Dr. Richard Friedman, a professor of psychiatry, recently wrote an article published in the New York Times that I found to be both thought-provoking and somewhat disturbing. In the article he discussed the idea that sometimes even the most well-meaning and caring parents produce children that are what he calls “toxic.” These children/teenagers are rude, misbehaved, and sometimes downright mean.
The paradox, he says, is that these same parents often have other children that are perfectly well-mannered, kind, and well-adjusted. So, what’s the problem, he asks? Dr. Friedman contends that in most cases it is not the parents’ fault, but that these children are this way,
“because everyday character traits, like all human behavior, have hard-wired and genetic components that cannot be molded entirely by the best environment.”
My reading of this is that he feels some children are in fact, “bad seeds.”
Although I agree that all of children’s behavior cannot be attributed to parenting techniques, I was shocked to hear a mental health professional basically make the argument that some children are just inherently bad. I strongly disagree with this idea and I think much of the child development research does too.
Yes, children have genetic predispositions towards a lot of characteristics, both physical and psychological. However, this is just a predisposition, not fate. Much of what determines how a predisposition is expressed depends on how parents, teachers, and others in the environment react to the child.
I am frustrated to find that many in the media, and even in the psychological community still prescribe to an “either-or” mentality when it comes to issues like this. The scientific community has made strides in finding genes that contribute to certain traits but much of the latest developmental research shows that many behaviors are the result of an on-going interaction between genetics and the environment.
Gone (are almost gone) are the days of “nature vs. nurture.” We should now start thinking about “nature and nurture.” I firmly believe that in most cases, it is usually not simply an issue of “bad parents” or a “bad seed.” Some of the most well-thought out and respected theories in child development focus on the interaction between the child, the parents, and other environmental factors (e.g., siblings, teachers, school, neighborhood). This kind of thinking, however, is much more complicated and difficult. With this type of research, you don’t often find the easy sound-bite that the media loves to promote. I feel that this type of approach is closer to “the truth” that’ science strives to find.
In short, I would encourage all of us to think outside the box of simply “bad parents” or “bad children” when we encounter a youngster (or adult) who is maladjusted. In science and in life, it is rarely that simple.
Thanks to Dr. Claudia Gold at Child in Mind for her thoughtful post on this topic which prompted my comments here.