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Linda & Richard Eyre: Nature or nurture: does parenting matter?

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 22 2013 3:45 p.m. MDT

Most of us have read articles or studies that try to suggest that our genetics account for pretty much everything, that nature trumps nurturing and that because of their genes, kids will turn out to be what they are predestined to be.

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Most of us have read articles or studies that try to suggest that our genetics account for pretty much everything, that nature trumps nurturing and that because of their genes, kids will turn out to be what they are predestined to be regardless of what we do as their parents.

For example, there have been studies on identical twins separated at birth who have developed the same characteristics, are attracted to the same things and pursued the same paths even though raised in different places and different circumstances.

So the question is: If it's nature rather than nurture that determines who our kids will be, why worry about our parenting?

Well, guess what? Parenting and nurturing matter far more than many had thought. In his Sept. 16 article in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson quotes a 2011 study that "estimated that parenting (e.g. maternal sensitivity, reading, extracurricular activities, setting expectations) explains 40 percent of the cognitive gap between children at age four — more than any other factor.”

We didn’t need a study to tell us this. Of course children do “come as they are,” and despite the best parenting, kids sometimes make bad choices.

But nurturing does matter — a lot.

We have observed for decades the profound difference that attentive, conscientious parenting makes in children’s mental ability, motivation, resilience and happiness. During the three years we spent in England supervising 600 young LDS missionaries, we found that nearly every problem missionaries had could be traced back to their families — just as their best qualities, abilities and capacities could.

In fact, it was there in London on our mission that we determined we could probably contribute much more when we returned by focusing our careers on families and parenting than we could if we continued in the business and political pursuits that had occupied us before we left.

So from our standpoint, it is great that we are reaching a time when actual empirical research can show how powerfully children are affected by the parenting they receive, and where parenting can actually be measured. Thompson also says in his article, “Good parenting isn't an inchoate thing to researchers. It comes from measurable behavior. Reading time. Playtime. Time, basically. The value of a good parent can be measured in hours ….”

Data also suggest that the first step in improving parenting is improving marriage and increasing the percentages of parents who are married. Again in Thompson’s words: “In the last 50 years, single parents have more than tripled as a share of the country's families. They now account for nearly one-in-three households. Practically all of the growth is happening among poor, less-educated, minorities. Researchers have found that poor single mothers adopt an entirely different approach to childrearing — one that, in the face of economic hardship, values survival more than achievement. Being poor and starved for time and resources affects the tools parents have to raise their children ….”

Ahhh, to have a magic wand that would get more people to marry before they have children — and to stay married after they have them. And if that magic could also give parents the resources and the motivation to spend more time and more effort with their children, and help them recognize that it is the most important thing they do.

It is easier said than done, and every parent has his or her own unique challenges, not to mention unique children. But just knowing the power of parenting, and believing in how much difference it can make, may cause us all to try harder.

There are well-intentioned people and schools and other institutions that try to supplement what parents do and make up for what parents don’t do. But once problems spill out of the family and out of the home, those problems seem to become impossibly expensive and expensively impossible to solve.

We will continue next week with further thoughts on why the only sustainable “fix” for the ills that plague our society is the efforts of parents and grandparents within the most basic institution — the family.

Richard and Linda Eyre are New York Times No. 1 best-selling authors who lecture throughout the world on family-related topics. Visit them anytime at www.EyresFreeBooks.com or at www.valuesparenting.com.

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