Why We Blame the Parents

I don’t know about you, but I often hear people say things like, “His parents really raised him right,” when good things happen for a young person. Or, “Her parents must have let her run wild,” when a teen or adult child gets into trouble. But is that really true? Are parents mostly to blame when something goes wrong and can they take the credit when their child grows up to be successful?

In my work as a therapist and social worker, and in my own life, I have seen much to contradict this belief. I have known kids from broken, abusive and chaotic families, become, by all accounts, successful people: loving, engaged, happy in relationships. On the other hand, I have witnessed kids addicted, depressed and suicidal, who were loved and given structure and security from the time they were born. So what gives? How can it be that one child in dire circumstances will flourish, while another with many advantages becomes addicted and takes their own life? I don’t have all the answers, but here are some things to consider.

We often believe parent’s are responsible for how a child turns out because:

1. We don’t understand genetics. Genetics are a powerful thing. Scientists differ on how much of a person’s temperament, intelligence and motivation is in-born, but most agree a significant portion is. When mental illness or addiction is a factor in a child’s success or failure, genetics often becomes even more important.

Many dysfunctions of the mind are passed to children through their DNA and when it comes to addiction, geneticists have determined that genes play a significant role. The National Council for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence puts it this way, “Research has shown conclusively that family history of alcoholism or drug addiction is in part genetic and not just the result of the family environment.”

Acknowledging the role of genetics can be challenging, because it implies, rightly so, that some things are out of our control. Whether our child becomes addicted to a substance or mentally ill is often not something we can prevent. In Al-Anon, one short hand way to embrace this truth as it relates to alcoholism goes like this, “I didn’t cause it. I can’t control it. And, I can’t cure it.”

2. We don’t understand the power of peers and culture outside the home. Judith Rich Harris is a science writer and researcher who spent most of her career writing college text books. She wrote a lot of psychology texts and all of them said the same things about why kids turn out the way they do: it was “nature (genetics) and nurture (parents)” that dictated the outcomes. But after years of writing about all this Harris realized that something crucial was missing in this discussion and a huge assumption was being made that “nurture” was the same as environment and that parents were all that contributed to the environment. “What about peers and the culture outside the walls of the home?” she thought.

This began her investigation into the role of the peer group and culture in a child’s life.  Peers and the larger culture as a whole, it turns out, have a profound impact on the development and eventual outcome of a person’s life and can be more powerful than parents in many cases.

Here is how Harris puts it, “There is no question that the adult caregivers play an important role in the baby’s life. It is from these older people that babies learn their first language, have their first experiences in forming and maintaining relationships, and get their first lessons in following rules. But the socialization researchers go on to draw other conclusions: that what children learn in the early years about relationships and rules sets the pattern for later relationships and later rule-following, and hence determines the entire course of their lives.

I used to think so too. I still believe that children need to learn about relationships and rules in their early years…But I no longer believe that this early learning, which in our society generally takes place within the home, sets the pattern for what is to follow. Although the learning itself serves a purpose, the content of what children learn may be irrelevant to the world outside their home. They may cast it off when they step outside as easily as the dorky sweater their mother made them wear.”

3. We are afraid. Another reason we blame parents when things go awry with their children has to do with our own fear. If it was their poor parenting that is to blame, then we can avoid the same things happening to our kids if we just do things “right”. It is analogous to the way we often blame a rape victim for the way she dressed, her choice to visit “that” place or her other “poor choices”. If we believe it is her fault then we can also believe that we will be safe if we just dress conservatively, stay away from dangerous places (whatever those are) and never have a drink in public.

When we blame parents we also distance ourselves from any responsibility we have to their children. We don’t have to think about how the economy, the schools, popular culture or politics are impacting them, or what we could do about any of that if we thought it was our problem too.

4. Sometimes we are right. Sometimes, parents are completely to blame. Sometimes the things parents have done and not done, the things they have said and not said, are all that matters to a child, and these choices, if they be negative, can devastate a human being. But, rarely, is it that simple.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment

Post a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

  • About The Author

    Lois Schlegel

    Lois Schlegel, MFA, MS, mental health therapist at Life in Bloom Counseling in Medford and Ashland, has 20 years of experience providing services to individuals and families. She has taught parent education and life skills classes to adults and ... Full Profile
  • Categories

  • Archives