Why We Blame the Parents

My mother tried to raise me bilingual.

I only started talking when I was 4-5 years old (my father jokes that I learned how to read before I learned how to speak, which might be true if by ‘read’ you mean ‘recognizes the 26 letters of the alphabet’).

My mother blamed herself, thinking that by trying to raise me bilingual she ‘confused’ me.

Many years later, I actually researched the matter. It turns out there is no evidence of a correlation, let alone a causal relationship between a bilingual upbringing and speech delay. It was just a coincidence.

Now, some people – very subtly – blame my mother for not raising me bilingual. Because if a child can’t do something, or has any kind of problem, it’s obviously the mother’s fault.

First of all, it’s worth noting that mothers get more blame than fathers in these matters. Mothers are supposed to single-handedly bring up perfect kids, whereas fathers are only expected to provide material needs and play with their kids once in a while. Well, my anecdotal evidence indicates that my father was much more involved in my upbringing than the majority of fathers in the United States, so if someone wants to criticize my upbringing, they ought to put as much blame on him as my mother (then again, I think it’s also fair to criticize fathers who choose to take less responsibility for their children, since they are, you know, choosing to take less responsibility).

But I think one reason why people blame parents so much for the outcomes for their children is that the idea that parents have near-absolute control over the outcomes of their children is less scary than the alternative. The alternative, of course, is that much of life is subjected to random chance, and that there might be no to stop the horrible things that bad luck might send one’s way.

I think, even to my mother, it might have been more comforting for her to believe that it was her fault that I had a speech delay than that to believe there was nothing she could have done to prevent it. While self-blame hurts, it still lets one believe one actually has power and agency.

(Actually, the situation with my speech delay was more complicated than I’m making it out to be … but I’m trying to make a point about blaming parents, not give the most accurate impression of what happened with my speech delay).

Sure, parents sometimes really are to blame – in cases of neglect and abuse. But without evidence of neglect or abuse, I don’t think people should assume that it’s the parents’ fault if something ‘wrong’ happens with a child. And the evidence indicates that parents have less power over how their children turn out than most people think they do.

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