I've been meaning to write a post about this ever since I read this article: "Twin Lessons: Have More Kids, Pay Less Attention to Them." I was putting it off a little, and then I read Free-Range Parenting (which I'll review soon), and found the same fallacy there. So I think it's time to address it.
The point of the article is this: Research shows that twins grow up pretty similar even if they were raised separately. Therefore, genetics is more important than upbringing. Therefore, upbringing makes no difference. Therefore, we shouldn't bother trying to give our kids the best upbringing.
In some aspects, I agree with the article. Our kids will be as intelligent as they're going to be, whether we let them watch Baby Einstein and enrolled them in Mandarin lessons or not. The more upper-middle-class obsession with giving your kids all the optimal experiences in life (or else they'll turn out slow or behind their peers) is pretty pointless. There's never been any evidence that most "educational" things make the slightest difference. Studies do show that kids turn out better when they have two involved parents. But whether those parents sign them up for baby yoga doesn't seem very relevant.
On the other hand, the fact that a pair of twins both wore horn-rimmed spectacles and named their sons Alan doesn't really prove to me that nothing I do as a parent makes any difference. Sure, kids have a lot that is inborn. But a child raised in poverty with no father and only an eighth-grade education, looking up to gang members as his heroes, is pretty much bound to turn out a little different from a child raised in affluence and a loving home. Studies show this, as well. That's part of why parents get so uptight -- they hear a study showing that kids who own books are better readers than kids who don't own books, and so they go out and buy a ton of books. This may or may not make any difference.
Though it is quite possible that my kid's intelligence and temperament already determined and unalterable by me, I don't believe his values and behavior are. I'm not going to try to turn him into a quiet snuggler (I've tried and failed already), but I am going to try to teach him to treat others with respect and to go to church. Of course, he has free will and may decide to do the opposite of everything I teach him when he gets older. But most kids do echo their rearing to some extent.
I've taught a lot of kids. There was one thing I found a better determining factor in the sort of kids they were than anything else: what the parents themselves were like. If the parents loved to read, the kid loved to read. If the parents valued sports more, the kid valued sports more. This was also true for adopted children. It doesn't predict what kids will be like 100% of the time, but it seemed a better indicator than, for instance, whether their parents were strict or laid-back or whether they forced their kids to do homework or not. Those things mattered too, but less.
Of course, this is a big challenge to deal with. We have to actually set a good example, reading books and eating vegetables. But if we do it, generally our kids will grow up doing it too. They may later choose not to. But people grow up like their parents a lot more than they're willing to recognize.
Along with values and behavior, there's another thing I can teach my child: whether his mother loves him. If he grows up knowing just one thing, I want it to be that. So I try to foster a close attachment to him, to pay attention to the jabbers he has to say, to play with him from time to time. I don't do this to make him smarter. I do this because I want him to remember that I was there for him when he was a kid.
Because here's the deal: there is more that matters besides how a child will "turn out." The author of the article says it doesn't matter that he taught his babies to cry themselves to sleep, because it won't scar them for life. Okay, fine. But I could poke my kid with pins, too, and the mark would heal very quickly. If he was young enough at the time, he probably wouldn't remember it. But I'm not just raising the adult he will someday become. I'm raising the child I actually have. I believe that I should love and respect him, not because twenty years down the road it may have good results, but because he is a person worthy of love and respect now.
It's a very freeing thought. If the twin research is right, I don't have to worry that he'll have terrible sleep habits because he still doesn't usually sleep through the night or that I'm emotionally crippling him by still nursing him (ha!) or that he'll never be independent because I haven't put him in daycare. It's just as likely that he'll turn out better because of my choices, but if this fellow is right, then it makes no difference what I do. In that case, why don't I do what is loving and respectful, what feels right and what my son likes, now? It might not make him better-adjusted. But I do think it will make him happier now, and it will make him look back on his childhood and smile because it was a nice time. It might make him want to come home for Christmases because his childhood was so great. Even if it doesn't, I like to know that I have a happy, contented little boy who gets plenty of love.
So, do I believe in being more relaxed, signing up for less stuff, and letting my kid do more things independently? Yes. But that doesn't mean I don't think what I do matters. The fallacy of results leads people to either obsessively plan every moment of their child's life, because it all matters, or to adopt a cavalier attitude toward the choices that they make, because none of it matters. My point of view is that what I do matters, but the determining factor isn't the results I get in 20 years, but whether what I do shows love and respect to the child I have now. The adult he will become is largely out of my control, but the child he is now is the one I have been given.