Cause & Effect (Part 1)

Posted on August 3, 2010


Humans are forever trying to explain what they see, to look at some object or condition and figure out what actions produced that result. It’s called Cause & Effect, and we use it all the time in just about every area of life. We plant five rose bushes. Three of them do really well, one does okay, and one dies, and we immediately set out to explain what happened. These rose bushes got plenty of sun and water, but that one was awfully close to the maple tree, and the dead one, well, that spot must have been too windy. We insist on reasons, even when we’re just shooting in the dark.

Needless to say, we’d be lost without the concept of Cause & Effect. In space exploration, for example, if we didn’t understand the force of gravity and its pull on objects toward the center of the Earth, we wouldn’t know how to build rockets that can be launched into orbit. But sometimes problems can arise when we reverse the process, confusing cause and effect. I have a series of examples, and I plan to write about them a post at a time. But the one that inspires the strongest emotion in me involves parents and children.

Conventional wisdom tells us that children model the behavior of their parents. If a girl acts in a certain way, we need only look at her upbringing to figure out why she does what she does. If a little boy yells and throws toys at playmates, his parents must be violent screamers, and he learned it from them. In other words, the child’s behavior is the effect; the parents’ behavior is the cause.

This, I suggest, is nonsense. At least much of the time.

We all know families with three or more children, and very often the kids have personalities and ways of behaving that are completely different from each other. One is quiet, one is talkative, one is angry, one is carefree. How do we explain this? I explain it this way: Every person is born with the blueprint of a fully-formed personality. If you want to change a child’s natural behavior, you have to exert a lot of force: verbal threats, physical abuse, confinement, or starvation — something extreme. But in most cases of normal, reasonably-healthy upbringing, the baby becomes the child and the child becomes the adult, and they’re all the same person. The apple seed is going to grow into an apple tree and the acorn is going to grow into an oak tree.

How, then, did we arrive at the conclusion that the parents are causing the child’s behavior? I think we’re confused by what we see. For example, there are mothers and fathers who always speak in a calm monotone to their kids. They never raise their voices and they never resort to corporal punishment; indeed, they never even threaten to do so. The parents use only soothing, positive language. They are calm and reasonable. And amazingly, the kids respond: they never act rude or spoiled or destructive or uncontrollable. They are well-behaved boys and girls, apparently because their parents treat them with respect and a rational tone.

I don’t think so. It’s the other way around. Some parents have great success by speaking calmly and reasoning with their kids, because the children themselves are calm and reasonable. The parents have no reason to try any other approach.

On the other hand some kids have personalities that aren’t so agreeable. Their parents may start out trying to be calm and reasonable, but patience eventually wears thin. In those cases the parents might grow increasingly frustrated, angry, loud, and aggressive. Later someone will see the child’s actions, connect it with the parents’ attitude, and conclude that the mother and father caused the kid’s unpleasant behavior. They will also look at the well-behaved children and give credit to the calm, patient, reasonable parents.

I have seen children lying on their backs on the floor at the mall, screaming their little heads off. I have never seen a grown-up do this, so I doubt the child learned this behavior from his parents. I have seen kids at a dinner table spit out or throw their food, fling silverware, and bang their heads on the chair. Again, I have never seen parents do this. If these kids are modeling someone’s behavior, from whom are they getting the example? For me, it’s easier to believe their negative behavior is a natural outgrowth of the personalities they were born with, but for some reason we’ve decided it’s better or easier to blame the parents. When a group of boys commit some violent crime, it must be a result of the way they were raised. If a girl falls into drug addiction or alcoholism, her mother or father must have shown her the way. I know several families in which the parents are torturing themselves because their kids are running wild and getting into trouble.

Any gardener knows that you can plant a hundred identical rose bushes in identical conditions, give them the same amounts of water and nutrients, and they will not all grow at the same rate, or produce the same number of flowers. Further, there’s no way to predict which will do well and which will struggle. In a similar way, I don’t think parents possess that much control over the way their kids turn out. They can exert significant influence early on and along the way, but at some point it’s out of their hands.

We need to stop listening to the television psychologists and the motivational speakers who say that parents are responsible for what their children do. As in many other areas of life, when it comes to this particular Cause & Effect, we don’t have nearly as much power as we think we do.