even offended by, this idea. It seems to overturn everything we understand about families; it makes the hard work of mothers and fathers appear superfluous. Parents don’t matter?! Even many psychologists don’t accept the concept, and when you tell a layperson about it—I can vouch for this—you likely will see her stiffen, frown, and mount an indignant rebuttal.
Not that there isn’t room for argument. Perhaps the researchers’ methods are flawed, their measurement instruments clumsy, their conclusions premature. Anyone who has followed the recent dieting debate over fat and carbs knows that information isn’t infallible just because it comes from somebody in a lab coat.
But when I first heard about this research, I was intrigued. Maybe our belief that parents are responsible for molding their children’s characters is one of those flat-earth-type cultural assumptions that people of future generations will come to see as pitiably flawed. Maybe it will someday seem as absurd as the notion that mothers cause their children’s schizophrenia or autism, as doctors declared in the 1950s (condemning a generation of mothers to wrenching guilt and depriving their children of effective treatment). Maybe shaping personalities is not the most important aspect of parenthood anyway—how many of life’s other important relationships are measured by the degree to which one party unilaterally and permanently alters the other’s personality? Isn’t this, in every other case, usually considered impossible (note to self: don’t mention this argument to spouse)?
Some might see this as a shocking abdication of responsibility, but the thought that I might not be solely accountable for my sons’ behavior filled me with great relief.
* * *
Still, I might have shrugged it all off as so much esoteric theory if it weren’t for an experience I had, soon afterward, that demonstrated for me the realities behind the research. My epiphany occurred, of all places, in a shoe department.
I was alone in Marshall Field’s, checking out the sale items, relishing the vaguely guilty freedom of an afternoon with both boys in school and no pressing assignments or chores. My eyes fell on another shopper, a woman accompanied by her three small children. I felt a surge of empathy, knowing how impossible it was to get any real shopping done in the company of even one child, let alone three.
But then I noticed that the woman was strolling nonchalantly among the clothing racks, stopping now and then to hold a blouse up for inspection or to finger the fabric of a jacket. She looked about as carefree as I felt, sans the guilt. The trio of preschoolers followed her through the aisles like quiet little ducklings, the oldest one pushing the youngest in a stroller whose handles were taller than he was. Not one of the kids was whining with boredom, or begging for a snack, or running to hide inside a rack of dresses, or pushing the stroller on a demolition course into other customers’ shins, or scampering over to find out what it’s like to run down the up escalator.
The group reached ladies’ shoes, and without hesitation the mom strode in to check out the footwear. My mouth literally fell open as she began to try on sandals. Without being told, the children fanned out around her to watch. The woman examined one style after another, pivoting her foot this way and that, half ignoring her brood. Which she could easily do, because the kids did not once try to snatch up pairs of stiletto pumps themselves, put them on their own feet, and clomp around. They just stood there.
Ordinarily, witnessing this kind of scene, I would feel stirrings of envy and shame. How did she get them to act that way? Why won’t my kids do that? Is she a better mother than I am?
This time, though, those questions barely crossed my mind.
These children were so astonishingly docile that all at once I knew their behavior was not the result of any clever discipline schemes their mother might have employed. This woman had not coaxed, tricked, threatened, or beat them to get them to act like that. She hadn’t made her children that way. They just were.
And with that I understood something else: No technique or book or tip, no sticker chart or consequence or 1-2-3, not even the world’s most soothing bath, would ever turn either of my sons into that kind of kid. Those children and mine might as well have come from two different planets. They had different natures.
And once I figured that out, I began to comprehend a few other things.
* * *
The day my older son was born, I lay on the delivery table and watched his face as a nurse carried him over to meet me. He wasn’t crying. His eyes were wide and flashing about, his head swiveling, his mouth an awestruck O. He was taking in everything his newborn senses could absorb: the lights, the sounds, the cool air, the blurs of color and motion. He had no idea what all this stuff was, of course, but he did not appear afraid of it. He looked fascinated.
His father and I turned to each other, thrilled and terrified. “What do we do now?” we said.
Ten years later, we’re still wondering.
When your kids don’t act like the children on television or in books do—when they are not as fragile or malleable or angelic as you’d been led to believe all children are—you’re forced to shed the idealistic gauze through which you once viewed motherhood, cut the velvet bows, drop the pretenses. You give up hopes of languid picnics, of delicate sandwiches eaten cross-legged on a blanket, and make do with fast food on the fly at the playground. You let your kids pick out cheap Halloween costumes at Target rather than toil over hand-stitched outfits that you know they’d probably refuse to wear. You lose, early on, your high squeaky mommy voice and instead begin addressing your kids in the ordinary straightforward tone you use with adults, because you find that your kids respond best to frankness. You remind yourself, over and over, that the only time the word “good” means “easy” is when it’s applied to children.
Your romanticism dissolves, leaving behind a wintry clarity that, you discover, has a beauty of its own. No longer do you envision every moment of motherhood as rosy and wonderful.
But now, when something genuinely wonderful happens, you know to trust it.
Until my sons were about four and five, my husband and I considered having another child. I was sure raising three children was humanly possible—I had seen other moms do it. Eventually, though, I noticed that those other threesomes were usually the patient, obedient sort of kids. That settled it. My husband and I resolved to stop at two, and we made the decision final with a rummage sale.
On the day of the sale my older son sat with me in the front yard. I had promised the boys I would share the proceeds from their toys, and my son was eager to help move the merchandise. He spotted a small elderly woman gingerly examining an assortment of items from the garage, including the little vehicles that the boys had pedaled around the driveway before they’d graduated to bikes with training wheels.
My son sprang forward to assist. The woman told him she was shopping for something for a grandson. Polite but determined, my son guided her along with helpful questions. How old was her grandson? What colors did he like? Would he fit into this little blue convertible? Or maybe he’d prefer this fire engine? Did she notice that the ladders were detachable? Would she be interested if the price were a dollar lower? The grandmother beamed at the suave five-year-old salesman and asked him questions right back. They chatted amiably for a few minutes, and when she settled on the fire engine, my son offered to help her put it in the trunk of her car.
“Oh, he’s marvelous,” the woman said, glancing back at my son as she handed me money for the truck. She turned to me with twinkling eyes. “You must be a wonderful mother!”
Had I been honest, I might have told her I could no more take credit for my son’s ability to charm a stranger than I could for his capacity to drive his parents crazy. I might have confessed that his personality was unfolding in directions that, like it or not, I could only watch with helpless amazement. I might have held forth with my views about nature and nurture and parental influence or lack thereof. But just then, gazing at this smiling grandmother, I felt a blurry tingling in my eyes and a tightening in my throat and for a few long moments I could not speak at all.
Author’s Note: For years, the discussion of raising “challenging” children has been dominated by so-called experts, who have helped sustain the myth of a disciplinary panacea. Meanwhile parents, myself included, have hesitated to speak up, partly out of reluctance to publicly criticize our children, partly out of shame or confusion over our own presumed failures. The first turning point, for me, was realizing how many traits associated with the challenging child—determination, assertiveness, energy, curiosity, self-assurance, vitality—are prized when exhibited by an adult. The second was coming to see that, under the right circumstances, those traits can actually be pretty great in a kid. Recently, when interviewing the author of a particularly reprehensible parenting book, I mentioned that my sons were often difficult. “Would you like some help changing them?” the author asked patronizingly. “No thanks,” I said. “I’m not interested in trading them in for different kids.” The remark left him sputtering, but I meant it.
Katy Read’s essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared in Salon, Working Mother, Real Simple, Minnesota Monthly, Chautauqua Literary Journal, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and other publications. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and two sons.
Brain, Child (Winter 2005)