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It’s nature, damn it. Nature.

July 22, 2010

Unrelated image: Yvonne Decarlo

Hey, look, your job is boring anyway. Might as well spend a few minutes reading this awesome blog post on the New York Times from Richard A. Friedman, a professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in Manhattan who’s so goddamn cool I’m thinking about faking Capgras Delusion again to become a patient. His subject is nature vs. nurture–in this case, how parents beat themselves up when their kids turn out to be assholes. His view, refreshingly, is that you can do all sort of things wrong and still wind up with a good person on your hands and (surprise!) you can do it all right and still wind up with a jerk.

For years, mental health professionals were trained to see children as mere products of their environment who were intrinsically good until influenced otherwise; where there is chronic bad behavior, there must be a bad parent behind it.

But while I do not mean to let bad parents off the hook — sadly, there are all too many of them, from malignant to merely apathetic — the fact remains that perfectly decent parents can produce toxic children.

When I say “toxic,” I don’t mean psychopathic — those children who blossom into petty criminals, killers and everything in between. Much has been written about psychopaths in the scientific literature, including their frequent histories of childhood abuse, their early penchant for violating rules and their cruelty toward peers and animals. There are even some interesting studies suggesting that such antisocial behavior can be modified with parental coaching.

But there is little, if anything, in peer-reviewed journals about the paradox of good parents with toxic children.

There are few subjects, in my opinion, that get to the heart of nearly everything about modern parenting as this one. I’ve always thought that the one overriding obsession of our parenting generation is that we–beneficiaries of the best medical technology in human history; the greatest insights into the human character, mind and psyche; and the best developed sense of a child’s emotional needs–could and should be able to create perfect children: well-rounded, well-balanced, perfectly behaved and destined for cello-prodigy, cancer-curing immortality.

Friedman touches on the anxiety it causes parents to live in a world where there’s endless pressure on parents to make the right choices, and endless blame–often from the parents, aimed at themselves–when kids turn out, despite everything, to be dicks. (He also mentions the long-overdue, well-earned comeuppance of the odious Baby Einstein videos, which I somehow missed; God, that made me happy.)

I strongly urge you to read my new boyfriend’s entire blog post.

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