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Parents Do Make a DifferenceReview - Parents Do Make a Difference
How to Raise Kids with Solid Character, Strong Minds, and Caring Hearts
by Michele Borba
Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999
Review by JDM
Oct 3rd 1999 (Volume 3, Issue 40)

It would make sense for parenting practice to be a form of applied psychology, in the way that the space shuttle embodies physics, and Viagra applied biochemistry. Neither NASA’s basic science nor the treatment of Bob Dole’s embarrassment rests in common sense. To the contrary, the people’s physics (and Aristotle’s) would have rockets plummeting at the departure of their boosters, and granddad’s sexology would exhort the elderly politician to accept gracefully the burdens of old age. We have come a long way precisely through the rejection of common sense, and its statistics of anecdote, in favor of the application of science-based technologies. Not so however with the child raising advice industry and this books is no exception.

The disconnect between scientific psychology and the child rearing advisers has never presented the latter with a barrier. But it was Borba’s misfortune to publish an up-beat "how to" parenting book only months after the much-heralded The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do by Judith Rich Harris (reviewed in Metapsychology March 1999). Harris provides a literature review of, and sustained attack upon, the idea that the specifics of parenting practice (within non-pathological ranges) have significant effect upon the variations among adult lives. Surprisingly it was a popular and commercial success. Appearing also in 1998 was Jerome Kagan’s Three Seductive Ideas, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University, 1998) with its dissection and critique of "The Allure of Infant Determinism", the idea that the experiences of the early years endure into adulthood. The vast and diverse literature reported by Harris and Kagan undercuts the causal foundations of Borba’s program of parenting advice forcing her, as well as Canfield in the forward, to dismiss a group of very good scientists as one would a gaggle of cranks. "The nature-not-nurture position is patently silly", "parents know for sure that they have a big impact", to understand this one needs only, "a lick of common sense", states Canfield, adding, "How do you raise kids with solid characters, strong minds, and caring hearts? … your question has finally been answered." Borba’s preface italicizes, "…we can not only make a difference but also can have an enduring impact on their lives, now and forever." She continues, "When I think back on my own childhood…", "No one can deny …", "Common sense tells us …". The dragon put to rest, let the advice begin. Want your children to, "… become their best … This book will show you how".

The dismissals by Canfield and Borba are irresponsible. Canfield’s shot at a "nature-not-nurture position" describes exactly no one’s viewpoint. The issues of the causation of adult character, personality traits, and life choices are complex far beyond any "nature-nurture divide". Some traits, such as tallness, are clearly genetic. Others such as dissociative disorders (multiple personalities) following an abused childhood are environmental. Most effects are difficult to classify, being directly environmental and indirectly genetic. Teen self-esteem is positively affected by peer approval (environmental), but that approval in boys is positively affected by tallness (genetic). The various types of genetic-to-environment-to-child effects have been subtly investigated by the thinkers that Harris and Kagan discuss, as have the importance of peer and other wider cultural effects.

In the area of specifically parental effects upon children it is useful to distinguish between direct effects of parent-to-child behaviors and the indirect effects of the parentally chosen peer and wider environments that affect the child. Finally, any discussion of good parenting should distinguish the parenting effects upon the child-when-a-child and upon the child-when-an-adult. The science that addresses these questions is good science, and the conclusion seems to be that the effects upon the child-when-an-adult of direct parent-to-child styles and behaviors, within the range of the non-pathological, are very small. This being the case, what this book promises – a program of parent behaviors to mold a great adult out of the child who is your child - cannot be realized.

Having said this, I believe that children would be better off if the advice in this book were taken to heart by parents, teachers, counselors, coaches, and others who deal with children. The advice is sensible, concrete, and sometimes creative. For example, ‘Four Keys to Unlocking Children’s Strengths" is followed by "Choose three positive qualities to strengthen", "Find opportunities to praise the strength frequently", "Praise the strength only when deserved", and "Describe specific examples of the strength", which are followed by examples of "How to Describe Strengths" (42). The chapter on teaching the child to make and keep friends contains a checklist of "warning signs of friendship problems" (121). The chapter on encouraging perseverance contains, "Five Ideas to Help Kids Recognize the Value of Effort" (172-73). These are useful things for a parent to think about, and his or her child would benefit from it. Within the genre of child raising advice, this is a very good book.

The resolution of the apparent conflict between the book’s failure to achieve its goals and its usefulness lies in what we as parents should be trying to achieve. Child-when-an-adult characteristics – "outcome goals"- get the greatest amount of print, but are the least possible. On the other hand, the parent should also seek to form an intimate relationship with the person who his child is at the developmental stage that the child is in. This "relationship goal" of parenting could be enhanced by the advice in the book. In addition, the parent should create environments in which the child can realize the potentials that exist at that child’s stage of growth. These "stage goals" – allowing children to be children - are as important as outcome goals, and there are useful suggestions in the book that would help to achieve them. Finally, the parent has a limited right to take personal fulfillment from her role as parent. The satisfaction of this "self-fulfillment goal" becomes more likely if some of the strategies presented in this book are followed.

In our thinking about child raising we are inclined to discount the value of childhood relative to adulthood, and assume that the normal experiences of childhood have great effect upon the variation that the child-when-an-adult embodies. These inclinations distort our views of parenting including what authors claim for a book such as Borba’s. The scientific research acts as a corrective to these common sense errors.


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