Sigmund Freud was one of the fathers of modern psychology and the inventor of sit-on-the-couch-and-tell-me-about-your-feelings therapy. He also spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about penises.
Freud got a lot right. But Freud also got a lot wrong. Both of these statements are indisputable.
One of Freud’s big ideas was that parents play a defining role in shaping the personalities and emotional and mental health of their children. It’s an idea that persists to this day.
Up until Freud, it was understood that parents taught their children certain behaviors — say “please” and “thank you,” make your bed in the morning, don’t eat mud it’s bad for you — but Freud introduced the idea that parents, through influencing a child’s unconscious, could actually shape how a child sees themselves and sees the world. Through their actions, parents could actually shape and mold a child’s permanent personality, for better or worse.
The idea intuitively made sense. Although Freud’s explanations for how this actually happened were a little bizarre. Little boys wanted to murder their fathers and fuck their mothers.1 And little girls were doomed to spend their entire lives secretly wishing they had penises.2
The explanations were rightly criticized and soon disregarded as being batshit loony. But the parent thing stuck. And over the course of the intervening century, the idea took its place as an accepted part of our culture today.
This assumption has traced its way through various self-help movements as well. In the 70s and 80s, self-help seminars were designed for the first time around getting people to express “repressed” emotions, and in the midst of their fury many also discovered “repressed” memories of horrible childhood traumas that may or may not have actually happened.3
By the time the 21st century rolled around, it was entirely normal and acceptable to discuss your parents’ shortcomings as some sort of explanation for your own. It had become a universal topic amongst any support group, seminar, or therapy session. Self-development forums filled up with “woe is me” stories about how parents weren’t expressive enough or never showed sufficient appreciation or were somehow indirectly responsible for the person’s current crisis.
Even my own father, when I confronted him recently with a problem in our own relationship, immediately rattled off an explanation of how his father had created the same problem with him when he was a young adult — as if this were somehow an acceptable excuse for our situation.
Today, this idea of parent responsibility is so common and so ubiquitous that it has become a cliché, a parody of itself. “Oh, mommy didn’t hug you enough? Let’s go drink Smirnoff and race BMWs, you know, like the rebels do.”
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How Much Influence Do Our Parents Actually Have?
Imagine there are identical twins — same features, same intellect, same genetics — and you separated them at birth. One twin goes to one family in the middle of wherever, Idaho. And the other twin goes to another family in the heart of Los Angeles.
Now imagine that you’re able to track these two twins down and give them a battery of personality tests, questionnaires, and study their behavior and life choices.
How similar or different would the twins turn out to be? Same genetics. But different environments, different families, different life experiences.
Well, in case you were wondering, researchers did this with hundreds of pairs of twins separated at birth and it comes out to around 45% of our personalities and behavioral patterns are based on genetics, the other 55% is based on our environment, life circumstances, and life histories.5,6
That’s pretty interesting by itself. Almost seems like a definitive answer to the old “nature vs nurture” debate.7
But here’s the kicker: Identical twins who grow up in the same home with the same parents also turn out about 45% the same and 55% different.
What does that mean? Well, a lot, actually. It means that we more or less end up who we are regardless of who is parenting us. Which doesn’t sound right at all, right?
The data suggest that our parents’ parenting methods have no noticeable effect on our permanent personality traits.
Put another way, our parents determine the superficial stuff — what sports team we like, how we like to dress, where we hang out — and they don’t determine the important stuff — self-esteem, sexuality, introversion/extraversion, neuroticism, political views and so on. Or at least they don’t determine it through their behavior. No, you’re not shy because your father never talked to you growing up. Or actually, yes, you are shy because your father didn’t talk to you growing up, it’s just not why you think.
“But I’m so similar to my father. Why?”
Of course you are, you share 50% of the same genes with him. That shyness you thought you inherited from your parents ignoring you your whole childhood? Well, actually your parents just ignored you because they’re shy and not expressive as well. And likely what makes you socially anxious is exactly what makes them socially anxious as well.
When studied, it turns out that most personality similarities between parents and children can be explained by genetics, not necessarily by conditioning or parenting.
- Dad was introverted and non-expressive and so you blame him for being introverted and non-expressive yourself. After all, you grew up in a home where this was the norm. But it turns out, you were both predisposed to being introverted and non-expressive through the same genetics. It wasn’t a conscious choice by either of you.
- Mom loved math and loved to help you with your math homework, so you assume that you learned to love math from her. But actually, you each inherited an aptitude for math and pleasure in solving problems, and simply enjoyed doing it together.
- Dad had anger problems. You assume that you unconsciously learned that anger was an acceptable way to deal with conflicts and so now you have anger problems. But once again, was it dad teaching you to be angry? Or did you both inherit the same predisposition for a “short fuse”?
But wait, does this mean that our parents have no influence on how we turn out?
Well, no. The influence is just small, much smaller than Freud thought. And much smaller than most of us tend to think.
About 45% of our permanent personality is determined by our genetics. About 55% is determined by our environment and life history. Our relationship with our parents falls somewhere under that 55% umbrella of environment and life history.
Yes, your parents are just another part of your overall “environment” and not emotionally special in some way.
“But what about abusive parents?”
Obviously abusive parents fuck their kids up. But that’s likely due to the fact that they give the kids traumatic experiences, not because there’s anything special to do with them being a parent.
Childhood traumas are childhood traumas whether they are caused by a parent, a teacher, a bully at school, or an attack by angry velociraptors.
It used to be thought that a child’s ability to form intimate relationships was determined by its relationship to its parents as an infant. But it has since been found that it is determined by a child’s relationship to any caregiver as an infant, whether that caregiver is a parent, an aunt, a family friend, the milkman, or Charlie Sheen.
In fact, a lot of research suggests that outside of major traumas, our peer group and social life as a child has far more influence on our self-perception, our self-worth, and who we eventually become than our parents do.8,9
What I mean is, on average, statistics show: shitty parents in a good environment are better than good parents in a shitty environment. Environment simply matters more.10
A lot of this isn’t easy to read. If you had particularly shitty parents and you’ve held onto the belief that your life’s problems come from how your parents mistreated you, your stomach may be rolling right now. Or you may already be halfway through sending me a hate email telling me how wrong I am (notice all of the footnotes with research, they’re there for a reason). And you may be even more pissed if you’re a parent and you’ve spent years planning how little Junior is going to get EVERYTHING HE NEEDS NO MATTER WHAT EVEN IF I HAVE TO PUT HIM ON A LEASH AND VIDEOTAPE HIM 24 HOURS A DAY.
Let me be blunt: you can fuck your kid up just as much by overprotecting them as you can by neglecting them.10
Because this is the whole thing: it’s not about mom and dad. Mom and dad are actually just one piece of a larger equation here. This is both frightening and liberating. It’s impossible to ever completely screw your kid up. But it’s impossible to make them perfect too.
Let the child be who the child is going to be.
“So Whose Fault Is It Anyway?”
For children, everything is a struggle. Children are in constant need of assistance, support, and direction. And for the most part, a child’s parent provides the majority of these things.
Therefore, as children, we naturally come to see our parents as infallible. And there’s a deep sense of security that comes with knowing that our parents always have the answer, always know what’s right, and always know what to do next.
But at some point, as we grow up, something terrifying happens. We realize that our parents are flawed. And we realize they have problems. Sometimes serious problems.
Therefore, it’s almost impossible to not draw some sort of correlation between mom and dad’s behavior growing up and our own behavior as an adult. They’re too similar to ignore.
Every parent screws something up with their kids. Some really fuck things up. They all do it. And we’re all going to do it. Partly because many of our problems have genetic roots. But also because it’s simply impossible to permanently control the environment a child grows up in.11
To continue to hold our parents responsible for their negative influence on our lives is to return to the mindset of a child — a mindset where we feel entitled to have everything fixed for us and where we perceive the responsibility for our lives to reside outside of ourselves.
This position is understandable, but it’s something that must be let go.
I believe you could define true adulthood as relinquishing the narcissistic and childish expectations of what our parents should have provided for us, and what they should have accomplished in raising us.
True adulthood is letting go of the notion that mom and dad somehow gave us all of our problems and admitting that, regardless of where they came from, our problems are our own, that we are responsible for ourselves, and while we can’t control our genetics or our life history, we can always control what we do based on them.
True adulthood occurs when we realize that our parents didn’t dig the hole that we find ourselves in today, but rather that they’ve been trying to climb out themselves their whole lives. That the abuser was once the abused. That the neglecter was once the neglected.
It’s not all their fault. To be honest, at some point, it doesn’t even matter whose fault it is. Because it’s always your responsibility. So if it’s a big hole, start climbing.
- See: Oedipus Complex↵
- See: Penis Envy↵
- There are numerous reports of people coming out of these personal development movements around this time with false memories of childhood abuse. For examples and discussion, see: Maran, M. (2010). My Lie: A True Story of False Memory. Jossey-Bass.↵
- Bouchard, T. J., Lykken, D. T., McGue, M., Segal, N. L., & Tellegen, A. (1990). Sources of human psychological differences: The Minnesota study of twins reared apart. Science, 250(4978), 223–228.↵
- Tellegen, A., Lykken, D. T., Bouchard, T. J., Wilcox, K. J., Segal, N. L., & Rich, S. (1988). Personality similarity in twins reared apart and together. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(6), 1031–1039.↵
- The nature vs nurture debate has been going on in philosophy and science for centuries now. The big question is, are we destined to become who we are by biology? Or are we molded completely from our environment and the people around us? The answer, of course, is both. And these twins studies seem to be the best data we have on exactly how much our environment affects us and how much our genetics determine our destiny. For more on the history of the debate, go here.↵
- Harris, J. R. (1995). Where is the child’s environment? A group socialization theory of development. Psychological Review, 102(3), 458.↵
- Note that an absent parent can permanently affect a child’s development. Children from single-parent homes or divorced parents are more likely to have all sorts of negative traits later in life. But this is due not to a parenting style or parenting actions, but simply from there not being enough emotional support present.↵
- Harris, J. R. (2010). No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality (p. 195-200). W. W. Norton & Company.↵
- See: the concept of “helicopter parents.” Ironically, one of the ways that research is showing that parents can screw their kids up is by not giving them enough opportunities to fail and hurt themselves. This is how children learn, and if parents are protecting them constantly, then the child doesn’t learn from his environment and is stunted as a result. Also see: Segrin, C., Woszidlo, A., Givertz, M., & Montgomery, N. (2013). Parent and Child Traits Associated with Overparenting. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 32(6), 569–595.↵
- Nor would you want to, as research suggests that a certain degree of conflict and struggle are good for psychological development. See: Kegan, R. (1983). The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.↵