(This is an article that I wrote for the Family Compass Newsletter in November 2012)
Parents are important, but not in all the ways we think we are. We called our third child Annaelle, which in addition to being a pretty name, also means in Hebrew, “Please God.” I often joke that we were actually saying, “Please God, let this one be easier than the other two!”
She’s thirteen months now, and it turns out that she has been a somewhat easier baby. Yes, there was no colic or reflux and an absence of ear infections, but she also seems to be a calmer baby, more inclined to smile and to be chilled out. In contrast, my first daughter from the very beginning was more challenging in her temperament – somehow more needy and very emotional. She was happy, but even in her first year, she was more demanding and wanting to do her own thing.
It is amazing how children seem born with such rich individual temperaments. What is even more incredible is how these initial characteristics can predict personality and behavior later in life, even in adulthood. There is a remarkable ongoing research study from New Zealand that has been following almost all the children born in the city of Dunedin nearly 40 years ago. When the children were three years old, they were observed by two independent raters who scored them for how shy they were, or how friendly and open, or whether they were somewhat difficult to manage. Those children who were rated as impulsive at three were more likely to commit a crime at twenty-three. And those children who were scored as being shy and inhibited were more likely to have depression by age twenty three.
If so much of our life and personality is so influenced by biology, then it would be reasonable to ask, “What is the role of parents in the child’s development?” I’ve heard many parents joke about how they will need to pay for the children’s therapy when they become adults. And I have heard many adults, less jokingly, blame and be angry at their parents for how their life has turned out.
This is very understandable. Parents are responsible for so much of a child’s life – feeding, clothing and protecting – that it is hard to imagine that this responsibility shouldn’t include our children being happy and successful. But as the Dunedin Study shows, parents don’t have as much control as they might think. And as we reflect on the experience of our own children’s different temperaments beginning pretty much when they were born – how much of that was really in our control anyway?
I take some comfort from knowing that not every small thing I do as a parent doesn’t necessarily have a great impact on my child’s future life. The everyday hassles and challenges of parenting are difficult in the moment, but they are most often not critical. That it is okay to be a “good enough” parent, take care of them and love them, but not to worry about being perfect .
And more importantly, that one of my main tasks as a parent is to help my child know how to play the hand they were dealt. They are who they are. My responsibility to my older daughter is to help her when she is overwhelmed by the emotional rollercoaster of her life and to help her find balance. For my baby daughter, I can help ensure that her calmness and inhibition doesn’t stop her from being heard in the noise of our daily family life.
Parents are important, but not in all the ways we think we are. The trick is to know what can be controlled, and to let go of the things beyond us that belong to the vagaries of genetics and environmental factors over which parents have little influence.