Steven Pinker should read David Dobbs

July 17, 2010

Such is my reaction on reading this excellent post on David Dobbs’s excellent blog Neuron Culture, about the NYTimes story on parents who, despite their best efforts, raise “bad” kids.

I’m going to have to reread Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate to decide what he would have to say about the Times story, but I’m guessing he would approve of the following:

We marvel at the resilient child who survives the most toxic parents and home environment and goes on to a life of success. Yet the converse — the notion that some children might be the bad seeds of more or less decent parents — is hard to take.

It goes against the grain not just because it seems like such a grim and pessimistic judgment, but because it violates a prevailing social belief that people have a nearly limitless potential for change and self-improvement. […]

Not everyone is going to turn out to be brilliant — any more than everyone will turn out nice and loving. And that is not necessarily because of parental failure or an impoverished environment. It is because everyday character traits, like all human behavior, have hard-wired and genetic components that cannot be molded entirely by the best environment, let alone the best psychotherapists.

“The central pitch of any child psychiatrist now is that the illness is often in the child and that the family responses may aggravate the scene but not wholly create it,” said my colleague Dr. Theodore Shapiro, a child psychiatrist at Weill Cornell Medical College. “The era of ‘there are no bad children, only bad parents’ is gone.”

Dobbs comments on the story’s lead anecdote, about parents who raised two “good” kids and one “bad” one:

The mistake was setting up the innate v trained polarity to start with, as if the answer lay at one end of the other. […] It shouldn’t surprise us that you can’t always (or ever) untangle the complex entwinement of nature and nurture? [sic] Nature and nurture isn’t an either-or or even a ping-pong game. It’s a conversation in which both are simultaneously talking and listening to one another. You can’t separate the effect. Each depends on the other for its salience: genes mean nothing without experience; experience can’t exist without genes. Life is complicated.

That said, I don’t think the parenting gets a pass in this case just because these parents raised two good boys. I’m not looking to blame the parents. But to move the parenting off the table assumes they treated all three kids roughly the same, when even the psychiatrist here notes they probably treated the difficult boy differently.


I would think that most people who have raised more than one kid knows that each presents certain challenges, and a given parent will find it much easier to meet some challenges than others. Calming a meltdown draws on you differently than, say, getting a kid to brush regularly or do her homework. A shy child raises different challenges than one incredibly outgoing; an angry child needs a different response than a sad child. Parenting goes well when your response matches well the moment. We’re all better at some of these than others.

Dobbs is the kind of science writer I would like to be: thoughtful, graceful and humane. And note that our blogs share the same theme. Great minds.


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