I hope you are all doing very well. It strikes me that this is a formal way of me say I want you to be happy.
If you remember last week's email, I talked about a lot of the stories we frame our existence around and how they are ultimately empty.
When the clock strikes midnight, on New Year's Eve — nothing actually happens. When a couple dresses in formal wear surrounded by their loved ones and vow to be together — nothing happens. When another year passes since your birth — it is just an ordinary day.
A lot of what we take to be real is merely convention — nations, human rights, authority — for example. Many of our traditions amount to nothing more than elaborate games of pretending that adults play instead of children. There is actually nothing wrong with this.
All of these are means to an end. They are more and less skilful means to arrive at our happiness and security. The problem lies when we forget this and take them to be ultimately real. We invest so much in the means that we lose sight of the end. This is the tragedy I see play itself over and over in human life.
I recently saw for the first time The Tale of Princess Kaguya by Studio Ghibli. It was beautiful, both in its art and as a story. It perfectly illustrates the problem I am describing when we take our stories as real.
A bamboo cutter and his wife are living peacefully out in the country. One day, the man finds a ceramic doll in the bamboo forest that seemed to be alive. He brought it home and it became a baby. He took this as a sign from the heavens that he was to raise the child to be the princess depicted by the doll.
For the sake of her happiness, he decides that he must raise her to be a princess. In the process he destroyed it, moving away from the country displaced her from her friends and the pressures of living to his ideal of a princess was a considerable burden.
The sad thing here for me is how unnecessary this all is. There is no such thing as a princess. There is no proper way to walk, talk, eat and speak. There is nothing wrong with living in the country or playing in the mud. The adults of the tale were captivated by illusions that framed their lives; success, failure, nobility, peasants, pride, shame — and strived anxiously to live within them.
For happiness, we spin this web of concepts, but we get lost within them and forget they are of our own making.
It's almost like playing a video game and suffering greatly when you can't defeat the boss. The point of it all was happiness, when you suffer or cause suffering to play these games it defeats the point.
At the time I was debating myself. There were two standout parts of the book. I picked that one to feature. Now I will show you the other.
The Blank Slate talks about the common misconception of humans as being born without a nature, like playdough to be shaped, a canvas to be painted on or — as the title says — like a Blank Slate.
This misconception has dealt significant harm and confusion in the way we have raised our children. A whole generation of parents brought to believe almost every action of theirs could forever alter the course of their kids' lives. That they could micromanage the experiences of their child from birth to adulthood to ensure they turned out the way they wanted.
"People are appalled by human cloning and its dubious promise that parents can design their children by genetic engineering. But how different is that from the fantasy that parents can design their children by how they bring them up?"
"Realistic parents would be less anxious parents. They could enjoy their time with their children rather than constantly trying to stimulate them, socialize them, and improve their characters. They could read stories to their children for the pleasure of it, not because it's good for their neurons."
Much like in the case of Princess Kaguya, the parents that raised their children in this way struggled in vain and no doubt caused themselves and their children unnecessary suffering. The fantasy that parents could and should determine how their children are shaped was just another illusion.
The truth is the impact of parental influence is almost negligible when it comes to the deeper personality of an individual.
The three laws of behavioural genetics shed light:
- All human behavioural traits are heritable
- The effect of being raised in the same family is smaller than the effect of the genes
- A substantial portion of variation between us is not accounted for by genes or families
Pinker attributes ~50 per cent variation among us to genes, ~ 0 per cent from family influence and ~50 per cent from other influences.
"A simple way of remembering what we are trying to explain is this: identical twins are 50 per cent similar whether they grow up together or apart."
When face-to-face with this information, some lose heart. Pinker comments on the analysis of the researcher Judith Rich Harris on this problem. In response to highlighting these facts, her readers often ask:
"So you're saying it doesn't matter how I treat my children?"
The response is my favourite part of the book:
First, parents wield enormous power over their children, and their actions can make a big difference to their happiness. Childrearing is above all an ethical responsibility. It is not OK for parents to beat, humiliate, deprive, or neglect their children, because those are awful things for a big strong person to do to a small helpless one. As Harris writes 'We may not hold their tomorrows in our hands but we surely hold their todays, and we have the power to make their todays very miserable.'
Second, a parent and child have a human relationship. No one ever asks 'So you're saying it doesn't matter how I treat my husband or wife?' even though no one but a newlywed believes that one can change the personality of one's spouse. Husbands and wives are nice to each other (or should be) not to pound the other's personality into a desired shape but to build a deep and satisfying relationship. Imagine being told that one cannot revamp the personality of a husband or wife and replying, 'The thought that all this love I'm pouring into him (or her) counts for nothing is too terrible to contemplate.' So it is with parents and children: one person's behaviour toward another has consequences for the quality of the relationship between them.
Over the course of a lifetime the balance of power shifts, and children, complete with memories of how they were treated, have a growing say in the dealings with parents. As Harris puts it, 'If you don't think the moral imperative is a good enough reason to be nice to your kid, try this one: Be nice to your kid when he's young so that he will be nice to you when you're old.' There are well-functioning adults who still shake with rage when recounting the cruelties their parents inflicted on them as children. There are others who moisten up in private moments when recalling a kindness or sacrifice made for their happiness, perhaps one that the mother or father has long forgotten. If for no other reason, parents should treat their children well to allow them to grow up with such memories.
I have found that when people hear these explanations they lower their eyes and say, somewhat embarrassedly, 'Yes. I know that.' The fact that people can forget these simple truths when intellectualising about children shows how far modern doctrines have taken us. They make it easy to think of children as lumps of putty to be shaped instead of partners in a human relationship. Even the theory that children adapt to their peer group becomes less surprising when we think of them as human beings like ourselves. 'Peer group' is a patronizing term we use in connection with children for what we call 'friends and colleagues and associates' when we talk about ourselves. We groan when children obsess over wearing the right kind of cargo pants, but we would be just as mortified if a very large person forced us to wear pink overalls to a corporate board meeting or a polyester disco suit to an academic conference. 'Being socialized by a peer group' is another way of saying 'living successfully within a society,' which for a social organism means 'living'. It is children, above all, who are alleged to be blank slates, and that can make us forget they are people.
Thank you for reaching the end of another email. It's an honour to have you at the receiving end of these.
News: I have been making steady progress on a shiny new article and will be aiming to publish it within a week from now. Keep your eyes on your inbox!
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