Friday, July 23, 2010

Do "Bad Seeds" Really Exist?

A recent program on NPR about parenting really made me stop and think. It made me question some of my prior assumptions that "there are no bad kids" (read: there are only bad parents/bad adults in their lives who fuck them up). It was the July 15, 2010 edition of Neal Conan's excellent "Talk of the Nation" program, with guests Dr. Richard Friedman, and NurtureShock author Po Bronson, called: "Sometimes, Good Parents Produce Bad Kids." Read the transcript or listen to it here.

It starts off like this: "In a recent article in the New York Times, psychiatrist Richard Friedman pointed out that mental health professionals have long been trained to see children as products of their environment, intrinsically good until influenced otherwise, and he disagrees. While there are all too many bad parents around, he argues, chronic bad behavior by a child does not necessarily mean bad parenting is responsible. Some kids are just bad seeds."


Of course there's that old yarn from both the real Boys & Girls Town and its film version - "As the twig is bent, so grows the tree." There's also, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree." Probably there some other arborial metaphors for child development in other languages, too. But perhaps these old adages have it wrong?

What say you, parents?


mom2boy said...

I'll be back after I think on this more. I read the NYT article but my comment now is just that today I was in my local grocery store and there was a group of what appeared to be middle school aged kids in various modes of "alternative" dress complete with one girl in a gas mask. It was 2:00 in the afternoon in a grocery store. Seems not really the time or place for a gas mask...I feel old and suddenly square...

Melba said...

I find it REALLY hard to believe that someone is born a bad seed. How can that be??? I'm a believer in the influence of circumstance and environment. And I think a key point to be made is that a child's parents aren't the only part of their environment that can influence their behavior and the choices that they make.

Some kids are born into certain socio-economic classes, some are born with things like fetal alchohol syndrome, some are abused as children, etc. All those things increase a child's likelihood of getting into trouble, but none of them mean that a child definitely WILL.

There are also kids who are more likely to succumb to peer pressure, just because of their personalities. Yes those kids are born with the personalities they are born with, but just because they are more likely to "follow the crowd" also doesn't mean they are a bad seed.

And there are kids born into warm and caring families, with parents who really do their best and make good parenting decisions, yet they still get into trouble... I think that this still is due to environment, but not necessarily parenting. A parent's "control" over their child's environment pretty much ends by about age 5 or 6. Kids start making their own friends. Some kids make friends with other kids who make poor choices, for example. Kids are influenced by teachers, media, parents of other kids... so many other environmental factors.

So I think there is no such thing as "bad seeds", but I also think that it is too simplistic to blame bad behavior on bad parenting. There are so many other factors to consider.

jac said...

I completely believe in the "bad seed" theory. One of the most humbling parts of parenting for me was realising that my DS came with a fully formed personality. He is who he is. We can work with him, and encourage him etc. but there are some personality traits which just exist, including some "bad seed" traits. Frankly, I find it relieving to believe that DS's entire future outcome for good behaviour is reliant on my parenting. I don't think I could take the pressure.

Jac said...

I didn't mean to say that my DS has bad seed traits, just that I believe that they can exist. DS is, obviously, perfect in every way.

Also, meant to say entire future outcome is NOT reliant on my parenting.

Melba said...

@jac, while I agree that we are all born with the personality that we'll have the rest of our lives, I don't agree that personality = behavior or actions. Behavior is within a person's control and can be changed (whereas personality cannot be changed). This might be oversimplifying, but behavior is really just a series of actions that you decide to do or not do.

I believe that your personality may lead you to make certain decisions, those are still your decisions and you can choose a different path if you want to.

FWIW, I carried a "bad seed" label as a teenager. I was that girl that your parents didn't want you to be friends with. I smoked, I drank, I snuck out of the house in the middle of the night, I "borrowed" my parents' car. When I was 17 I made a decision to shape up and get good grades and go to engineering school. And so I did.

Cloud said...

Interesting topic.

@melba- there has been some research on genes that predispose people to aggressive behavior, or risk-taking, or what not. There was some really interesting research on one gene in which one allele seemed to predispose you to be violent, but only if some sort of triggering event (like, say, being abused) happened. Fascinating stuff, but that research got all tangled up in racism, because some researchers found the "bad" allele was more prevalent in Maori. The original research showing that having this allele + a trigger predisposed you to problems was done in Europeans, so it is not at all certain that the allele has the same impact in Maori people, but some folks jumped to conclusions and decided that this is why there is a problem with child abuse amongst Maori.... it was a mess that I think led a lot of people to pull back from this kind of research. Which is a shame.

Cloud said...

Oops, I forgot, I was going to add-

My take is that some kids are A LOT harder to parent than others. And that unfortunately, the genetics of the situation means that the kids that are the hardest to parent might end up with parents who are least ready to take on the challenge. In a perfect world, the rest of the community would step in to help out in some lovely, non-intrusive way. But we live in a far from perfect world.

I mused on a related topic awhile back, when there was a tragic incident in my community, in which two teenage girls were kidnapped and killed:

BlueBirdMama said...

I don't believe in bad seeds per se. I think, as some have already mentioned, that some kids might have a challenging temperament or a personality mismatch with their parents (or for that matter, an unfortunate match that causes them to lock horns). And I believe a lot of very well intentioned, good people can still be unskilled parents (not necessarily bad).

Who is to judge if parents are bad or good anyway-- I didn't read the article, maybe there's more info there. My parents looked great from the outside, but there was a lot of emotional dysfunction in our family (still is) though my parents would describe themselves as great parents.

All that being said, every human being has their own journey. Our parents and genes impact us profoundly, but there is a lot that goes into shaping our fate, including the choices we make. I just think it's silly to talk about bad seeds like a child is "bad" from birth or un-redeemable after a difficult period.

nej said...

I gotta process this one, too, but right now I can say that in 1st-ish grade a teacher actually wrote on my brother's report card that he was AND I QUOTE "a bad seed." On his report card. Can you imagine?

Suffice it to say, he was. He did some really bad things, mostly in school, because as it turns out he is genius (documented genius IQ) and bored out of his freaking mind. He finally got his shit together, went to a really good school, and works at HP. So as with everything else, there are factors at work that you might or might not consider, see, understand, etc.

Zenmoo said...

Interesting - I was going to say that in the context of organic mental illness - yeah there are kids who are 'bad seeds' and while bad parenting wouldn't help, I'm not sure I believe good parenting will fix the problem. For example - if the same kid with lack of insight has poor parenting, they might end up a criminal in jail. Better parenting and they'll end up the accountant that fiddles tax returns...

But that's not what the article is talking about. It seems to be about your garden variety 'difficult' kid. I'm still processing, but in my own family I know that one of my sisters and I put very different motivations on exactly the same actions by our mother. My mother will do various things and I'll feel that they're well intentioned attempts to be helpful - my sister feels they're intrusive attempts to control her. Which may explain why I live next door to my parents and my sister lives on the other side of country... My poor mother sometimes asks me what my sister is thinking and I have to say, l usually have no idea! We're just very different people and always have been - right from birth. I love her dearly, but I don't 'get' her. So I can understand the idea that some kids are just difficult due to their innate personality.

@Cloud - I recall the fuss about the "Maori violence gene"
from when I was living in New Zealand. I don't remember the detail of the science - I probably only read the popular magazine interpretation.

Claudia said...

I'm really not sure what to say about this. I do believe some small minority is born destined to have a rough time of it. Whether it is because they are so different than the cultural norm, or that they have some residual hate from their last life, who knows. (I use the idea of previous lives flippantly. I don't believe nor disbelieve in that.)

I definitely feel kids come equipped with their particular personality, and parents can either help bring out their good sides, or rub them the wrong way, or more commonly a mix of the two. I was saying to DH today about how hard it must be to have a child who is so very different than you, that you would always be shooting in the dark, trying to parent them. I tend to shy away from any absolutes, so saying a kid is a bad seed doesn't seem fair. General misbehavior is most likely a misunderstood child.

By the way, I do have a blog, though I very rarely update it.
It's now linked to my name below.

Blue said...

Interesting post and comments everyone.

Does a child's success and behavior have to do with inborn personality traits. Yes. Are those traits malleable depending good or bad environments. Yes.

Perhaps it's possible that the "bad" kids we see whose behavior cannot be explained by some sort of parental neglect, abuse, or other environmental woe aren't "just bad seeds" but have endured something that isn't obvious or tangible.

I am not in agreement with Richard Friedman. I have seen a lot of bad behavior among young children as well as adolescents. I have also seen incredibly beautiful people blossom from shitty childhoods with very little potential for success. I believe tiny little kernels of experience can shape our children in ways we could never imagine. Combine that with those quirky personalities and who knows what we're gonna get!

mom2boy said...

Take two (very sorry if this ends up being a double response):

I think a heck of a lot more goes into parenting a child than what we think of as our conscious efforts. Hedra has an interesting post on how kids pick up acceptable gender roles based on the amount of eye contact a parent maintains when the child is doing an activity the parent is comfortable with them doing vs not. Innate plus conditioning is how I see personalities developing.
That said, I was wondering how being internally vs externally motivated plays into it. On the academic/life achievement threads I hear a lot about how being externally motivated (looking for outside praise) sets kids up for failure when the music stops. Um. okay, but what about when the internal motivation prompts for a different set of goals than the parents or society finds acceptable? Maybe these are the "bad seeds" the article refers to?

caramama said...

Once again, I left a lengthy but insightful comment on your blog, but Blogger appears to have eaten it. Urg! I can't even remember now what I wrote.

I won't rewrite all the awesome insightfulness that I had earlier. It was similar to what others have said.

I totally believe it's a combo of personality and how kids learn to behave based on their personalities. My daughter definitely has some personality traits that could get her in trouble. I've often said I just hope we are able to help her use them for good, not evil.

(My last comment was better.)

hush said...

I've been thinking some more and considering what you all have said... and I agree with pretty much everything everyone here has said. Call me logically inconsistent because yes, that's correct, I believe there are bad seeds, and then again there aren't bad seeds.

Actually, what I'm trying to say is I think the existence (or not) of a bad seed is just not a knowable thing. I think Friedman's so-called example of "proof" of the existence of a bad seed (based on his therapy patients) is clearly flawed. Parents often parent each child differently, and with different skill sets, as I am learning, so who is to say that parents who get 2 out of 3 kids to turn out seemingly normal aren't still somewhat at fault for the 3rd not turning out well? Like if a film director is really only as good as her last film - maybe the same can be said for parents. Then again, who is to say that there wasn't some other abuse/ mistreatment/ bad example the kid was exposed to from some non-parental source that is causing the problem behavior. I also think there are often just inherent personality clashes within families that provide a larger challenge than the parents can overcome.

@BlueBirdMama - Welcome!

@caramama - Blogger can bite me! I'm sorry about your comment disappearing - I'm sure it was a brilliant one as always. ;)

MLR said...

Hush, I am *so* glad to have (belatedly) found this post... That NYT article has been bugging me ever since I read it, weeks ago. As DH & I debate whether to have a 2nd, the possibility that we could end up with an incorrigible "bad kid" scares the heck out of me. Our 1st is no angel, but I know how to work with/on her (at least so far).

I am so relieved to hear that: (a) others are also scared by this concept; and, more importantly, (b) all of you intelligent women think that there is a large degree of bunk in this idea.

Thank you.

hush said...

@MLR - I'm late to saying it, but: You're welcome! Glad you stopped by & commented. Hope you & your DH have come to a mutually-satisfying answer to the question of whether or not to have another child.