It’s been a little over a year since my first article on parenting appeared in the pages of Quillette. Soon after publication, the essay began receiving quite a bit of attention; both positive and negative. This is to be expected for a topic that is as personally relevant to people as this one. People either have children of their own, or know what it is like to be someone’s child. We all have skin in this part of the game. My argument in that essay was somewhat incendiary, as I was suggesting that little evidence exists for pervasive and long-lasting parenting influences on child development. I still maintain that position; not out of a personal bias, but simply because that is what the evidence demands of me. That said, this essay is about why parenting is arguably the single most important activity in which you will engage. This is true, not because you will mould your child’s intellect or personality like a potter. Rather, this is true because your child might write a similar essay about you one day.
I was raised in a rural part of northwest Florida, very close to the southern Alabama state line. My mother and father were unable to have children, so they adopted my brother and me. My earliest memories are of living in our mobile home, on the parcel of land where our house would eventually be by the time I was about five years old. I remember when my brother came to live with us—just prior to our new house being finished—and I remember moving into what seemed like a monstrosity of a home (but, what in actuality, was a modest sized brick home next to a pond). And I remember birthdays and holidays, one of which, in particular, stands out. I was in college by then, and had asked for a particular kind of watch for Christmas that I knew was extravagant by our family’s normal gift standards. I never expected to receive it. And yet, Christmas morning, it was the last gift I opened and I remember being shocked to receive such a luxurious item. I found out later that my dad had done some extra odd jobs to help pay for the gift. I wear that watch every day and I intend to give it to my child, if I’m fortunate enough to have kids of my own. I have a storehouse of memories like that Christmas.
I remember Sunday mornings at church, and summers spent camping at a lake not far from home. I remember my dad teaching me to waterski by spending hours patiently pulling me up and down the lake until I mastered the skill. I remember time spent hiking on trails and sitting beside camp fires. Last year, my wife and I were married beside that lake in a small white chapel, with my mom and dad looking on from the congregation. They have always been in the congregation, so to speak. They were at my sporting events in the stands, they were at my graduation ceremonies. They were just always there.
In 2012, they watched me pass through one of the darkest moments of my life when my first marriage dissolved. I was living in Texas at the time, and they drove immediately from Florida after I finally gave in and called them to deliver the news. A marriage that was only months old was somehow over. It was one of the few times in my adult life that I teared up in front of my parents. I remember not knowing what would come next in life, but having the reassurance that they would be in the congregation.
Parents are not just engines of either good or bad memories, of course. They are also banks of time, and as children, if we’re lucky, we slowly drain off their accounts across our whole lives. When we’re infants, our vulnerability requires near constant care. Time that could be spent reading, watching movies, advancing careers, or generally pursuing their own interests are forfeited to us. As we age, our demands for time change; requiring help with homework, a sounding board for frustrations, and a confidant for life’s secrets. Time is an investment that many parents and guardians give with no thought of recouping. And that’s a good thing, because there is no remuneration possible with time. When it passes, it’s gone forever. Human beings have a limited balance of time and loving parents bequeath so much of theirs to the children in their care.
The pages that I could fill recounting similar ideas and memories would be nearly endless. And my life is not special or unique in that regard. So many people have similar memories, and similar warm feelings for their parents. Tragically, many people do not. And this truth is at the heart of why parents matter and why parenting is important. My parents were not the puppet masters of my personality. They did not lay down marks that have persisted in me across the years. They did something so much more important. They were my guardians and my friends. They ensured that I was looked after, provided for, consoled, and comforted. They were (and are) a given. Parents either provide, or fail to provide, the luxury of taking someone for granted. Think about just how rare, and fragile, in life that is; to be able to take someone for granted. Very few people fit that mould. Sometimes even parents don’t hit that lofty mark.
Parents matter, not because they shape personality directly, not because they inject morality into the minds of their little ones, and not because they ensure the civility and productivity of the next generation by implementing various parenting strategies. Parents matter because human interaction matters. Time matters. Memories matter. Having a storehouse of memories where there is a surplus of good over bad is a wonderful thing. Sadly, not everyone will be so fortunate. My parents bequeathed no DNA to me or my brother. I don’t see my temperament and personality reflected back at me when I look at them. Yet, they were always in the congregation. Their accomplishment was huge; not because they moulded me into the man that I am today. No, their accomplishment was even greater. They exist as two of the most important people in my life. How many people can say that they matter that much in the world? I aspire to hit their mark. I hope that one day, someone writes that I am their most important person. Parenting provides a rare gift; an opportunity to matter in someone’s life. It’s an opportunity that requires no genetic overlap.
Also by Brian Boutwell:
Criminology and Criminal Justice at Saint Louis University.
His research interests include the biological evolution of human traits, genetic and environmental underpinnings of human violence, and general intelligence. His published articles have appeared in PLOS One, Behavior Genetics, Developmental Psychology, Journal of Psychiatric Research, Criminology, and Social Science and Medicine as well as others. He was also a coeditor of The Nurture versus Biosocial Debate in Criminology: On the Origins of Criminal Behavior and Criminality (Sage).