Saturday, September 24, 2005


Let's face it: parenting is tough. Start with the arrival of an utterly helpless child that would turn even the strongest of hearts into jelly. Add to it the decline of joint family as an institution, and the rise of nuclear and two-income family as a modern-day reality for an ever-increasing number of couples. Throw in the guilt you feel because the child spends lots of time in others' care (creche, day-care centres, baby-sitters). Garnish it with an ever-decreasing family size -- when you choose to have only one child, you also get only one shot at parenting, so you'd better get it right. It makes your stomach churn, doesn't it?

A second, more lethal, source of pressure arises from the parents' fear of failure. You absolutely, certainly detest failure -- or, god forbid, being branded as a failure -- in the parenting department. The cost of failure can be pretty steep, indeed. The internet keeps reminding you (like it is going to do just now ;-) all the bad things that people say about parents in general, or about specific parents. You don't want your child to say or write nasty things about you; and, you certainly don't want some jerk to say awful things about you in the all too likely event that your child grows up to become a biography-worthy celebrity.

Given such an onerous and risky task, who do you turn to for guidance and advice? Parents, relatives, friends, books (written, of course, by experts), and, even strangers at toy shops.

There is just one small problem, though. Much of the advice you get conflicts with much else. Apparently, Joan Robinson once said to Amartya Sen, "whenever you make any generalization about India, the opposite is equally true". Any advice about parenting, it appears, is as valid as any other, including its opposite.

In the midst of conflicting advice, however, there is one constant view peddled by almost everyone: Parents have a strong influence on how the child turns out. But, do they?

In their wildly successful book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner have a chapter on what makes a perfect parent. They discuss a whole lot of research in the area of what really matters in a child's academic performance, and they conclude that the parents' influence is largely through what they already are when the child is born (their genes and their life situation); more importantly, what the parents do after the child is born counts for very little. To paraphrase Levitt and Dubner, by the time you buy that first book (or, start browsing through the one that came as a gift), it is too late!

Surprising? Yes. But, I also find it tremendously liberating.

A caveat is needed here; Levitt and Dubner's argument is restricted to the child's academics; here is a critique. Gladwell's article, on the other hand, seems to cover all of a child's personality.

IMHO, this chapter alone is worth the book's pretty steep price of about Rs. 500 (BTW, the book's other chapters are also terrific). However, the end-notes in Freakonomics include some references to online resources, including this wonderful 1998 New Yorker profile of Judith Rich Harris by Malcolm Gladwell, the author of two recent bestsellers Tipping Point and Blink.

Gladwell quotes the first few sentences in Harris's book The Nurture Assumption:

This book has two purposes: first, to dissuade you of the notion that a child's personality--what used to be called 'character'--is shaped or modified by the child's parents; and second, to give you an alternative view of how the child's personality is shaped.

What is the alternative view? Do read Gladwell's piece. [Like, right now!] You can pretty much feel many of your parenting-related neuroses evaporate into thin air even while you read his article.

Update: This post was mangled by blogger probably due to some mistake I made; while I fixed things, I also made some slight modifications to the original write up.


  1. Anonymous said...

    "Prodigy: normal child with abnormal
    parents". I read this long ago, but
    the source remains unknown.

  2. Abi said...

    Welcome to this space, Anant! That was a nice quote; abnormal parents, indeed!