The XX Factor

Good Parents. Bad Kids.

To add to the nature vs. nurture debate: One proposal that in some cases, nature will always win out. Dr. Richard Friedman, intrigued by reports from patients he knew to have been “more or less decent parents” that their adult children were mean, unkind, unsympathetic, and rude, suggests in the New York Times that “for better or for worse, parents have limited power to influence their children.” Maybe, he says of one patient’s child, “this young man was just not a nice person.”

Here in Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average, we find that hard to hear. How can the child of fundamentally good parents turn out to be just “not nice”? Commenters on the NYT were generally inclined to argue. We have only Dr. Friedman’s word for it, they said, that those were decent parents. What if something else happened to the child, something the parents were unaware of? How do we define good , how do we define bad , how do we define nice ? In the words of the very first commenter, we just “don’t buy this.”

Maybe we don’t buy it because many of us just can’t afford it. It’s one thing to break off contact with a  24-year-old daughter. Writing off your 11-year-old mean girl seems a little premature. We have so much invested in our kids-those we’ve raised, those we’re in the midst of raising, those we expect to be raising soon-that admitting we may not be able to influence something so simple as how nice they are is just too difficult. We’d rather search for reasons and influences and things we can change than accept that maybe there are some things we can’t. But the paradox is that accepting there are things about our kids that are fundamental and unchangeable might make us all enjoy parenting a little more.