Judith Harris, in her very interesting The Nurture Assumption
, argues that children's personalities are formed primarily by their peer group, not their parents, hence that parental child rearing has a surprisingly small effect on how the children turn out. By her account, the contrary opinion comes in large part from confusing genetic influence with environmental influence. She mentions, however, an interesting special case—where the family is the peer group.
I was reminded of this reading comments to several posts on my adult son's blog
, in which he and commenters argue about whether and why one ought to have children, a discussion set off by his discovery that his views had over time become more nearly "socially conservative." I was struck by the number of people who seem to take for granted serious conflict between parents and children, both in their own background and in their concerns with what might happen if they had children.
That doesn't fit my experience. I cannot remember any point in my childhood at which my parents did not seem more nearly my sort of people than my age peers. The closest I came to rebellion, at some point in my teens, was informing my father that I had been feeling put upon, had considered the division of duties within the family, had concluded that I was getting off very lightly considering how much more my parents had to do, and had concluded that my feelings were due to adolescence not unfair treatment. I felt he should be warned, in case any of those unjustified feelings showed up in our interaction. Nor has there been any point so far in my interaction with my children—in particular the two I and my wife brought up (Patri's mother and I separated when he was an infant)—when they didn't feel like "us" not "them." Since the older is now in college, I think it's reasonable to conclude that that situation is not going to change.
My guess is that both as a child and as a parent, I was in a family that fit Judith Harris' special case—and I can see that parenting might be a lot less pleasant if I were not.
Which gets me to another book, one I have recently been rereading—Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish
. While organized as a list of words with detailed commentary, what it actually is is a picture of Ashkenazi-American culture in the first half of the Twentieth century, the world within which the author, and my parents, grew up. Features of that world included not only linguistic differences from the surrounding society but a lot of ritual, things done at particular times for particular reasons.
My friend and ex-colleague Larry Iannacone long ago raised the question of how, in a society like the U.S. with open entry to the religion industry, a religion can survive that imposes costly requirements on its adherents, requirements that do not produce any matching benefit. Why isn't such a religion always outcompeted by a new version that keeps everything else but dumps the costly restrictions—Judaism without koshruth rules, LDS with beer and coffee? His answer was that such restrictions do produce a "benefit"—they make it more difficult for adherents to interact outside of the religious community, and thus give them an incentive to spend time and effort producing community public goods, doing things that make being part of that community attractive.
It occurs to me that what I am seeing in Leo Rosten's affectionate description of the world he grew up in may be a special version of that relevant to the first half of this post. If you are brought up in an environment which is sufficiently special to make your age peers at school feel like "them" rather than "us" and your parents and siblings and relatives like "us" rather than "them," that may result in your identifying with the latter group. If their norms are better than those of the surrounding society, at least by their standards, they will see that as a good thing. Keeping their children is a benefit that may more than balance the costs of rules and rituals.
It doesn't have to be done through religion, of course, and in both of my cases it wasn't. My parents once raised the question, long after I was an adult, of whether they should have tried to bring me up in that same world, despite the fact that neither of them believed in their parents' religion. My response was that I preferred to have been brought up in the religion they did believe in—roughly speaking, 18th century rationalism, the ideology of Hume and Smith.
Which, of course, might be just as effective a way of making most of the outside world, including my age peers as I was growing up, feel like "them."