Cycle of Violence and the Influence of Child-Parent Interactions
In her book, “The Nurture Assumption,” Judith Rich Harris gives insightful pointers to some of the most important questions today. Harris tells us why children turn out the way they do.
According to Harris, the believers of the nurture assumption would argue that children turn out the way they do based on how they are raised. However, Harris disputes that position by showing that most children become like their parents due to the genes they share and not their experiences within the home. An intelligent parent will give birth to an intelligent child, a parent with mental illnesses is also likely to give birth to a child with similar conditions.
Similarly, Harris casts doubt on the nurture assumption by disputing evidence collected by socialization researchers as measures of the environment. She argues that some measures of the environment are actually measures of “genetic effects on the environment.” A good example is counting books in a home as a measure of environmental influences on academic achievement. It is clear that smart parents read books and stock a lot of them at home. However, it’s the shared genes between these parents and their children that influence academic performance and not the number of books at home.
In this essay, I will address another reason why children turn out the way they do. The image below provides a good pictorial representation of what most of us believe shapes children.
In this image, we see something peculiar happening. A man, whom I believe is the father, is beating his child (To make this essay readable, I choose to call the boy Dave).
After the violence, we see that Dave grows up to become an angry and abusive adult. He must have been traumatized by his father’s violence which I believe makes him a little more aggressive than children and even adults his age. If this image was to say more, then it is possible that the artist would have included a part where the child becomes a violent youth, a bully, chronic drug user, or even a criminal. Either way, what we see is that, the child grows to become a father too, and the cycle of violence continues.
From the image, we learn that the home environment may make or break children. In Dave’s case, violence and trauma broke him, and he ended up just like his dad.
The scenario I have discussed is very popular among socialization researchers. According to Diana Baumrind’s parenting styles, the events on the image would represent an authoritarian parenting style. It is the type of parenting that breaks children because of it’s reliance on abuse and excessive authority.
If you’ve by now read the first part of this essay, then you already know that some crucial information is missing from the image. The role of genetics has been underplayed, even though it might explain why the child eventually becomes violent. Just so you entertain the thought, do you see how similar the child becomes like his father; from looks, to body size, and even the mode of dressing? That implies a strong genetic influence. Here’s why.
Children not only share a home with their parents, but also the same genes. Violence and other aggressive tendencies can easily be passed from parents to children genetically. Therefore, while not readily apparent, we cannot tell for sure whether Dave becomes violent like his father because of the genes both share, or because of the father’s violence. We cannot easily surmise what is causing what.
However, there is a way to know. Behavioral geneticists rely on twin studies to tell apart environmental and genetic effects. Take two identical twins and place them in two different homes and see what happens. If the home environment, or in this case, if the father’s violence affected Dave, then we expect that his identical twin reared in a different home would have a different outcome. (Assume that Dave and his twin were separated at birth and adopted in two different but stable homes). A study of twins can also show us whether identical twins reared in the same home turnout the same. (Once again assuming Dave has a twin brother: Did both of them become violent like their father after being raised in the same home?)
Results from behavioral genetics and twin studies have been interesting so far. Arguably, because of the genetics parents share with their children, identical twins reared in different homes were likely to become like their biological parents. In this case, if Dave and his twin were adopted in different homes after birth, there is a high likelihood both twins turned out as violent as their father despite being adopted in a stable family. This means it’s not the father’s violence that made Dave violent, it is the genes that both share.
The same is true when we are evaluating outcomes like crime, alcoholism and drug abuse, psychopathology, academic achievement, and even divorce. A child born of an alcoholic parent does not become an alcoholic because of his father’s drinking habits but because of the shared genes. A child who is not intelligent will rarely excel in school even when adopted in an upper class family full of academics. Instead, he is much likely to become like his parents who did not ace in school.
Now, what happens to identical twins raised in the same family? Do they all turn out the same? Evidence suggests there are some slight differences between these identical twins, even though they share 100% of their genes. Because identical twins look exactly the same, have similar behaviors, and do things the same way, it’s difficult for parents to favor one twin over the other. It’s either parents treat both of them well or both of them badly. The fact that these twins turn out slightly different means something outside genetics caused the difference. This finding has two implications; either parents raise each of their children using different styles or something outside the home caused the differences.
In this essay, I will only focus on the first implication and how it comes to be. The fact that children raised in the same home do not turn out the same opens a Pandora’s box once again. It is believed that parents raise their children by strictly adhering to certain parenting styles. That a parent with an authoritative parenting style will raise all his children with the same style. If that is true, then we expect children raised with the same parenting style to turn out the same. But as we have seen, that’s not the case. Even identical twins rarely turn out one hundred percent the same.
From the image, if Dave has a twin, we expect that the father will be violent to both children; recreating the cycle of violence in both of them. However, as I have shown above, even identical twins raised in the same family do not become 100% the same. Could the slight differences be a result of differences in parenting? There is a likelihood that Dave’s father treats him worse than he treats his brothers and sisters. It’s, therefore, important to know why that’s the case.
It’s now accepted that parents do not raise their children using the same parenting styles. Harris shows us how parents come to use different parenting methods between their children. Her views rest on the idea that siblings are never hundred percent the same; a brother and a sister only share half of their DNA, and each one of them might be different from the other. Siblings may have different personalities from one another. One child could be warmer and welcoming than the other child. Similarly, the children could also look different from one another. One child could be more beautiful or handsome than the other.
It is naïve to think parents do not notice these differences among their children. It is even more naïve to think parents don’t act on these differences among their children.
For example, a parent knows who among his children is the cutest. Parents also know which children are the most intelligent, warm, and aggressive. For many years, socialization theorists believed that parenting is a one-way traffic; where the parent decides what is good for the children and enforces those ideals. However, it is currently clear that parenting is actually a two-way traffic. Children do not wait for parents to parent them. In most cases, the nature of the child determines what parenting style a parent will use.
It is, therefore, possible that parents will use different parenting styles among their children. Parents will buy books to the intelligent child, continuously hug the cute child with a warm personality, and finally spank children who are aggressive, liars, and manipulators. It is children who prompt their parents to act the way they do. This phenomenon has been called the child to parent interactions, and partly explains why children turn out the way they do. These interactions help us understand why children raised in the same family can sometimes turn out differently.
A child does not have to be spanked by his parents because the parents are violent. The child could, himself, be the one that makes the parents rely on spanking as a parenting method. Therefore, looking at the image above, what else do we learn? We learn that maybe the child being beaten by his father may have prompted the father to rely on violence as a parenting method. Assuming the child was himself aggressive, troublesome, or a thief, the father might not have had a choice but to whoop his ass. The fact that the child grows to become abusive could be proof of his predisposition as a violent, aggressive, and troublesome person. Nothing on his parents, other than maybe, genetics.
Of course, this does not mean that parents should abuse their children. It is the responsibility of every parent to make sure their child is having a comfortable experience at home. However, it would be naïve of us to ignore how children influence parenting methods. Being ugly is by itself, a sufficient reason why some children get abused. The same is true of children with inhospitable personalities. Differences among children is also the reason why children in the same family may have different life outcomes. The intelligent child goes on to become a doctor, while the aggressive inhospitable child ends up in prison. None of these have anything to do with the parent other than, maybe, the shared genes. The rest is either a result of the child’s predisposition or other external factors that are not present in the home.
However, understanding external factors outside the home will form the basis of Part III of this series. I’ll delve on what Harris believes is the single most important aspect of a child’s development. It has nothing to do with the home or parenting styles. It is the basis for “group socialization theory,” her main thesis in the Nurture Assumption.