Does Parenting Matter?

I listened to a podcast episode by Freakonomics recently, the Economist’s Guide to Parenting: 10 years later, and it gave a neat first-person reflection into parenting: did parenting make a difference? Did the children become what the parents hoped? Did the parents feel successful in their parenting? Are the children happy, successful, and connected with their family?

Turns out, the results support the data that the podcast presented, which is this:
Parenting doesn’t make a difference.

Yup. This is true YET at the same time, parenting matters.

What is “nature” and what is “nurture”?

When we talk about parenting, we are essentially talking about nurture: how experience influences development. Of course, parents aren’t the only environmental or experiential influence. Friends, teachers, and society and culture are also big influences in your child’s life.

On the flip side of nurture is nature: our DNA, our genetics, our blue-print that makes us who we are on the outside and inside.

So who’s the bigger player?

In the debate of nature vs nurture, scientists agree on one thing: it’s not simply one or the other, but both… and it’s complex and messy.

Say a child who becomes a lawyer when they grow up, a parent might contribute this to all those time they spent reading books to them, signing them to debate classes, and helping them with college application.

OR the other perspective can be true: the child who loves to read has the appetite and drive to read more. The child who has the temperament and interest to debate will have sought out opportunities to argue their point even if it isn’t in a formal setting. And the child who wants or need to learn will get themselves into classes that support their interest.

As it turns out, there comes a point where nature bumps the person back onto its more-or-less intended, genetic path.

We know this through research on twin and adoption studies. The evidence shows that children turn out more like their biological parents than the adopted parents that raised them, and separated twins are more alike with each other than to the non-biological siblings they grew up with.

Wait... so parenting doesn't matter?

Depending on your own genetic makeup, you might be relieved to learn your child has a path determined by who they are, or you might be an anxious wreck thinking that there is no control or certainty on an outcome based on what you can do!

But the story doesn’t stop here.

That’s because while parenting doesn’t make a difference in shaping who the child is, parenting does matter.

Take the example above of the child who becomes a lawyer. While we can argue that they might have become a lawyer regardless of what the parents did, we cannot ignore the path they will take.

Yes, people have a way of finding their way back to their genetically intended path – but there is a huge variety of what that path looks like. It can be bumpy and full of dead-ends or hazards. Or it could be direct and smooth. And as parents, this is where our influence can matter.

How parenting matters

Instead of pretending we can mold or push children to be something, parents can:

  • help children find out what they like to do and what they do well
  • make experiences possible to support children’s quest to be who they are
  • provide psychological support of warmth assurance
  • model grit and determination for when set-backs and bumps come up in their path to self-actualization. 

And about those mistakes, it’s important that parents don’t fall into helicopter or lawnmower parenting: where you hover and mow down all obsticles in the child’s way.

Not only are mistakes, bumps, and set-backs towards achieving one’s goal unavoidable and unpreventable, mistakes are vital to learning and forming resilience.

Instead, parents can offer empathy and emotional co-regulation so children can move pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and move forward again. This then brings us to how parenting actually matters.

Bottom line: Parenting might not make a difference, but it matters.

“Parenting is not a means to an end. It is a relationship, one of the longest lasting in our lives. Just as with our partner and friends, our relationship with our children should be based on being with them, not trying to change them.”

Robert Plomin, Ph.D., Psychology Today

We must first understand parenting as a relationship. Relating to someone is to observe, listen, care for, and find belonging with each other. If you are guided by these key points while you are supporting your child’s development – that is, developing based on their own genetic makeup – then you matter, and matter greatly.

I hope that the next time you think of nurture, you think of it as nurturing your relationship with your child. In the end, this is what you have the most influence on. You have the most influence on how your child thinks of you – a place for security, respect, and unconditional love.

The rest, you can leave it to nature and it will be okay.

Want to learn more?

Check out our post on the 5 Areas of Childhood Development here.
Comment below and let us know your questions on childhood development and what you want to learn more of!

About Us

We are driven to help raise authentic humans. Come find out why.

Dig Deeper