Parents represent our first relationship and remain formidable influencers throughout our lives. While the alliterative expression “Nature vs. Nurture” first appeared in the Elizabethan period, it’s been a raucous debate for nearly 500 years with everyone from Charles Darwin to John Locke and Sigmund Freud all weighing in. At its core is a contention that either a) genetic and biological factors are responsible for our fate, or b) the environment and experience shape our destiny. In either case, our parents are equity partners in the equation.
Emotional Incest Syndrome
Covert incest, also known as emotional incest, was defined by psychotherapist Dr. Kenneth Adams in 1987 by two interlocking criteria. 1. The physical parent/child relationship does not involve sexual contact, whilst 2. the emotional dynamic between the parent/child mimics a romantic relationship.
Treating the Adult Children of Alcoholics in the 1980’s, Adams’ was treating patients who had a parent or caregiver in distress. “Infidelity, abandonment, domestic violence, divorce and death were common themes” Adam’s explains, amongst the spouses and children of alcoholics. Yet another attempt link children’s behavior and wellbeing to their parent — it wasn’t the first.
From Freud to Spock and Beyond
In his book Silently Seduced: When Parents Make Their Children Partners, Adams’ observes that covert incest generally caused a love-hate relationship with the parent or caregiver. The child prioritizes their parent’s needs, above and beyond their own, which manifests in difficulty identifying their own needs as adults. A general feeling of inadequacy and unworthiness leads to compulsive behaviors and addiction, and like their parents they often have difficulty forming lasting intimate relationships. The claim, and its explanation, are textbook Freud.
In his paper A Special Type of Choice of Object made by Men, Sigmund Freud (the founder of psychoanalysis) proposed “it’s a universal phase in the life of a young boy to hate his father and desire to have sex with his mother.” While the fantasy is unconscious, the notion itself would influence psychoanalysis for the next 100 years.
Benjamin Spock was the first pediatrician to study psychoanalysis, and his 1946 opus “Baby and Child Care” revolutionized parenting in the 20th century. Although 21st-century moms and dads might be hard-pressed to find direct Freudian references on parenting message boards, the Austrian doctor's psychoanalytic principles are closely interwoven in the best-selling parenting advice book of all time.
Spock’s "Baby and Child Care" was fundamentally based on Sigmund Freud's theories of childhood psychosexual development. The chapter titles and index make no reference to penis envy and an Oedipal complex, but the book's sunny admonishments are surreptitiously laced with Freud. In fact, Spock's relatively lax approach to bringing up baby — which includes doing away with feeding schedules and eschewing punishment, for instance — drew directly from his studies at Freud’s Psychoanalytic Institute in the late 1930s. Baby Boomer parents who poured over Spock's instructional manuals were, unknowingly, raising their children on Freudian principle to protect young psyches from repressive damage.
Freud's interpretation of parent-child relationships, though groundbreaking, was firmly entrenched in the traditional gender roles of the Victorian era. Fathers were considered the authoritarian heads of household, altogether sidelined from parenting, while infant and childcare was left entirely to the maternal domain.
The Partridge Family
A new Pew Research Center study [released Dec. 12, 2020] of 130 countries and territories shows that the U.S. now has the world’s highest rate of children living in single-parent households. Nearly ¼ of U.S. children (23%) under the age of 18 live with one parent and no other adults. They’re followed by Canada (15%), India (5%), Nigeria (4%), and China (3%) who now live in single-parent households. A female parent, that is.
For decades, in fact, the share of U.S. children living with a single parent has been rising due to 1) a decline in marriage rates, 2) a rise in divorce rates, and c) a rise in births outside of marriage. In fact, the parent/child dynamic was changing.
While “covert incest” is not classified as a disorder by the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), Adams’ “covert incest” is recognized by the American Psychological Association as a form of emotional abuse today.
A relationship is considered covertly incestuous if and when there is a consistent lack of parent-child boundaries. But what are those boundaries and who decides?
The Nurture Assumption
John Locke's 1693 “Some Thoughts Concerning Education” introduce the idea of Concerted Cultivation: where child development is marked by extreme parental organization. It’s offset by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 treatise “On Education” that advocates Slow Parenting: a lackadaisical style of parenting in which few activities are organized for children. Instead, they’re encouraged to explore the world at their own pace.
For Locke and Rousseau environment was key, while Freud and Spock took a genetic approach, but in 1998 psychotherapist Judith Rich Harris combined the best in both. “The Nurture Assumption” demonstrated — through shrewd research and scientific evidence — that the intersection of behavioral genetics + social science preempts all forms of parenting.
Most adopted children, for example, show little correlation with the personality of their adoptive parents, and significant correlation with the natural parents who had no part in their upbringing. Conversely, identical twins, who share the same genes, are never exactly alike. But what she discovered amongst the children of immigrants, in particular, was revelatory.
“The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do” queued for the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 and with good reason. At the dawn of the 21st century, Harris’ research emancipated parents by explaining how genetics + society combine to create the personality. “There is no question the parent or caregiver plays an important role in a child’s life,” Harris says. “But neither parent nor educator can predict a world they cannot see.”
“Technology will change the world,” Charles Darwin said, and the skills, values and customs needed to survive in one century can be obsolete in the next. “We deliberately cast off their influences — like that dorky sweater mother made us wear — with an instinct to survive, adapt and thrive in a brave new world.”