how parents have little effect on how you turn out (and systems)

parents dont understand fresh prince

“The apple never falls far from the tree.”

How often do we hear this as an explanation for why someone is, or does, as they are?

My quote?

“It doesn’t matter how far the apple falls from the tree it only matters where it lands.”

We spend a lot of time trying to explain why someone is like they are. The most common explanation we toss out is “the apple never falls far from the tree.” Well. This is partially true and partially not. its mostly not true because we view this thought in a very simplistic ways, i.e., parents/father/mother. What is true is that people, individuals, are victims or products of the systems they exist and behave within. What I mean by that is the family, or parents, is just one system. Friends, school, church, community, are other systems which connect and intersect with each other all shaping who you are and become.

I say all that because while we often point to parents as the major influencer with regard to how kids ‘turn out’ or their behavior later in life there are some very interesting research studies out there that suggest a kid’s peer group is a stronger influence on their future behavior.

“… how the parents rear the child has no long term effects on the child’s personality, intelligence or mental health.”

“The Decision Book” page 46 “Why Parents are Unimportant” model

That will drive some parents a little crazy <and give another smaller percentage a built-in excuse for the crappy job they may already be doing with regard to bringing up their kids>. That said. The belief ‘apple not falling far from the tree’ was driven by behaviorists’ belief that parents influence their children’s development by the rewards and punishments they dole out, and the Freudians’ belief that parents can mess up their children very badly and often do so.


That was ‘behaviorist beliefs.’

No real studies or research.

Just a bunch of published ‘here is what I believe’ mumbo jumbo which then quickly shifted into some ‘common sense’ that everyone took for granted.

In 1955 psychologist Judith Rich Harris attacked this belief.

To be clear. There is no question that the adult caregivers play an important role in the baby’s life. It is from them babies learn their first language, have their first experiences in forming and maintaining relationships and get their first lessons in following rules.

But the extent our personalities are shaped by our upbringing had never really been examined and, specifically, whether children elicit particular behavior in their parents and not vice versa.

Harris contradicted the Freudian based behaviorists and development psychologists by suggesting we modify our behavior depending on the environment we are in.

Yeah. Context matters. Yeah. Systems encourage behavior the system encourages. Yeah. Children are shaped not by their parents, but by the peer group in which they are socialized. Yeah. Being within a system shapes mindsets, attitudes, behaviors and, well, who we are.

Harris poses that in home learning certainly sets the pattern for what is to follow, but that the actual content of what children learn may be irrelevant to the world outside their home. The truth is many young people shed the in-home system as soon as they enter into another system <or keep some aspects and shed others>.

The evidence developmental psychologists use to support the nurture assumption is not what it appears to be: it does not prove what it appears to prove. And there is a rising tide of evidence against the nurture assumption.

The nurture assumption is not a truism; it is not even a universally acknowledged truth. It is a product of our culture–a cherished cultural myth.

No one questions it because it seems self-evident. The two things that determine what sort of people your children will turn out to be are nature–their genes–and nurture–the way you bring them up. That is what you believe and it also happens to be what the professor of psychology believes. A happy coincidence that is not to be taken for granted, because in most sciences the expert thinks one thing and the ordinary citizen–the one who used to be called “the man on the street”–thinks something else. But on this the professor and the person ahead of you on the checkout line agree: nature and nurture rule. Nature gives parents a baby; the end result depends on how they nurture it. Good nurturing can make up for many of nature’s mistakes; lack of nurturing can trash nature’s best efforts.

That is what I used to think too, before I changed my mind.

What I changed my mind about was nurture, not environment. It isn’t all about genetics. The environment is just as important as the genes. The things children experience while they are growing up are just as important as the things they are born with. What I changed my mind about was whether “nurture” is really a synonym for “environment.”

By the way.

This doesn’t mean that a parent doesn’t influence a child’s ‘end adult space.’ They can place children in social environments and initiate a variety of actions that could impact final sociological behavior, in other words, purposefully push or encourage children to interact within “accepted systems”. But social systems are difficult to control and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see how children speak the dialect of their peer groups and assume attitudes/behaviors of their peer group <varying from group behavior to individual style>.

Before I get to my main point today let me make sure you don’t think this is sheer bullhockey <baloney, absurd, whatever>.

Reflecting on parenting is difficult.

Experiences in life appear very good when we remember or anticipate them, but quite ordinary or downright bad in the moment. I say this because when you think about parenting most people will suggest it was a challenging, but fairly positive life adventure.

Parents often look back on their attempts at steering their children toward social responsibility and a career or looking at their youth as a life filled with unconditional <sometimes tough> love and a list of shared moments. But the truth is most of the day-to-day tasks of child rearing are mind numbingly mundane at best and harrowing at its worst.

Well. That was certainly jaded, but you get the point. As with most things in Life the majority of parenting is a grind and in our reflective memory we find the reasons why it was all worthwhile, but in doing so we judge <or misjudge> that system within which the young person existed.

*** note: this is Daniel Kahneman’s “experienced memory” versus “remembered memory”

What is neglected are the systems, the numerous moments and interactions a child spends outside the parents’ auspices within other systems all the while assimilating learnings, experiences, mindsets, attitudes & behaviors.

But here is my larger point.

I did not write this to suggest that parents have no responsibility nor to suggest that they certainly cannot influence how their children will turn out as adults, but rather to point out systems exist within systems and each of the systems can affect our mindsets, attitudes and behaviors. There is certainly a bunch of research that actually suggests poor parenting drives children deeper into their peer group <socialized life learning> for behavioral cues, but the larger narrative is that a poor system does NOT necessarily create bad behavior but instead it can cause someone to reject that system and seek out an alternative. This is important because if everything is interconnected and you can ‘system hop’, explaining people or defining people can be really difficult.

That last thought isn’t just important to parents, but to businesses, ‘culture’ people, organizational design, social dynamics and strategists.

Maybe we should be thinking a bit more about who someone hangs out with – as a choice.

Maybe we should be thinking a lot less about “the apple never falls far from the tree” and think a lot more about where the frickin’ apple falls instead.

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Written by Bruce