'Raising Happy Kids', 'The Conscious Parent', 'How to Talk so Kids Will Listen': Books like these, along with magazines, television shows and childcare experts, are all part of the multibillion-pound parenting industry. Follow our advice, they promise, and you can shape your children to be joyful, resilient and successful.
But what if it’s all bunk? What if parenting doesn’t make much of a difference at all to the way our kids turn out? That’s the argument that will be made by the genetics experts in this major Intelligence Squared debate. We all know about the nature vs nurture argument, but it’s only recently that evidence has emerged revealing just how much of who we are is influenced by our DNA – from our personality and our likelihood of developing mental illness to how well we do at school. We might think that certain parenting styles produce certain kinds of children – for example, that overprotective parents cause their offspring to be anxious. But in fact, research suggests that these traits are manifestations of the same genetic influence working in both the parents and children. Of course, you should be loving, kind and supportive towards your children. After all, you want to have a good relationship with them. But don’t imagine that anything that you do or don’t do, short of seriously damaging them, will have much effect on the kind of person they turn out to be.
But others would argue that this ‘genetic determinism’ is too extreme a position. Yes, our genes influence our basic personality type, but this is very different from the claim that who we turn out to be is written in our genes at birth and that parenting doesn’t make a difference. In fact, many psychologists believe that hereditary traits are malleable and that our life experiences determine which ones come into play. So, for example, a child born with a genetic disposition towards alcoholism may never turn to the bottle if she has a happy and stable childhood that sets her up well for the vicissitudes ahead. And research shows that even extremely damaged children, such as the ones found in Romanian orphanages after the fall of communism, can thrive in the care of well trained foster parents if intervention happens early enough. No one is claiming that children are pieces of clay that we can mould as we like, but good parenting matters and it can make a huge difference to the happiness and wellbeing of our offspring.
So just how important is parenting?