Column | Despite your well-intentioned advice, children make their own way

Before I knew it, I was once again explaining to someone how to do things. My heavily pregnant partner was determined to be better prepared this time after the previous difficult long labor that ended in a c-section. I heard myself say that. “You just have to let go of control. You just have to find that undercurrent and then it will all work out. Then you push that kid out like that.”

Flawless example of the contemporary ‘you must be normal’. “You just need to breathe a little easier.” Or ‘just listen to this podcast and you’ll fall asleep in no time’. Like people with hyperventilation or insomnia respond with ‘Yeah, thanks. So simple. I did not know.’

You just have to. You also often hear that from the hospital. Just live a little healthier, and those waiting lists will disappear in no time. Last week, in a lifestyle article in this newspaper, it was suggested for the 10th time that when nutrition is taught in the medical curriculum and the doctor of the future can give patients advice that will lead to sustainable behavior change. Would it? Doctor: You just need to exercise and eat less. patient: really? Why hasn’t anyone told me this before?

‘You just have to’. If we want to become more empathetic and realistic, we should delete these three words. But the silly innocent goodness behind it runs very deep. We are busy all day with easy problem solving, with advice, therapy, courses, coaching and advice. Children’s personalities can be shaped in primary school with all kinds of training. Good parenting can be learned. Did you know that even the toddler’s temperament is caused by the parenting style?

A weighty scientific article was recently published on the link between bedtime habits and children’s temperament. What do you think? Parents who practice so-called “active rituals” (read driving around in the pram or in the car, rocking, bottle feeding) are associated with what the authors euphemistically call “challenging” temperament. Whereas parents who sing only one song create much calmer children. And calmer children make better citizens, students, employees and patients.

The most overrated scientist of all time, Sigmund Freud, once decided that every behavior, fear, anger or other character flaw is the result of the parents. Since then, major studies have attempted to prove Freud right. In vain. In the book The upbringing assumption by Judith Rich Harris, she describes all the studies that should conclude that parents have surprisingly little to gain. It becomes especially problematic when examining the personalities of sisters and brothers. Children who grew up in the exact same household, with the exact same parents, with the same parenting style, culture, religion, wealth, poverty, education level, should still look awfully alike. And yet you often see surprisingly few similarities between sisters and brothers.

It is often the other way around, writes Harris. Parents adapt their parenting style to the child. You say goodnight to a child and he sleeps. You tell yourself it’s because of your good parenting style. The other is the same, falls asleep easily. Just when you’re thinking about starting a coaching clinic to teach others how to help children fall asleep, the youngest comes into the world, driving you to despair, and with whom you walk around exhausted all night until he finally falls asleep. Could his temperament and personality be a result of those laps in the pram? Or the reason?

‘Parents just have to sing a song’, the newspaper’s authors seem to conclude. You just have to. Not only is it extremely inappropriate. It is also without convincing scientific evidence. But maybe it’s even worse: It suggests that if your child doesn’t sleep, doesn’t eat, bullies, bites or hits others, it’s your own stupid fault. You just had to sing a song, science whispers. It’s that simple.

By the way, the boyfriend had another difficult delivery. The embezzlement was again nowhere to be seen. Of course not. It didn’t matter what I said or what she tried. Children decide their own path. From day one.

Rosanne Hertzberger is a microbiologist.

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