Nature versus nurture is at the heart of parenting: Finding the common ground between the path on which a child is genetically headed, and a parenting style that fosters growth. I suspect most parents of an only child or first-time parents over-focus on the power of nurture. In the desire to be the best possible parent, expectations are set high and new parents labor over every decision. Parents of multiple children soon discover that despite similar environments and parenting styles, every child is born with a personality that cannot be suppressed. Children who are last in line often grow up pretty well under the radar, maybe none the worse for it. As the youngest of six, I am biased on that topic.
The famous Minnesota twin studies included a set of identical twins separated at 5 weeks, who at the age of 39 were reunited. They were both named Jim, suffered from tension headaches, bit their nails, smoked Salem cigarettes, drove the same kind of car and vacationed at the same beach in Florida. This is just one of hundreds of similar findings, all of which serve to humble a parent who believes their every decision is critical. That is not to say good parenting isn’t consequential. It most certainly is; however, parents make a mistake when they begin to overthink and overwork their role.
Parents should focus on keeping children safe, well-cared-for and happy, with a good sense of polite and respectful behavior. This is a big job that involves careful attention, healthy food, good health care, plenty of active play and a stimulating and loving environment. This is my message: From the toddler to preteen years, the primary goal of parenting is to see that your child is happy at home, happy in school, learning well and steadily gaining independence. If so, rest on your laurels. As a child enters adolescence, all these same measures become more complicated, less clear and more difficult to impact. The early years of parenting may be short on sleep, but in many other ways they are golden.
Keep life simple while you can. It is hubris to make a detailed long-range plan for your child. Life is uncertain and best savored in the moment. Be grateful for the simplicity of young children and the time in their lives when it is easy to make them happy.
We do our best, but regardless of what we do, genetics are a powerful force in shaping lives, a force to be reckoned with but not controlled. So if you are disappointed when your adult child is still biting his fingernails and is smoking Salem cigarettes, remember: It might not be your fault.