Parents Don’t Control the Outcome, But Still Matter a Lot

5 min read

A story is told about a man who taught a class on childrearing called “Ten Commandments for Parents.” People came from far and wide to learn how to be better parents.

Then he got married, and he and his wife had a child. A couple of years later, he renamed his class “Five Suggestions for Parents.” Then they had another child, and not long after, he renamed the class “Three Tentative Hints for Parents.” After their third child was born, he stopped teaching the class altogether.

A humorous story but with a valid point: There’s no secret formula for raising kids.

simona pilolla 2/Shutterstock

Source: simona pilolla 2/Shutterstock

The Hardest Job

Parenting is arguably the hardest job on the planet. It taxes our energies and tests our character. We often see our own faults—pride, impatience, a strong will, a short temper—reflected or magnified in our children.

Every child is different. Some are easier during the childhood years but tougher in the teens. With others, just the opposite is true. Some kids are temperamentally easy, others more difficult.

In his book The Difficult Child, family psychiatrist Stanley Turecki reports research indicating that at least 15 percent of children have more than one “difficult temperament trait,” such as hyperactivity, distractibility, impulsivity, crankiness, or low adaptability. He describes strategies for helping a child become aware of and cope with a challenging trait.

The differences among children make parenting an art, not a science. From infancy on, we have to try to understand our children’s individual temperaments and personalities, observe how they respond to people and events, find out what works to elicit their strengths, and help them with their challenges, special needs, and the like.

Parents Make a Difference But Don’t Control the Outcome

More than a half-century of childrearing research tells us that children from all backgrounds are most likely to thrive on a combination of support (lots of love) and challenge (high expectations and accountability). Parenting matters.

But that’s not to say we control the outcome. If we mistakenly believe that we do control it, we set ourselves up to blame ourselves if the outcome is not what we hoped for. A mother once came up to me after a parenting talk and said, “I have three grown sons. The first two are hard-working and responsible. The third one says he’s a hedonist. He’s 26 and says his sole purpose in life is to have a good time. Where did I go wrong?”

After a light-hearted reassurance that “two out of three isn’t bad,” I pointed out what should be evident from childrearing experience: There is not a one-to-one correspondence between our efforts as parents and how our kids turn out.

We do not create the person our child becomes. That is influenced by a host of other factors; among them:

  • their genes, temperament, and idiosyncrasies of their brains
  • socioeconomic advantages and disadvantages
  • birth order (interacting with other family factors)
  • the quality of their teachers, coaches, schools, and other education
  • their friends and reference group (studies show kids are more likely to do what they believe their friends approve of)
  • impactful events and experiences (positive and negative)
  • the presence or absence of a spiritual support system that is a source of meaning and purpose
  • the popular culture, social media, and myriad other environmental influences they take into their hearts and minds

To a large degree, our children also create their characters (as we all do) by the choices they make. Or, as contemporary brain research would put it, they “wire and rewire their brains” constantly by what they choose to do and experience.

In her diary, before the Nazis came for her family, 14-year-old Anne Frank wrote about the responsibility we each have for our own character development: “Parents can give good advice and put their children on the right path, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”

When our kids mess up, we should think back about the mistakes we made growing up. Would we have wanted our parents to feel that our wrong or foolish actions were their fault? Often what we did went directly against what they had repeatedly taught us was right and wrong.

One father of five offered this perspective: “As parents, I think we take too much credit for our children’s successes and too much blame for their failures.”

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Our Part as Parents

Realizing that genes, the wider world, our children’s own choice-making, and many other factors help to shape their character and the course of their lives, what is the part we play in their character development?

It’s making the most of the countless opportunities we have to contribute to their growth in goodness and wisdom.

Raising kind, respectful, clear-thinking kids in our current culture may seem harder than ever, but it’s still possible. We can make intentional efforts to create a family culture of kindness and respect based on our deepest beliefs. We can model that as adults and expect it from our children. And don’t give up when you slip from that standard, as we all do.

Although we don’t control the outcome, good parenting makes a difference, as stacks of studies show. Make a list of what you do well as a parent. Feel good about that. You are doing the most complex and demanding work there is.

Then, with humility and patience, work on what you can improve.

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