The science behind personalized parenting, focus only on what your child needs
It’s been a rough start to 2022 for parents. The start of this year came with another new Covid-19 variant raging, more school closings, changing mask rules and (for many of us) snow days with kids at home AGAIN.
Covid-19, snow, the general pain of being a parent in these times may have pushed us closer to our breaking point, but parental stress levels have been growing for years, exacerbated by the more hands-on parenting practices that preceded the pandemic. . A corollary of our current intensive parenting approach is that it unconsciously leads us to feel more pressure and responsibility for our children’s outcomes. We have internalized the narrative that our every decision is critical to our children’s health, happiness and success in life. The Covid-19 pandemic played into that narrative in a way that was unsustainable, creating an epidemic of burnout and poor mental health among parents.
Where do we go from here?
This is the point where we parents must collectively say “Enough!” — not out of annoyance (though there is plenty of that), but out of a willingness to admit that our intensive, unrelenting approach to parenting isn’t working. We need another way.
Here’s the good news: Science has never supported the need for such intensive parenting to raise happy, healthy children. We took it upon ourselves out of love for our children. Turns out it wasn’t good for either of us.
Despite the wealth of parenting advice out there, a little-known fact is that the effect sizes associated with specific parenting styles are very small when you actually look at the data. In other words, many of the things we spend so much time obsessing over don’t have very large effects on children’s outcomes.
How can that be? It turns out that there is something else that affects our children’s outcomes that has a far greater effect, yet is virtually ignored in the mainstream parenting conversation: our children’s genes.
A child’s unique genetic makeup is the single biggest factor that impacts many of the life outcomes we care so much about as parents—their health, happiness, anxiety, impulsivity, school performance, compliance, behavioral problems. Their genes shape the way their brains are wired, leading to differences in how our children perceive and respond to the world. The role of any one of our parenting decisions pales in comparison. Identical twins raised by separate sets of parents turn out remarkably alike.
This is actually good news for us parents – it means it’s not all on our shoulders to mold our children into functional human beings. They have innate genetic programming for it.
Here’s another reason we should care: failing to consider the importance of our children’s innate genetic programming has made our job harder. Not only has this led to unprecedented stress among parents as we redouble our parenting efforts, but it has hindered our ability to have the greatest positive impact on our children.
There is another way
The alternative to our current intensive parenting style is personalized parenting, adapted to each child’s unique nature. This means that we don’t have to do everything; we don’t have to worry about everything. We just need to focus on what each of our children needs most – which will be different for each child, based on their unique nature.
In medicine today, we work on individualized treatments that are formulated for a person’s genetic makeup. This is called personalized medicine. The idea is that each person’s health profile is different; some of us are more susceptible to cancer, others to heart disease, and others to substance abuse or mental health challenges. Some medicines work well for some people, but are ineffective or even harmful for others. By understanding each person’s unique genetic code, doctors can focus on what is most important for that particular patient, and what will work best.
The same idea applies to parenting. Our children differ in their natural strengths and weaknesses. By being aware of what your child is most likely to enjoy, what they are likely to be good at, what is likely to create challenges for them and what they are likely to be at risk for, you can figure out where to focus your efforts as a parent, and which parenting strategies are likely to be most effective. What worked for your first child may not work for your second, and what works for your friend’s child may not work for yours. And that’s okay. In fact, this is exactly what we would expect based on their biology.
The other good news is that this approach doesn’t require us do anything extra
This is not a set of guidelines that we should add to our never-ending to-do list. It just requires that we pay attention to our children; that we recognize and embrace their differences; that we recognize that much of their behavior (especially the most frustrating part!) is a product of their biology, not a reflection of our parenting; and that we adapt our parenting flexibly to support each of our unique children. There is no one “right” way to parent.
One of the most striking findings from the data we have collected since the onset of Covid-19 is that response to the pandemic has varied widely. For example, while the press has widely reported increases in alcohol use during the pandemic, the data is more nuanced: In a large study of young adults, we find nearly equal amounts of individuals reporting drinking less, drinking more, or no change. . Even for outcomes such as stress, while many individuals report poorer mental health since the onset of the pandemic, more than 20% of our sample reported no change in mental health, and nearly 15% reported that their mental health had improved. We are all wired differently, and we respond to the environment in different ways.
There are certainly some things that are good for all children – to feel loved and safe, to have basic needs met, to have predictable routines and boundaries. When these conditions are not present, it can lead to behavioral and emotional health challenges in children. But beyond those basic needs, most of the things we worry about as parents just aren’t as important as we think.
Parents, we can’t do it all, and the good news is that we don’t have to
It’s not all on our shoulders to shape our children from scratch – they already have genetic programming for it. All we have to do is be loving detectives and pay attention to each of our unique bundles of DNA to respond to their individualized needs as they arise. Let 2022 be the year we ditch super parenting and give ourselves a break.