There’s an interesting column by Anna Quindlen in this week’s Newsweek. Her point is, in the main, a modest one: Many of us can be much better parents if we are actually taught something about how to be parents.
What’s interesting to me is that I think there is another underlying assertion here as well–that parenting is not something that we all just naturally know how to do well. It’s not instinctive, as learning how to walk is. No one teaches us to walk–we are just programmed to do it. Parenting isn’t like that. We don’t just know how to do it. It does not just come naturally.
I think this ties into my general skepticism about the importance of a genetic link in determining who a parent is. Parenting isn’t something one knows how to do automatically and that’s true whether one is genetically related to a child or not. I am quite sure that many people feel deeply bonded to their children because of the genetic link, but I’m just as sure that many people feel deeply bonded to their children where there is no genetic link. I’d bet (though I confess I have seen no studies) that the presence of a genetic link does not cause one to be a better parent.
We sometimes speak about the “natural parents” of a child. By this we usually mean the people genetically related to the child, and it often stands in contrast to “adoptive parents.” But while the creation of children may follow naturally from certain acts, actually living the role of a parent does not. That’s what Anna Quindlen is writing about. People become parents–parents in a true sense of the word–when they take on the obligations and responsibilities for a child. They may do this in the presence or the absence of genetic linkage. When they do this, if we are all lucky, the put the time and effort into learning how to be good parents. (I don’t, by the way, mean to suggest there is one right way to be parents.)
In the end, I think we live with a powerful myth about the naturalness of parenthood. It has two aspects. First, that a child’s parents are naturally determined, by virtue of the genetic link. And second, that parenting comes naturally, rather than being both taught and learned. It’s worth thinking hard about whether these things are true.