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Parenting Doesn’t Matter (Or Not As Much As You Think)

The multibillion-pound parenting industry tells us we can all shape our children to be joyful, resilient and successful. But what if it’s all bunk? Intelligence Squared brought together a panel of experts to explore just how important parenting is.

‘Raising Happy Kids‘, ‘The Conscious Parent‘, ‘How to Talk so Kids Will Listen‘: Books like these, along with magazines, television shows and childcare experts, are all part of the multibillion-pound parenting industry. Follow our advice, they promise, and you can shape your children to be joyful, resilient and successful.

But what if it’s all bunk? What if parenting doesn’t make much of a difference at all to the way our kids turn out? That’s the argument that will be made by the genetics experts in this major Intelligence Squared debate. We all know about the nature vs nurture argument, but it’s only recently that evidence has emerged revealing just how much of who we are is influenced by our DNA – from our personality and our likelihood of developing mental illness to how well we do at school. We might think that certain parenting styles produce certain kinds of children – for example, that overprotective parents cause their offspring to be anxious. But in fact, research suggests that these traits are manifestations of the same genetic influence working in both the parents and children. Of course, you should be loving, kind and supportive towards your children. After all, you want to have a good relationship with them. But don’t imagine that anything that you do or don’t do, short of seriously damaging them, will have much effect on the kind of person they turn out to be.

But others would argue that this ‘genetic determinism’ is too extreme a position. Yes, our genes influence our basic personality type, but this is very different from the claim that who we turn out to be is written in our genes at birth and that parenting doesn’t make a difference. In fact, many psychologists believe that hereditary traits are malleable and that our life experiences determine which ones come into play. So, for example, a child born with a genetic disposition towards alcoholism may never turn to the bottle if she has a happy and stable childhood that sets her up well for the vicissitudes ahead. And research shows that even extremely damaged children, such as the ones found in Romanian orphanages after the fall of communism, can thrive in the care of well trained foster parents if intervention happens early enough. No one is claiming that children are pieces of clay that we can mould as we like, but good parenting matters and it can make a huge difference to the happiness and wellbeing of our offspring.

So just how important is parenting?


Speakers

For the motion

Stuart Ritchie

Lecturer in the Social Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre, KCL


Lecturer in the Social Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College London. Until September 2018 he was postdoctoral fellow in the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on intelligence and cognitive abilities, using genetics, brain imaging, and other methods to shed light on why some people are smarter than others.

Robert Plomin

Professor of Behavioural Genetics at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, KCL


Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Genetics at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London. He has won acclaim for his twin studies and his groundbreaking work in behavioral genetics. His new book is Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, in which he argues that the most important thing our parents give us is our genes, and that parenting styles don’t really affect children’s outcomes. The book was described by Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times as ‘an important book, a must-read guide to one enormous aspect of the human future’.
Against the motion

Susan Pawlby

Developmental Clinical Psychologist


Developmental Clinical Psychologist. She has over 30 years of experience working with mothers and babies both in clinical and research contexts. She has undertaken several research studies, notably the South London Child Development Study, which over a period of 25 years has examined the effects that the mother’s adverse experiences have had on their offspring from childhood into young adulthood. She now holds a Visiting Appointment at KCL.

Ann Pleshette Murphy

Therapist, parenting counsellor and broadcaster


Therapist, parenting counsellor and advocate for young children and their families. She was the parenting correspondent for ABC-TV’s Good Morning America and the host of Parenting Perspectives with Ann Pleshette Murphy on ABC- NOW. Her books include The Secret of Play: How to Raise Smart, Healthy, Caring Kids from Birth to Age 12, and she was editor-in-chief of Parents magazine from 1988 to 1998. She is Board President of Zero to Three, the leading US organization dedicated to promoting the wellbeing of infants and toddlers.
Featuring

Dr Xand van Tulleken

Medical doctor and broadcaster


Medical doctor and broadcaster who has presented numerous shows for the BBC and Channel 4, often alongside his twin brother Chris. He’s presented documentaries including Sugar V Fat, How to Lose Weight Well and How to Find Love Online, where he attempted to find the perfect match through exploring the science of online dating.