judith_rich_harris's picture
Independent Investigator and Theoretician; Author, The Nurture Assumption; No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality
Parenting Styles Have Changed But Children Have Not

What stories are most likely to go unreported? Those that have to do with things that happen so gradually that they aren't noticed, or happen so commonly that they aren't news, and those that have politically incorrect implications.

A story that has gone unreported for all three reasons is the gradual and pervasive change in parenting styles that has occurred in this country since the 1940s, and the consequences (or lack of consequences) of that change.

In the early part of this century, parents didn't worry about shoring up their children's self-esteem or sense of autonomy, and they didn't feel called upon to provide them with "unconditional love." They worried that their children might become spoiled, self-centered, or disobedient. In those days, spankings were administered routinely, often with a weapon such as a belt or a ruler. Kisses were exchanged once a day, at bedtime. Declarations of parental love were made once a lifetime, from the deathbed.

The gradual but dramatic change in parenting styles over the past 50 years occurred mainly because more and more parents were listening to the advice of the "experts," and the experts' advice gradually changed. Nowadays parents are told that spankings will make their children more aggressive, that criticism will destroy their self-esteem, and that children who feel loved will be kinder and more loving to others. As a result of this advice, most parents today are administering far fewer spankings and reprimands, and far more physical affection and praise, than their grandparents did.

But that's only half the story. The other half is the results, or lack of results, of this change in parenting styles. Are today's children less aggressive, kinder, more self-confident, or happier than the children of two generations ago? If anything, the opposite is true. Rates of childhood depression and suicide, for example, have gone up, not down. And certainly there has been no decline in aggressiveness.

The implications, whatever they are, are bound to be politically incorrect. Perhaps the "experts" don't know what they're talking about. Perhaps parenting styles are less important than people have been led to believe. Perhaps human nature is more robust than most people give it credit for — perhaps children are designed to resist whatever their parents do to them. It's possible that being hit by a parent doesn't make children want to go right out and hit their playmates, any more than being kissed by a parent makes them want to go right out and kiss their playmates. It's even possible (dare I suggest it?) that those parents who are still doling out a lot of punishment have aggressive kids because aggressiveness is, in part, passed on genetically.

But now I'm getting into a story that HAS been reported.