Based on the results of classical twin studies, it just doesn’t appear that parenting—whether mom and dad are permissive or not, read to their kid or not, or whatever else—impacts development as much as we might like to think. Regarding the cross-validation that I mentioned, studies examining identical twins separated at birth and reared apart have repeatedly revealed (in shocking ways) the same thing: these individuals are remarkably similar when in fact they should be utterly different (they have completely different environments, but the same genes). Alternatively, non-biologically related adopted children (who have no genetic commonalities) raised together are utterly dissimilar to each other—despite in many cases having decades of exposure to the same parents and home environments.
Now, my first instinct is to think of the article as Theodore Dalrymple thinks of ideas held by academics who don’t spend time with those who absorb these ideas at fifth hand through public school teachers, poorly written periodicals, or bad entertainment. He explains some of the deleterious results of this process in his book Life at the Bottom: The Worldview of the Underclass:
The idea that one is not an agent but the helpless victim of circumstances, or of large occult sociological or economic forces, does not come naturally, as an inevitable concomitant of experience. On the contrary, only in extreme circumstances is helplessness directly experienced in the way the blueness of the sky is experienced. Agency, by contrast, is the common experience of us all. We know our will’s free, and there’s an end on’t….
In fact most of the social pathology exhibited by the underclass has its origin in ideas that have filtered down from the intelligentsia. Of nothing is this more true than the system of sexual relations that now prevails in the underclass, with the result that 70 percent of the births in my hospital are now illegitimate (a figure that would approach 100 percent if it were not for the presence in the area of a large number of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent).
Dalrymple, Theodore. Life At The Bottom (Kindle Locations 169-172). Monday Books. Kindle Edition.
When I read an article like Boutwell’s that answers the question, “So why mount a frontal assault on parenting?” without denying that this is his intention, I’m easily unimpressed.
What’s funny is that I don’t doubt the science of genetic influences on behavior. But there’s a role for some epistemic humility. One cannot simply say, “We have reason to doubt correlational studies due to the absence of controlling for genetics, therefore parenting effects (being observational) are to be doubted and as a corollary, parenting efforts beyond basic care are pointless.” Well, one can say it, but one cannot simply say it and be correct. Here is one basic point, acknowledged by Boutwell in the article:
To put a finer point on what Harris argued, children do not transport the effects of parenting (whatever they might be) outside the home. The socialization of children certainly matters (remember, neither personality nor temperament is 100 percent heritable), but it is not the parents who are the primary “socializers”, that honor goes to the child’s peer group (a fascinating topic, but one that merits its own separate discussion).
Parents can, with reason absolutely on their side, choose to be the primary socializers of their children. I would guess that these studies do very little to look at the potential effects made by radical parenting differences: home schooling, unschooling, limiting access to the infinite peer group of the internet (this only matters for recent studies), etc. I think that due to the almost universal similarity in parenting styles reflected by sending your children to a school in which their main influencers will be other adolescents and at which they will have very few in depth conversations with other adults is too large an environmental similarity of overlook.
Insofar as one might say that genetics determine a great deal or even most of what people do, it’s a mistake to say that at such a nascent stage in the science, we can dispense with parenting advice.
Any worldview that becomes deterministic tends toward metaphysical boredom and by necessity squelches aspirational values and encourages nihilism.