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Blaming Your Parents

Young Sailor Ripley lacked “parental guidance.”

1,444 words

In the past, people used to blame the gods or the fates for their misfortunes. These days, they like to blame their parents.

  • “My parents were sedentary and fat, and their bad example is why I grew up sedentary and fat.”
  • “My father was always uptight. And now I’m uptight and can’t enjoy life.”
  • “Growing up with a mother who drank, it was natural that I would take to drink as well.”

  • “My father never praised me for anything, which is why I lack self-esteem.”
  • “My parents gave me up for adoption, which is why I have trouble forming close bonds with people today.”

And so forth.

All of these arguments assume that the parents did something wrong. They all assume the premise: “If my parents had done something different, I would not have these problems.” The underlying assumption of this premise is nurturism, the idea that our upbringing is what accounts for most of our psychological traits.

Nurturism, of course, is intuitively plausible. Obviously the things we are exposed to in life will have some effect on us. Otherwise why would we have senses in the first place? But it turns out that a lot of our basic personality traits, including the things that we are inclined to blame our parents for, are hereditary.

Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002) is a powerful critique of the nurturist assumption in the human sciences. But to my mind, the most persuasive evidence of the fine-grained hereditary determination of tastes and personality traits are studies of identical twins, especially identical twins raised apart often in very different home environments. The best summary of these studies is Nancy Segal’s Born Together―Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study (2012). I also recommend her captivating popular books, Entwined Lives: Twins and What They Tell Us About Human Behavior (2013) and Indivisible by Two: Lives of Extraordinary Twins (2007). These studies show that twins raised apart in different environments have a lot more in common with one another than with their adoptive brothers and sisters raised in the same environment. Also, as one grows older, the effects of nurture become weaker as nature asserts itself.

Now, for my purposes here, one does not need to believe that all our tastes and personality traits are hereditary. One simply needs to accept the possibility that the traits you blame your parents for are hereditary. Just try the idea on for size:

  • Maybe the reason you and your parents are sedentary and fat is because you all have genes for those traits.
  • Maybe the reason you and your father are uptight and can’t enjoy life is because you both have genes for those traits.
  • Maybe you and your mother are drinkers because you both have genes for alcoholism.
  • Maybe your father did not praise you because he saw too much of himself in you. In other words, you both had low self-esteem, and maybe it is genetic.
  • Maybe the reason your parents gave you up for adoption is they had trouble forming an attachment to you, which means that your difficulty forming attachments might be genetic.

Maybe you’d be pretty much the same even if your parents had given you up for adoption — or, in the last case, had not given you up for adoption.

Which means that your parents did nothing wrong. They just created you the only way they could, with the genetic material they had on hand, which was passed on from their parents. They didn’t get to choose some traits and exclude others. That wasn’t possible. Your genetic makeup is a package deal. And unfortunately, it wasn’t a perfect package. Newsflash: nobody’s perfect.

Maybe in a world where genetic engineering is an affordable option we can start blaming our parents for not making us perfect, but that is not the world we live in.

Of course, you might blame your parents for creating you in the first place. But it is incoherent to believe that your very existence is a crime committed against you by your parents. After all, you do have the option of suicide. And every day you forego that option, you are taking on a greater and greater share of the “blame” for your continued existence. At a certain point, you have only yourself to blame.

I know that there are legal abominations called “wrongful life” suits, but they make absolutely no sense. The legal system should not be a mechanism for giving vent to unhinged spite. (There goes divorce court.) Wrongful life suits set a dangerous precedent, for they make no sense unless we regard abortion as a moral obligation in certain cases. Even if you believe abortion is a right, a right is something you can choose not to exercise as well. An obligation is something you must do. We simply cannot risk making abortion obligatory in a world ruled by white-hating and man-hating Leftists.

But why entertain the idea that your misfortunes might arise from nature rather than nurture?

Because it makes our misfortunes easier to bear.

If an apple falls from a tree and hits you on the head, there’s no question that it hurts. But how would you feel if you discovered that the apple had been thrown at you? Or dropped by a negligent apple-picker? Obviously, it would add insult to injury. The physical pain would be the same, but on top of the pain, you would also feel indignation. Because you have not just been hurt, you have been wronged.

The pain in one’s head can fade quickly. Not so with the indignation. To satisfy one’s indignation, someone needs to be punished. And when one cannot get satisfaction, one’s indignation turns into bitterness, which poisons one’s soul and wrecks one’s relationships. Bitterness is a kind of neurosis. Neurotics have unresolved issues from the past. When they encounter people who merely remind them of those unresolved issues, or the people they blame for them, their anger is triggered, and suddenly an innocent person is subjected to bewilderingly inappropriate behavior.

If one comes to regard one’s misfortunes merely as misfortunes, rather than something inflicted upon us by malice or negligence, one’s underlying problems will remain. But one’s attitudes and feelings about them will change. One’s indignation and bitterness will slowly dissipate if one keeps reminding oneself that human malice or negligence were not at work.

Once you see your genetic heritage as a package deal, you can reflect on the good qualities that are entwined with the bad ones, which takes the sting out of accepting one’s fate and might even pave the way to loving it.

Maybe once you stop thinking your genetic misfortunes are injustices, for which you must receive satisfaction from someone else, you will start thinking they are simply problems that you yourself can overcome. Just because you have genes to be sedentary and fat does not mean you have to give into them. Just because you have trouble forming connections does not mean you are condemned to loneliness. Just because you have genes for alcoholism does not mean you can’t be sober. And so forth. It might be hard, but who said life would be easy?

One’s relationships might improve as well. Instead of feeling anger at one’s parents, one might even begin to feel compassion for them, for they are victims too. One will also be less likely to burden friends and strangers with embittered outbursts.

The whole world will look different once you no longer see it through eyes jaundiced by resentment.

If blaming our parents falls out of fashion, should people go back to blaming gods for our misfortunes? No. That would be no improvement. Religion is just another version of the idea that there are minds and wills behind our misfortunes, although in this case they are disembodied, inscrutable, and capricious. If we blame the gods for our misfortune, that simply means that religion magnifies our suffering by doubling it with indignation and bitterness. This is one way to understand why the Epicureans regarded atheism as therapeutic.

The underlying assumption of this argument is that even though genetic determinism is an immensely powerful force, our beliefs about what is determined by our genes also have power to alter our feelings and the course of our lives. This makes sense, for we would be ill-suited for survival if the only information we could use were hardwired into our genes. The evidence of our senses and the power of our reason are also tools for securing survival and pursuing happiness. If these words can change your beliefs, they can change your life for the better.

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27 Comments

  1. E
    Posted November 1, 2018 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Another “I wish someone gave this to me when I was 18” piece. There should be a book that collects the “Pursuit of Happiness”-themed articles on CC. It would make a great Christmas gift for young friends and family members.

    to my mind, the most persuasive evidence of the fine-grained hereditary determination of tastes and personality traits are studies of identical twins

    To me, it’s the history of Eastern Europe. After all the disposession, persecution and violent social engineering in the 20th century, 90 percent of the population is in the same spot in the social hierarchy where the grandparents and great-grandparents had been before. Somehow the ability of acquiring and managing property, living in a certain style, not getting into debt, and so on, was passed on to younger generations, even though for 50 years almost no one had the opportunity to excercise these talents because of external circumstances.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted November 1, 2018 at 11:39 am | Permalink

      This is a really interesting comment.

  2. C.B. Robertson
    Posted October 29, 2018 at 10:57 pm | Permalink

    Great piece.

    Two fun points:

    1. The arguments that the Gods make in the opening of the Odyssey, about how humans are always blaming them for their own misfortunes, could be made in defense of parents too.

    2. Our parents DID choose each other, so even our inheritance is, to some degree, the result of choices from our parents (mostly, our ancestors in aggregate). Because there is choice, there is also some direct responsibility in the genetics we hand to our children, even if this responsibility is mitigated by the relatively small amount of control we have in the grand scheme of things.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted October 30, 2018 at 3:40 am | Permalink

      Yeas, but it makes no sense to say to your father, “You should have chosen a better mother to have me with,” as if your “me” exists independent of the mix of both your parents’ genes.

  3. Stronza
    Posted October 26, 2018 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    A subset of this (blaming your parents) is famous, highly successful people claiming that their success was due purely to preparation, hard work, trying over & over again til they succeeded, etc. etc. ad nauseam. I run across this all the time. They never say that they were fortunate enough to have at least one highly intelligent, high-IQ parent, that they come from a long line of notable people or were just blessed with talent from day one.

    No, they want you to believe that if only YOU, little boy in the ghetto, would try as hard as they supposedly did, you’ll soon be famous, rich and recognized as a genius. No such thing as inborn talent. Even Jefferson said that the harder he worked, the more lucky he got. But he had to work hard because, poor guy, he was born stupid, and into a family of vagrants and beggars.

    1% talent and 99% hard work is all it takes, kids, so even if you are tone deaf and have no sense of rhythem, just keep practicing your violin or piano 5 hours every day after school and Carnegie Hall is in your future.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted October 27, 2018 at 3:13 am | Permalink

      Every successful person works really hard. But you are right. There is a lot more to it than hard work. They have a lot of inborn talents, and they are generally smarter than average. But the nurturist bias in our society discounts that.

  4. Wanred
    Posted October 26, 2018 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    I find that our society works very hard to break the bonds that hold families together and that ‘parent-blaming’ or seeing parents and grandparents as something that needs to be disposed of or merely entertained every now and then to make it go away again is what makes us so susceptible to losing our identity. Some people might not even be familiar with the idea of ‘ancestor worship’ or anything that would take them more than one, perhaps two generations back.

    I have always wondered what it would be like to live with 2 or 3 generations of your family in close proximity, working together with other families. This seems very natural to me and would instill a sense of belonging that most of us now seem to miss, continuously tempted by modernity to step into the void of knowing all yet knowing none.

    Or maybe it’s just me.

    • E
      Posted November 1, 2018 at 10:48 am | Permalink

      Some people might not even be familiar with the idea of ‘ancestor worship’ or anything that would take them more than one, perhaps two generations back.

      This is important. From the beginning of civilization until the mid-20th century people were obsessed with their lineage. A good lineage was even more important than wealth (of course in the best case the two came together in a packagage).

      It was about more than the desire to have an easy life. If someone was born into an old established family, he had ancestors who had been talented enough to acquire wealth. These ancestors also managed to consistently reproduce, and had the ability to pass on their good genes – or at least enough self-discipline to prevent the younger generations from blowing the money.

      Frankly, our great-grandfathers would have been baffled by today’s mate selection criteria. In the olden days, great beauty could help a woman compensate for lack of lineage or wealth, but usually not for both. Chosing a woman based on bra size was something characteristic of a “prole”. (Intelligent people are rarely ugly anyway.)

      At the top of the social hierarchy people often disappeared as individuals, and were basically identical with their lineage. A Hungarian aristocrat put it this way: “I am a link in the chain, and I am the chain itself”. Today, only the Masters of the Universe are able to think of themselves in these terms. (C cup bra: +1 point. Rabbi ancestor in 17th century Prague: +10,000 points.)

      There should be an end to the miseducation of men, and a return to old principles. Young Alt Right men should either marry into )))wealth(((, or start thinking of themselves as founding fathers of great new dynasties.

  5. Green Evening
    Posted October 25, 2018 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Doesn’t this conflict with your professed social paternalism, Greg?

    (which I agree with btw)

    If benign paternalistic inventions are a valid way of managing societies, then they should also be valid on the micro-scale.

    And the opposite must also be true:

    Parents can make small and large mistakes, innocently or otherwise, which can have deleterious long-term effects on their children’s lives.

    Sometimes things are Mother Nature’s ‘fault’.

    But sometimes things are just someone else’s fault.

    How one deals with that without resentment and bitterness is up to the individual of course, but it remains true nevertheless.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted October 25, 2018 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

      I don’t see how this conflicts with paternalism at all.

      Although I do differ from my friend Kievsky who puts a big emphasis on high investment parenting. Of course you should give your kids every opportunity to learn and grow. But chances are, by 30 they will be pretty much the same as a hypothetical twin who grew up without a tiger mom.

      Generally, I wish my parents had been more paternalistic. It might have saved me some time. But I would have had the same basic life course by this age.

      • Green Evening
        Posted October 25, 2018 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

        To be fair, I may have motivated reasoning:

        I am high IQ, but defective enough in character to have required overbearing paternalism IMO, and my parents’ relatively laissez-faire attitude was a great mistake.

        It could be argued that a paternalistic State would have the obligation to force certain parents to be more authoritarian!

        But perhaps you can’t build a society around the misfortunes of a small minority of intelligent misfits.

  6. Internet stänger
    Posted October 25, 2018 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    My cousin is in a wheelchair. She was born without good balance. Once someone asked her if she didnt suffer. She just answered “dont you get it? Some people are in wheelchair, and some are not”. And thats all it was to it.

  7. Prestoz
    Posted October 25, 2018 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Good article. I’ve thought a good deal about this. It ties in with a theory that I have developed. My father was in the Air Force for 30 years and is a sober, disciplined stoic.
    My brother is a shitlib whereas I am alt-right. Surprise-surprise he works assisting refugees. He whinged to me one time that Dad didn’t teach him entrepreneurial skills! Neither one of them with anything entrepreneurial whatsoever in their lives. Go figure!
    My theory is that a person reaches “maturity” or could be said to have “grown up” once they stop blaming their parents for their situation. In most cases parents are just ordinary people with drives and desires like all of us, simply trying to do their best.

  8. Omar Salinas
    Posted October 25, 2018 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    My own experience definitely lines up with what you’re saying here. As I get closer to 30 I am becoming/discovering who I really am, what I am capable of, my true beliefs shorn of childish notions. I certainly have some issues with my family (what family doesn’t though) but am realizing that they overcame the bad habits and abuse of their parents and that we all have our crosses to bear.

    I remember reading MK and he said at one point that a man should never get into politics before 30 because he is, basically, not fully developed yet. It seems that the more complex a society, the longer one needs to reach psychological adulthood. Yet so many don’t! I know guys younger than me that (seem) more put together, but also know grown men in their 50s who have never known stability. I guess adulting is hard. lol

  9. Posted October 25, 2018 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Brilliant! And wonderfully well-written. I remember reading a study by Harder? long ago when I was an undergraduate. He followed the offspring of psychotic mothers (who were institutionalized) and male attendants/nurses (who raped them), who were given up for adoption immediately after birth. When these babies grew up, there were maybe double or triple the number of psychotics as found in the general population (still a very small minority), and what’s really interesting is that there were more of every other kind of psychopathology, like alcoholism, depression, etc. But the ones who escaped from these psychological problems were unusually successful and creative people! This is just one study, of course, and I’m sure it would be possible to pursue this further today. But if these conclusions hold up, it would explain why mental illness persists in populations all over the world (same principle as the sickle-cell gene, which protects from malaria in heterozygotes, and pretty much destroys the homozygotes).

    • Julien
      Posted October 25, 2018 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      There is a book called ‘Born Under Saturn’, fascinating 🙂

  10. Posted October 25, 2018 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    An excellent film with similar subject matter is GATTACA. It is a good warning against complacency, whether that comes from good or bad fortunes.

  11. margot metroland
    Posted October 25, 2018 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    This is very useful social criticism. The blame-your-parents meme seems to have come out of pop psychology and 12-step groups (“Adult Children of Alcoholics”), and built up steam mid-20th century. And of course ‘progressive’ social engineers who like to push stories about how people are disadvantaged by their environment, and how abused children become child abusers.

    Parent-faulting had always been around, but people didn’t parse out the sources of their own damage in their parents’ willfulness. Charles Dickens hated his mother for wanting to send him back to the blacking factory when he was 12, but he didn’t say it crippled him for life or made him a bad husband.

    Philip Larkin’s stoic resignation is hard to improve upon (though unlike Larkin you probably don’t want to obey the final line):

    Man hands on misery to man
    It deepens like a coastal shelf
    Get out as early as you can
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

    • Marc
      Posted October 26, 2018 at 8:51 am | Permalink

      Haha yes but the “they fuck you up, your mom and dad” poem has a different take!

    • Marc
      Posted October 26, 2018 at 9:02 am | Permalink

      They fuck you up, your mom and dad,
      They don’t mean to, but they do.
      They give you all their faults and then
      They add some new ones, just for you.

    • Peter Quint
      Posted October 26, 2018 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      “Man hands on misery to man
      It deepens like a coastal shelf
      Get out as early as you can
      And don’t have any kids yourself.”

      If only jews would take this to heart, and practice it.

  12. Brady and His Bunch
    Posted October 25, 2018 at 7:31 am | Permalink

    “Maybe your father did not praise you because he saw too much of himself in you.”

    This line gave me my morning laugh.

    • Marc
      Posted October 26, 2018 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      They f*** you up, your mom and dad,
      They don’t mean to, but they do.
      They give you all their faults and then
      They add some new ones, just for you.

  13. Posted October 25, 2018 at 4:48 am | Permalink

    Screen time is child abuse.

    Keep the kids doing 3D activities like building model airplanes, riding bicycle, climbing trees, fishing, piano lessons, knitting, soccer and working out math problems.

    It definitely matters. Adult TV babies are way way behind the 8 ball.

    • Julien
      Posted October 25, 2018 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

      Parenting is much more complicated than before. Used to be that you could just unleash them into the woods.

  14. Adrian
    Posted October 25, 2018 at 4:44 am | Permalink

    Personally, I blame the Jews.

    • Ozark Recluse
      Posted October 25, 2018 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

      Cracked me up!

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