A New Approach to Parenting
The science behind personalized parenting, focusing just 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 closures, changing mask rules, and (for many of us) snow days with kids home AGAIN.
Covid-19, snow, the general agony 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 predated 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 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 has been unsustainable, creating an epidemic of exhaustion 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 exasperation (though there is plenty of that), but out of a willingness to admit that our intensive, unrelenting approach to parenting is not working. We need another way.
Here’s the good news: The science has never supported the need for such intensive parenting to raise happy, healthy children. We took that upon ourselves out of love for our children. It turns out it hasn’t been good for either of us.
Despite the wealth of parenting advice that’s 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 about don’t have very big effects on kids’ outcomes.
How can that be? It turns out there’s something else impacting our children’s outcomes which has a far bigger effect, yet is virtually ignored in the mainstream parenting discussion: our children’s genes.
A child’s unique genetic makeup is the single biggest factor impacting many of the life outcomes we care so deeply about as parents — their health, happiness, anxiety, impulsivity, school performance, compliance, behavior problems. Their genes shape the way their brains are wired, leading to differences in how our children perceive and react to the world. The role of any one of our parental decisions pales in comparison. Identical twins raised by separate sets of parents turn out remarkably similar.
This is actually good news for us parents — it means it’s not all on our shoulders to shape our children into functioning human beings. They have innate genetic programming for that.
Here’s another reason why we should care: failing to take into account the importance of our kids’ innate genetic programming has made our job harder. Not only has it led to unprecedented stress among parents, as we doubled down on our parental shaping efforts, but it has impeded 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, tailored to each child’s unique nature. It means that we don’t have to do it all; we don’t have to worry about everything. We just have to focus on what each of our children need most — which will differ for every child, based on their unique nature.
In medicine today, we are working toward individualized treatments formulated to a person’s genetic makeup. It’s called personalized medicine. The idea is that every person’s health profile is different; some of us are more predisposed to cancers, others to heart disease, and yet others to substance use 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 matters most 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 what 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, it’s exactly what we’d expect based on their biology.
The other good news is that this approach doesn’t require us to do anything extra
It’s not a set of directives that we have to add to our never-ending to do list. It only requires that we pay attention to our children; that we recognize and embrace their differences; that we acknowledge 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 flexibly adapt our parenting 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 been widely varied. For example, although the press has widely reported on increases in alcohol use during the pandemic, the data are more nuanced: In a large study of young adults, we find nearly equal amounts of individuals who report drinking less, drinking more, or no change. Even for outcomes like stress, while many individuals report worse mental health since the onset of the pandemic, over 20% of our sample reported no change in mental health, and almost 15% reported their mental health had improved. We are all wired differently, and we respond to the environment in different ways.
To be sure, there are some things that are good for all children — feeling loved and safe, having basic needs met, having predictable routines and boundaries. When these conditions are not present, it can lead to behavioral and emotional health challenges in kids. But beyond those basic needs, most of the things we worry about as parents just aren’t as important as we imagine.
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 kids from scratch — they already have genetic programming for that. All we need to do is be loving detectives, paying attention to each of our unique bundles of DNA to respond to their individualized needs as they arise. Let 2022 be the year we let go of superparenting and give ourselves a break.
Danielle Dick, PhD is a professor of psychiatry at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. She is the author of The Child Code: Understanding Your Child’s Unique Nature for Happier, More Effective Parenting, published by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.