Why Most Parenting Advice is Wrong: Yuko Munakata (Transcript)

Full text of professor of psychology Yuko Munakata’s talk: Why Most Parenting Advice is Wrong at TEDxCU conference.

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Yuko Munakata – Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience at University of Colorado Boulder

A few years ago, a student came up to me after the second day of my class on ‘Parenting and Child Development.’ She hesitated for a second and then she confessed, “I’m really interested in this material. What I was hoping your class would help me to become a better parent, if I have kids someday.”

She was disappointed.

We were going to talk about how parents do not have control in shaping who their children become. She jumped to the conclusion that my class wouldn’t help her.

I was caught off-guard, would confronting the science of parenting and child development not be relevant to being a good parent? I hope that my class changed her mind.

Parents want what’s best for their children; young and old parents, rich and poor, married and divorced. And parenting books promised to show how to achieve the best outcomes, to address the difficult decisions that parents face every day, and in the process to reveal why each of us turned out the way we did.

The problem is that parenting books send conflicting messages. Tiger parenting or free-range parenting, parent like the Dutch, to raise the happiest kids in the world, or like the Germans, to raise self-reliant children.

The one consistent message is that if your child isn’t succeeding, you’re doing something wrong.

There’s good news though. The science supports a totally different message that is ultimately empowering. Trying to predict how a child will turn out based on choices made by the parents, is like trying to predict a hurricane from the flap of a butterfly’s wings.

Do you know the butterfly? The proverbial one, that flaps its wings in China, perturbing the atmosphere, just enough to shift wind currents that make their way to the skies over tropical white beaches, intensifying the water evaporating from the ocean in a spiral of wind, and fueling a hurricane in the Caribbean, six weeks after that flutter of wings.

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If you are a parent, you are the butterfly, flapping your wings; your child is the hurricane, a breathtaking force of nature. You will shape the person your child becomes, like the butterfly shapes the hurricane, in complex, seemingly unpredictable but powerful ways.

The hurricane wouldn’t exist without the butterfly. Wait. You might ask, what about all the successful parents with successful children? Or the struggling parents with struggling children? They might seem to show the simple power of parenting, but children can be shaped by many forces that are often intertwined, like successful parents, successful genes, successful peers and a culture of success that they grow up in.

This can make it hard to know which forces influence who children become. Okay, you might think, yes, it’s hard to pull apart all these possible forces but we can make pretty good guesses about the importance of parents. Perhaps.

Well, how many of you know how a bicycle works? Right. You’ve seen people riding bikes, maybe you’ve ridden one yourself or even tried to teach someone else how to do it. Just like parenting; you’ve seen people doing it, maybe you’ve done it yourself or even tried to teach someone else how to do it.

We can feel confident about what we know. When we say we know how a bicycle works, we think we have something in our heads like this: something that relates the pedals to the chain and to the wheels.

But when you ask people to explain how a bicycle works, they produce drawings like this, and like this. People have no idea how bicycles work, or zippers, or rainbows, or even topics they argue passionately about.

When you push people to explain how these things work, they usually can’t. Just caring about something like parenting, or feeling confident about it, doesn’t guarantee that we understand it. And everyone can’t possibly be right about how parenting works, given how wildly beliefs have varied.

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Some societies, like the Javanese in Indonesia, viewed biological parents as too lenient, so children were better off with foster parents.

Mothers, in a hunter-gatherer society, regretted when their children cut themselves while playing with knives, but they thought the cuts were worth the freedom to explore.

Even within one society, like ours, parenting wasn’t a common term until the 1970s. Before then, parents weren’t viewed as active shapers of children’s futures.

Years from now, people may look back on today’s views and feel just as amazed as we feel, when hearing about other times and places.

The science could help parents, and potential parents like my student, to understand how they actually shape who their children become. Millions of children have been studied to disentangle all those shaping forces that are usually intertwined.

These studies follow identical twins and fraternal twins, and plain old siblings, growing up together or adopted and raised apart. And it turns out that growing up in the same home does not make children noticeably more alike, and how successful they are, or how happy or self-reliant, and so on.

Imagine, if you had been taken from birth and raised next-door by the family to the left, and your brother or sister had been raised next door by the family to the right, by and large, that would have made you no more similar or different than growing up together under the same roof.

On the one hand, these findings seem unbelievable. Think about all the ways that parents differ from home to home, and how often they argue, and whether they helicopter, and how much they shower their children with love. You would think that would matter, enough to make children growing up in the same home more alike than if they had been raised apart, but it doesn’t.

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In 2015, a meta-analysis, a study of studies, found this pattern across thousands of studies, following over 14 million twin pairs across 39 countries. They measured over 17,000 outcomes, and the researchers concluded that every single one of those outcomes is heritable.

So, genes influence who children become. But genes didn’t explain everything; the environment mattered too. Just something in the environment that didn’t shape children growing up in the same home to be more alike. Some people have looked at these findings and concluded that parenting doesn’t matter; that you would have become the same person you are today, regardless of who raised you.

On the other hand, and really I should say on the other hands, because there are many caveats to that story, but I’ll focus on one.

On the other hand, these findings are not all that shocking if you think about how the same parent could shape different children in different ways. One child might find it helpful when her mother provides structure; her sister might find it stifling.

One child might think his parents are caring when they ask questions about his friends; his brother might think they’re being nosy. One child might view a divorce as a tragedy, while his sister sees it as a relief. Same event, different experience.

My husband and I experienced this concept 20 years ago, when we were 30,000 feet over the Atlantic, flying from Chicago to Stockholm to work on a research project. The flight attendants were clearing the dinner trays. People were getting ready to sleep. We hit a patch of bumpy air and a bunch of teenagers whooped an excitement.

Then all of a sudden, the plane was plummeting. Children and food carts hit the ceiling. The planes seemed to stabilize but then plummeted again. The ceiling panels flew up into their compartments from the force, revealing wiring inside. Debris came crumbling down on us.

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