Parenting According to Pinker
My sense of Pinker, now having spent part of two weeks of my life with him, is that he is quite interesting and maddening. I imagine most do not view him neutrally and either love or hate him. As soon I am apt to describe him as cold, he offers something that smacks of warmth. He uses hundreds of footnotes and sources. He is thoroughly convinced of his positions and has quite a number of academic enemies that oppose him.
The Blank Slate is his defense of human nature and the objection to the idea that humans are solely a product of their environment. Even the title is inflammatory. There is a great deal of debate about whether Pinker’s premise is even accurate. Behaviorists take offense at the idea that they or anyone in related fields, subscribe to a “blank slate” perspective. This book is untimely and unnecessary in their minds. No one denies the role of heredity in human behavior any longer.
I did attempt to intersect The Blank Slate with my personal research topic, even though Pinker’s chapter on children was of most interest this week. Early on, Pinker provided some fodder about the limits of science on defining the human experience and contrasts humans with machines and clockwork.Here he is warm and asserts that humans are much more than a collection of molecules because of choice, dignity, and responsibility. It is demoralizing to treat humans as cogs. I wonder about its application to church leadership development programs that can tend to lean too mechanistic.
But I could not stay with it and found myself intrigued with the idea of children being a blank slate. Are they clay in our hands? Admittedly, these past months of parenting have been pressure-filled. Could an atheistic humanist offer any relief, any loosening of the pressure valve?
Reading the chapter in its entirety was like riding a rollercoaster and I, like many that he refers to, had adverse reactions to the case he makes. He works to debunk much of contemporary parenting philosophy and it is quite the ride. Pinker reviews the three laws about what we know about genes and children and I found the third the most interesting:
The Third Law: A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families.
He refers to Harris’ The Nurture Assumption often which was met with wide backlash when it was released. Harris offers data that challenges the assumption that parents are the driving factor in how a child is shaped. These numbers are without a lot of context here but I will share Pinker’s more generous formula for how kids turn out as adults: “Genes 40-50%, Shared Environment 0-10%, Unique Environment 50%”.
So what is the unique environment? It is not straightforward but what Harris proposes as more influential for a child’s unique environment are peers and not parents.
I want to believe that there is a formula to parenting. If I will do these sorts of inputs (x) and create these kinds of conditions (y), I will achieve great things, which of course means that my kids will turn out really amazing. X+Y = predictable result as I envisioned it.
I want to believe it and yet cannot. I have too much real data from the communities of which I am a part to put 80%+ on the parents. But are Harris and Pinker right?
Secretly, for all the shock of this chapter, there was also the sigh of relief. I am discerning my own deep need to succeed at parenting and to “achieve” at parenting. Forget the pressure to get a good grade in LGP, what grade will I get for 18+ years of parenting?? And my immediate response to the chapter conclusion, is “ok, I will do everything I can to make sure my kids have the exact peers they need to turn out good.” And I notice my own anxiety.
Does my parenting matter? Absolutely. If nothing else according to Pinker, it will decidedly inform the long-term tenor of our relationship. Has my secret, hidden pressure been relieved? A bit. Just admitting it to you helps, along with considering the factors that are beyond my control. No one is the perfect parent (or the perfect pastor) and while it feels good to take credit for positive outcomes, we must be careful. If winning means too much at the soul level, I am convinced that failure will mean too much. Being the beloved of God puts a floor to my need to achieve and perform and this needs to include the areas of parenting. Amen.
 Henry D. Schlinger, “Not So Fast, Mr. Pinker: A Behaviorist Looks at The Blank Slate. A Review Of Steven Pinker’S The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature,” Behavior and Social Issues 12, no. 1 (2002): pp. 75-79, https://doi.org/10.5210/bsi.v12i1.81.
 Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (London: Penguin, 2019), 10.
 Pinker, The Blank Slate, 380.
 Ibid., 380-1.
 Judith Rich. Harris, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn out the Way They Do (New York, NY: Free Press, 2009).
13 responses to “Parenting According to Pinker”
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Andrea, this is a critical concept to let settle deep in your mind and heart. Having raised two children who are now 38 and 36 I realize we didn’t make some of our parents “mistakes,” but certainly made new ones of our own. That said, there were continual conversations between me and my husband about where a certain behavior or mindset came from, as it was no where in our part of their world. Sometimes it wasn’t in their peers either. I do see some traits in them that reflect family members several generations back on both sides that cannot be denied. I’m convinced it is nature and nurture.
I am a bit emotional reading this and wonder if this is part of what I will carry with me from this program – yes, global perspectives but also local perspectives. God has ministered to me through you and this cohort – sharpened me. Thank you for your love and friendship and wisdom, Tammy.
Great blog/sermon for us parents Andrea! So much of a youths identity is determined by their peers. This now makes me want to learn more about Pinkers family life and situation!
As the parent of 3 kids who do not share any of my genetics I am constantly wanting to believe the traits my children show that don’t reflect well on me are the result of their genetics. But most of what I see is a reflection on their environments. I look at my oldest and his impulse control issues, then look at his biological history and see those same issues there in both of his biological parents. But I also see his kindness and desire to help and that reflects on so much of what has come from our house. I cannot put a formula to it no matter how hard I try, but what I can do is still try and trust that there is something greater than genetics and environment that will ultimately shape him and his brothers.
One of the things I’ve been chewing on lately as a parent is the value of showing my kids how to live the best they can with the genes they have. It wasn’t until well into my adult life that any of us talked about my mom’s struggle with depression and anxiety. She chooses to not address it and does her best to simply push on. Part of my decision to address it as it emerged in myself was motivated by the high likelihood that at least one of my children would inherit this challenge. I’m trying to embrace how much of parenting is just acknowledging the ‘clay’ that our family has to work with and how to do our best to use that well. This is of course different if you are parenting children that don’t share our genes. How much of yourself do you see in your kids? What if parenting was more like worship where the goal is not well adjusted children, but love poured out upon them as an offering to God? Bless you in this holy work Andrea.
Ah Jenn – your parenting journey has been such a gift to me. Thank you for sharing some details of your home and for the thought of parenting as worship. YES!
Thank you for this response, Jenn. Your reminder of the holy work of parenting touched my soul. Thank you for righting my perspective of parenting as a beautiful act of worship. Blessings!
Such a great post. I think one thing we all can never forget is the God factor. If environment or genes where the sole determining factors I wouldn’t be here today, but at the same time I do see how God has used both to make me the person I am today.
Yes Mario – needed that!
Andrea, what a great post and discussion on parenting. As a children and youth minister, I see that many of the children are compliant and love learning about the Bible, especially while they are young. However, I do have a couple of children that I wonder about that are very strong-willed and refuse to go along with the crowd. I try to show each child that they are valuable to God and that they are made in His image. Believing what the Bible says about children being like arrows, shows that we can only point them in the right direction but we can also trust that God will do the rest. Does that make it easier? Sometimes not, when you see your child choosing a path you don’t agree with. But that’s where prayer and trust in God come in. That’s about the best we can do, and for me it will have to do. Blessings!
Thanks so much for your very thoughtful and vulnerable post. As both a practitioner and observer of parenting, it would appear we take far too much credit and by far too much blame for the “output” of those we parent. I wonder if my coaching framework has helped me to see instead I am far more helpful (and far saner) by establishing and keeping open the door of relationship and offering to be an affirming thought partner for life. While I am not responsible to fix the one being parented, or the results, I am responsible for the process of really listening and occasionally asking thoughtful questions. I have found this invaluable in building a life-giving relationship with my 31-year-old son who no longer professes to be a follower of Jesus. My thoughts and prayers are with and for you.
Thanks, Abrea for sharing and connecting Pinker’s theory of the blank slate with parenting. Does Parenting actually have any effect on the character of the child during growth? I am a parent of three children aged 36, 28 and 26 years old. It has not been easy and they all came out with different characters but raised up by the same principles of parenting. What influences the children as they grow up? Parenting or peer influence through schools and the environment? It is hard to nail one down. Can peer influence overwrite parenting ethos?
Thank you Andrea, this is a great post and sure enough it has generated so much contributions from almost everyone. It’s a testament of how close parenting is to all our hearts and how keen we all are to succeed at parenting. I’m thankful that Jenn has pointed us to the fact that parenting is worship and I agree to it. Personally I have 3 biological children and recently adopted two more to make five. One of the “adopted” is already 20 and thus “fully grown” so to say but I realize that there is still so much I can do to help him heal from the trauma of living on the streets, and witnessing his dad kill his mother and himself, and only survived because he was close enough to the window to escape, ultimately leading him to Christ. The second “adopted” is 12 but was rescued from early marriage and she’s relearning to be a child and having to start schooling at 12. I know that there is so much they have already learnt from their unique environment but I long to see to it and pray that God will help me to nurture them right and for His glory.
My biological children are 23, 20 and 13 and as much as I see so much of us as parents in them, I recognize that there’s also so much more from their unique environments. The only thing is that as a parent, I have the leverage of influencing the peer or other unique environments, or so I think.