Zero Effect


I am expecting my fourth child in October. I am amazed by this fact. So amazed that if it weren’t for my growing belly, I’d still have a hard time believing it. Yes, to those of you who have asked, I do know how this works, but I also have a basic grasp of statistics, and I am a 42-year-old woman who has had eight miscarriages. Between my age and the particular problem that caused my miscarriages, I have more than an 80% chance of miscarriage in the first trimester of a pregnancy. And yet here I am, by the grace of God, nearly four months pregnant.

I’m getting my head around being a mother of four. I am now mostly happy and grateful, but in the first trimester I was a mess. There was the constant worry about miscarriage, of course, and the nausea, exhaustion, and temporary hormonal insanity, but also worries about whether we could really handle four kids, in a small three-bedroom house, with no extended family nearby, and presumably the same amount of patience my husband and I have now, which is not quite enough to make it through each day without wanting to flee the house or hide in the bathroom. I did some math, and if all goes well, I will be dealing with a teenage girl, a toddler, and menopause all at the same time. Lord have mercy.

I sought out a friend with four young children and asked her if she was ok, like, really ok. Kind and thoughtful woman that she is, she consoled and encouraged me and sent me happy bits of news about large families. My favorite was “The Breeders’ Cup,” a Wall Street Journal essay by Bryan Caplan from 2010.

I read this article back then, when I was a mom of two, but it didn’t speak to me. Now it’s like manna from heaven. Basically, Caplan argues that children are a better deal than we’ve come to believe. They don’t contribute less economically now than they used to, they have only a tiny negative effect on your happiness, having them is a decision that almost no one regrets (while many people do regret not having them or not having more), and raising them doesn’t need to be so difficult and stressful as we make it out to be. Here’s the kicker: it turns out that most of our parenting efforts have zero long-term effect on our kids. Zero.

Here’s Caplan:

Parents try to instill healthy habits that last a lifetime. But the two best behavioral genetic studies of life expectancy—one of 6,000 Danish twins born between 1870 and 1900, the other of 9,000 Swedish twins born between 1886 and 1925—found zero effect of upbringing. Twin studies of height, weight and even teeth reach similar conclusions. This doesn’t mean that diet, exercise and tooth-brushing don’t matter—just that parental pressure to eat right, exercise and brush your teeth after meals fails to win children’s hearts and minds.

Parents also strive to turn their children into smart and happy adults, but behavioral geneticists find little or no evidence that their effort pays off. In research including hundreds of twins who were raised apart, identical twins turn out to be much more alike in intelligence and happiness than fraternal twins, but twins raised together are barely more alike than twins raised apart….

Parents use many tactics to influence their kids’ schooling and future income. Some we admire: reading to kids, helping them with homework, praising hard work. Others we resent: fancy tutors, legacy admissions, nepotism. According to the research, however, these tactics barely work. Dartmouth economist Bruce Sacerdote studied about 1,200 families that adopted disadvantaged Korean children. The families spanned a broad range; they only needed incomes 25% above the poverty level to be eligible to adopt. Nevertheless, family income and neighborhood income had zero effect on adoptees’ ultimate success in school and work….

Behavioral geneticists also find that the effect of upbringing on morals is quite superficial. Parents have a strong effect on which religion and political party their kids identify with, but little on their adult behavior or outlook.

In 2010, this seemed like bad news. When I had two kids, on really good days I could imagine that I was more or less in control, or at least that with the proper advice I could hope to regain control. Also, when I was working more and spending more time thinking about my work, I tended to bring a career mindset to raising children. I would read the right books, seek advice from wise mentors, do my very best, and progress toward goals. But of course motherhood isn’t a career. It’s a vocation, which means it’s not about me and my goals.

Not that mothers and fathers have no power, or that our sacrifices are worthless. Caplan again: “The most meaningful fruit of parenting… is simply appreciation—the way your children perceive and remember you. When 1,400 older Swedish twins were asked to describe their parents, identical twins’ answers were only slightly more similar than fraternal twins’, and twins raised together gave much more similar answers than twins raised apart. If you create a loving and harmonious home for your children, they’ll probably remember it for as long as they live.”

This is good news. In fact, it’s pretty close to The Good News. It’s basically 1 Corinthians 13:1, the parenting version: If I am a wise, patient, financially secure mom who guides my children patiently through creative craft projects and keeps the house immaculately clean and orderly and always disciplines positively using natural consequences and gives specific praise instead of saying horrifying things like “You are smart,” but our house isn’t a place of love and harmony, then I am just a noisy gong or clanging cymbal. In the long term, and not even in the very long term—say, by the time my kids are 25—everything but the love will fade away, but the love will remain always.

Or, from a different angle: You might say the wrong thing, live in the wrong neighborhood, be a poor housekeeper or a bad cook, never do a single craft project, or tell your kids they are smart, but if your home is full of love, you’re doing everything that matters. “Love each other deeply, because love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4).”

(To be clear: love can’t cover the mortal parenting sin—abuse—because abuse leaves a child incapable of believing that they are loved and lovable. But surely love covers the venial sins of parenting—the raising of voices, the false accusations, the flared tempers, the fast food dinners, the poorly chosen words—along with the limitations we have through no fault of our own.)

All of which means I can relax, accept my children for who they are, and love them, knowing that their future is in God’s hands and theirs, not mine. I can be still and delight in them, and delight in having another one.

Like so much of the Gospel, though, this is easier said than done. Children are hard work, no matter how you look at motherhood or fatherhood. Even if I manage to surrender anxiety about their future and stop trying to mold them in some sort of image, they still drive me to the edge. Dealing with children, especially between the hours of 5pm and 7pm, can be crazy-hard, and adding another to the mix—what are we thinking? I might not look at the socks scattered across the floor or hear the rude demands for help (why must they call me like I am a disobedient dog? “Mom, Mom, MOM!”) and think, “What will become of you if I don’t instill better habits?” but I do think, “I can’t take this! You must stop that NOW.” Anger and frustration remain.

But if I keep my powerless to do anything good and lasting apart from love in mind, maybe fear doesn’t remain. And that’s the important thing, because perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18). The opposite is also true: when I am fearful and anxious about my children—who they are, their limits, their habits, their future—my fear temporarily drives out my love for them. My worst anger toward them, the poisonous, uncharitable kind, is always driven by fear and anxiety. There’s a big difference between “I can’t stand it when you do that,” and “What is wrong with you?!” Only the first is compatible with love.

Truth be told, I’m still a little fearful about the fourth child. But love will, over time, drive that fear away. And even if I end up locking myself in the bathroom at 5pm every day? Zero effect on them. Zero.

Just for kicks, I might even tell them they’re smart.

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  1. “But of course motherhood isn’t a career. It’s a vocation, which means it’s not about me and my goals.” Excellent point, very poignant. And yes, you can definitely do this and your kids are wicked smart!

  2. Rich Lloret says:

    Thanks for a wonderful article. I think being a parent is designed to aquaint people intimately with the difference between being God and being human. If you pay attention at all, it quickly becomes apparent that your children weren’t “made” by you, and they need more than you have to offer to become healthy and happy. This makes you terribly anxious. I think this anxiety is a reason people have so few children these days. Without God it is way too scary.

    The happy ending is if you ask God for help. The sad ending is if you forge ahead, making believe you’re all they need. You and your children will both find out you were wrong.

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