clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Children choose a path, but parents are the trailhead

My daughter is lit up by her psychology class, happily reading interesting sections of the textbook that cover topics like aberrant behavior, personal challenges, mental health diagnoses and their results.

We often discuss what she's learning and look for real-life examples in the news. That’s how we came to be poring over news stories about violence and aggression this weekend.

What’s stunning is how much of what we found appears to have at least partial roots in the kind of homes that people grow up in and the parents they have.

As a mom, it gives me pause to realize how casually I sometimes approach the task of mothering my children, because it really is both an incredible privilege and a daunting task. And parenting creates echoes: Children use us as role models or choose to reject what we’ve done. Sometimes they default into our patterns because it’s the only course they’ve seen. We contribute to their courage or fear, self-confidence or insecurity.

There’s some good news that’s nearly built in. Most of us try really hard to do the right thing by the little people over whom we have charge. And kids are resilient, while parents typically keep honing and improving their parenting skills, learning as they go.

Besides that, clearly the majority of people who have what we’d consider lousy parents fare pretty well in spite of them. For example, most don’t go on to commit crimes of any sort, much less assaults and murders. They typically do grow into fairly capable, satisfied adults. But when you’re looking at violence and aggression, a higher share of those involved do appear to have been what I’d call parent-challenged.

For parents, those are points well worth considering.

Few topics are as mysterious — or as well-researched — as the cause and effect of family, although there's a fair amount of disagreement. Nature or nurture is a very old question. Are children a certain way because of how they were raised or are they like that because of something hidden in their genetics?

Does Joey throw tantrums and hit because he is naturally more hot-headed, or is it because he’s seen that behavior from others his whole life or is it because that behavior gets him what he wants? Genetic predisposition? Environment? A reward system?

Still, it’s not all a mystery.

Solid research has shown, for instance, that pornography increases the risk of violence against women. The media tendency to show women as body parts — part of a pretty face, shapely curve, pair of legs — objectifies them and makes it easier not to treat them as real people. A father’s absence from his children’s lives is linked to more likelihood that a girl will become pregnant as a teen, that a boy will be incarcerated. Parents who hover and prevent a child from problem-solving or exploring the world grow children who are less self-reliant and self-confident.

As we read stories, we paid attention to how many of those committing acts of aggression and violence came from troubled homes, had overly strict, even abusive parents, did poorly in school, among other things. A lot of the trial coverage cited absent fathers, uninvolved moms, domestic violence, a history of substance abuse on either their part or that of their folks. The fact that it’s not uncommon for someone accused of a crime to blame an unhealthy childhood does not mean that childhood did not, in fact, contribute.

It doesn’t excuse appalling behavior. None of this is destiny. People still have a choice and can alter the trajectory. But what if some of it could be prevented?

Parents can change outcomes, too. They can set their children on a healthier path. Things may still go wrong, but how one parents matters.

Email:, Twitter: Loisco