Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Shepherds, Not Engineers

Russell Barkley is a psychologist who has done a lot of work and writing in the area of ADHD. I was unfamiliar with him and his work, and I still don't know much, but I stumbled across a video of Barkley speaking, and it really resonated for me. I'll embed it at the end of this post, because the delivery is better than my transcript will be. 

I'm not sure what the occasion is, but his audience appears to be parents. And to one side is a slide saying "You are a shepherd, not an engineer."

He credits grandparents with knowing this and claims that today's parents "don't seem to" and I'm not going to get into that, because it's the "this" that matters:

You do not get to design your children.

Nature would never have permitted that to happen. Evolution would not have allowed a generation of a species to be so influenced by the previous generation. It hasn't happened and it doesn't happen and it especially doesn't happen in children. 

You do not design your children.

He cites things like the Mozart effect as a typically North American view that more more more must be better. Stimulation matters, but only up to a certain threshold "which 98% of you have already met." After that-- well, "you just don't have that kind of power."

So, what we have learned in the last twenty years of research in neuroimaging, behavior genetics, developmental psychology, neuropsychology, can be boiled down to this phrase:

Your child is born with more than 400 psychological traits that will emerge as they mature, and they have nothing to do with you. 

So the idea that you are going to engineer personalities and IQs and academic achievement skills and all these other things just isn't true. 

Your child is not a blank slate on which you get to write.

...The better view is that your child is a genetic mosaic of your extended family. Which means this is a unique combination of the traits that run in your family line.

I like the shepherd view. You are a shepherd. You don't design the sheep. The engineering view makes you responsible for everything--everything that goes right and everything that goes wrong. This is why parents come to us with such guilt. More guilt than we've ever seen in prior generations. Because parents today believe that it's all about them, and what they do, and if they don't get it right, or if their child has a disability, they've done something wrong when in fact the opposite is true. This has nothing to do with your particular brand of parenting.

So I would rather you would stop thinking of yourself as an engineer, and step back and say "I am a shepherd to a unique individual." Shepherds are powerful people. They pick the pastures in which the sheep will graze and develop and grow. They determine whether they're appropriately nourished. They determine whether they're protected from harm. The environment is important but it doesn't design the sheep. No shepherd is going to turn a sheep into a dog. Ain't gonna happen. And yet that is what we see parents trying to do, all the time. 

He sees special importance in this view for parents of children with special needs. Then he moves on.

That comes with it a profoundly freeing view of parenting, because what it means is although it's important to be a shepherd, recognizing that this is a unique individual before you allows you to enjoy the show. So open a bottle of chardonnay, kick off your slippers, sit back, and watch what takes place. Because you don't get to determine this. Enjoy the show. It doesn't last that long--they are gone before you know it.

Let them grow, let them prosper, please design appropriate environments around them, but you don't get to design them. 

He cites an author whose name I can't pick out saying that the big influences on your child's life are the community in which they live--peers, other adults, schools, resources, etc-- followed by genetics.

There's a tricky balance here; I suspect many choice fans and culture warriors would say they are just being shepherds by trying to manage their children's environment. And for some, I'd bet that is true.

But we have a lot of folks out there with the engineer view. The Don't Say Gay and book banning  crowd include people who believe in the engineer model, who believe that as the owners of their children, they alone have the right to engineer that child to their preferred specifications. Anti-LGBTQ persons are persons who believe that LGBTQ persons exist only because somebody engineered them to be that way. "If my child doesn't turn out exactly as I engineered her to," the reasoning, "it must be because somebody else snuck in there with other engineering, and not because my child grew up as a unique mosaic of hundreds of human characteristics." Some sneaky evil engineer snuck in there and engineered my sheep into a dog.

Education has also been plagued by would-be engineers, technocrats who insisted that if we just run all young humans through such and such a program (delivered with fidelity), then every young human will emerge from the program with the exact skill and knowledge that we want to engineer them with. Sometimes we add the term "science" as if science has a special power to let us engineer young humans to our desired specifications. 

So much education reform has been built around the engineer model (we've even got folks trying to call teachers "learning engineers"), the technocratic designs that will yield the "product" that we want, complete with measurements and numbers and engineering stuff (but 400 characteristics and hundreds areas of learning are too hard, so let's just chop it down to a math and reading test). But that's not how human beings work.

People are not machines. They don't need engineers; they need shepherds to keep an eye on them, keep them safe, surround them with good stuff, guide them in a general direction. You can't engineer a person to be exactly what you want, and if you can let go of that desire, I'd argue that people will generally turn out to be something far more rich and deep and interesting then they ever would have been if you'd actually been able to engineer what you thought you wanted. 


  1. The author/book that you couldn't quite make out is:
    Judith Harris (called Judy in the video) - The Nurture Assumption

    I agree, that's a really interesting video. Thanks for talking about it.

  2. His tik tok videos are amazing and so helpful.