Does "niceness" skip generations ?
June 2, 2006 5:47 PM   Subscribe

Does "niceness" skip generations ?

In my job, i meet alot of families from all different backgrounds - one thing that amazes is that parents who are really nice seem to have reared kids who are little horrors or just plain obnoxious. On the other hand, when the parents are obnoxious - the kids are usually cool.

Apart from the obvious pop psychology theory that the kids are spoiled does anyone else have any theories on this ?
posted by jacobean to Human Relations (30 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Confirmation bias. (When it isn't like this, you don't notice. When it is like this you say, "Aha! Another one!")
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:13 PM on June 2, 2006

The fact that confirmation bias exists doesn't meant that it's what's going on in this case. What a bizarre argument to make in isolation.

I happen to believe that what jacobean describes is very real. 'Nice' parents can allow children to run all over them, while parents who are difficult, high-maintenance people can produce children who grow up learning to be the one sane, easy-to-deal-with person in the house.

That's not to say that is always happens that way, but I've seen many cases in which especially the later case was really obvious.
posted by bingo at 6:22 PM on June 2, 2006

Without collecting enough data, you can't say for sure if it's real or confirmation bias, but it does seem like many traits skip a generation. My guess would be that part of becoming an adult is finding your own identity, and part of that is differentiating yourself from your parents. Hence the eternal teenage angst.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 6:24 PM on June 2, 2006

I'm leaning toward confirmation bias, because I've seen so many families where everyone seems to have the same personality. Maybe that's my own confirmation bias at work, but hey, they should cancel each other out.
posted by danb at 6:24 PM on June 2, 2006

If this is true, though, then what about the grandparents? If the parent is obnoxious, does this mean both the grandparents and the kids are usually cool? If the kids are obnoxious, are the grandparents too?
posted by wackybrit at 6:33 PM on June 2, 2006

What a bizarre argument to make in isolation.

Not really Confirmation bias plays a role in all "here's something funny I've noticed" scenarios.
posted by kindall at 6:34 PM on June 2, 2006

Response by poster: ok come on guyz with your "confirmation bias" this is not
a scientific hypothesis I have made. Don't get bogged down in the science please...! I never stated that this statement has emanated from any formal quantitative or qualitative research...its just a simple observation!
posted by jacobean at 6:39 PM on June 2, 2006

Woah, you asked for theories. The whole question is asking for "the science". Otherwise it's just chatfilter!
posted by bonaldi at 6:42 PM on June 2, 2006

Truly bratty, impossible children sometimes grow up to be wonderful, pleasant adults. Also, some people have a very nice public face, but are evil wretches at home. And, on a different day, they might all behave entirely differently.
posted by clarkstonian at 6:43 PM on June 2, 2006

Niceness is not scientific.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 6:43 PM on June 2, 2006

jacobean: It's either bullshit or not. That's how logic works.

Well, it's either bullshit or not proven to be bullshit YET, if you want to split hairs.
posted by cellphone at 6:45 PM on June 2, 2006

Response by poster: cellpone, wow - do you see everything as either black or
white ? I respect the insights science can gives us but as
seizetheday says niceness is not scientific.
posted by jacobean at 6:52 PM on June 2, 2006

jacobean: you're asking a scientific question. you get a scientific answer. otherwise you get a bunch of anecdotal bullshit that is completely incorrect. use the noggin xenu gave you.
posted by cellphone at 7:08 PM on June 2, 2006

A: Black people are just as smart as white people.
B: Confirmation bias.

A: I hear a lot of Spanish spoken in Mexico, so that's probably the dominant language there.
B: Confirmation bias.

A: I'm pretty well-liked. People tend to treat me with respect.
B: Confirmation bias.

A: I have noticed anecdotally that X pattern seems to occur in Y situation.
B: Confirmation bias.
posted by bingo at 7:11 PM on June 2, 2006

I've got to run right now, but here might be a good start to finding the answer to the question. You'll want to refine/redefine your search terms once you've scanned a few of the relevant abstracts.
posted by porpoise at 7:12 PM on June 2, 2006

You should read Judith Rich Harris, who has two wonderful books: The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike.

The long and the short of it is that parenting has no effect on the ultimate measurable personality of children one way or the other. To the extent that parents do have influence on their children it is through shared genes, which makes parents and siblings more similar not more different.

If your observation were true we would see parents and their adopted and biological children looking like opposites, on average, on sociability and personality measures, but instead we see parents and their biological children looking somewhat more similar (not different), and parents and their adopted children looking no more similar or dissimilar than two random strangers.

In other words there is no evidence in support of your theory, and good evidence against it.
posted by dgaicun at 7:19 PM on June 2, 2006

It is confirmation bias, but it also has a grain of truth. It has a lot to do with psychological theories about the affects of parenting styles, ie authoritarian vs. permissive vs. authoritative (vs. uninvolved, I suppose). Here's an article I dug up quickly that lays out the current research pretty nicely.
posted by muddgirl at 7:52 PM on June 2, 2006

My pet theory... At a young age (i.e. under 20), kids rebel against their parents - musical tastes, what they do, etc. So it would be consistent that kids "act opposite" as well.

And I'm with the "confirmation bias" crowd. In fact I ask myself that every time I "notice something" - is it me, or am I just remembering the hits, and forgetting the misses? In fact, there are a ton of fallacies (logical, perceptive and cognitive) that we should all be aware of if we're at all serious about... well, thinking.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 7:59 PM on June 2, 2006

Different people mature at different rates, and immaturity often manifests as obnoxiousness. Therefore, to come up with any kind of consistent theory about this, we'd probably need to compare generations at similar points in their lives. Or determine some sort of niceness quotient to be averaged over a lifetime. The niceness quotient would also have to be somehow objectively determined. Someone I think is a lovely person, you might think is intolerable.

Anecdotally, years later, I've met a couple of people I thought were obnoxious in school (they probably thought the same of me) who turned out to be very pleasant company as adults.
posted by normy at 11:03 PM on June 2, 2006

I'm kind of with you, Jacobean. It is dumb to try to graft scientific reasoning onto an undefined question -- if we haven't defined "nice," how would we score a positive?

So here are my thoughts on nice. I think we have different ideas of nice for adults and children. Children are nice if they are polite, non-noisy, cheerful, willing to chat with adults, etc. Adults are nice if they are easy-going, nonjudgemental, interesting/iconoclastic, etc.

The non-conformists you might choose as friends are likely to raise non-conformist kids -- who won't seem very nice, to an adult. As as Obscure says, kids rebel against their parents, so I am sure that sometimes some of this stuff will markedly alternate generations.
posted by Methylviolet at 12:18 AM on June 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

Were this simple observation universally applicable, about half of the people living today would be obnoxious and the other half would be pretty nice. There aren't that many obnoxious people. I can think of only two, maybe three, genuine assholes that I know personally.
posted by airguitar at 1:57 AM on June 3, 2006

My parents were both lovely, normal people. I grew up as a seriously laid back kid, and I remain a seriously laid back adult. My sister was a super huge spoiled bitch as a child, but now she's a normal adult (most of the time). So, my answer (based on my anecdotal evidence) is that this is confirmation bias.
posted by antifuse at 2:30 AM on June 3, 2006

Apparently, jacobean, your observation proves to be too rich to find a happy home in the fractious flatland of any easily identified theory. Perhaps it would fare better in a more multi-dimensional environment, such as comedy...or literature? Or any other setting where more than one thing can be true at one time?
posted by dpcoffin at 9:06 AM on June 3, 2006

seconding antifuse. My parents are cool and laid back, so am I, and I'm told I was as a kid. My sister can be kind of a pain sometimes (she still likes to push my buttons, even though we're both in our late 20s), but overall, nice and laid back.
posted by AlisonM at 10:51 AM on June 3, 2006

jacobean, if we aren't to use science, how are we supposed to answer your question? Make stuff up? Consult the oracle at Delphi? We could give you a lot of anecdotal evidence, some for, some against, but what does that show you?

You're really asking two questions here.
1. "Based on what I've observed, it seems that niceness skips a generation. Does it?"
2. "If it does, why?"

Niceness is not scientific.

Well, there's been a lot of research done on the psychology of personality, so science can be applied to niceness. Is niceness a combination of traits that can be quantitatively measured? That's a start.

To the extent that it can be measured, personality tends to run in families, as dgaicun pointed out. So the answer to your first question is no, what you've observed doesn't fit with the prevailing trends. But there are exceptions, so we can still look at #2 and ask "Why is it that some parents are nice while their kids are jerks (or vice versa)?" See muddgirl's reply to that one.

The basis of your observation is pretty shaky for a number of reasons.* We don't need to address that to answer your questions, but, like ObscureReferenceMan says it's helpful to understand how cognitive biases and other fallacies creep into our thinking.

*confirmation bias and contrast effect (dissimilar parents and children are an interesting phenomenon, so you notice it more). Also, you're observing people's behavior and inferring their personality from that. You didn't specify, but you might even be basing your conclusions with these people's interactions with you and only you, in the context of how you interact with them at work. Personality can be pretty fluid, as a lot of people have pointed out.
posted by hydrophonic at 12:28 PM on June 3, 2006

Jesus, people are sure cranky on askmefi today! Poor Jacobean just asked for theories, not a new asshole.
I'll throw my two cents in, because I have actually thought about this to a certain extent myself: My parents are completely intolerable, and this is not just my opinion, many independent parties can't stand them either. My parents are rude, loud, arrogant and selfish. As a result of having grown up around such blatant examples of asshole-ishness, I have strived quite consciously to be just about the nicest person you could ever meet. I want to be the antithesis of rude, loud, arrogant and selfish.
I posit this theory: children of dickwads who realize their parents are dickwads will do as much as possible not to follow in their dickwad footsteps.
Now, the children of the children of dickwads is an entirely different story, and I haven't any theories to that end, yet. I have a surly teenage son, but is he surly because he is a teenager, or because his grandparents are asshats? Too soon to tell.
posted by msali at 1:45 PM on June 3, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks msali - I was working today and was dealing with some really nice folks - the horrid children were lurking in the backgroud shouting demands at them! The second case, I was working on - the parents were quite surly - the kids on the other hand were as cool as Bob Marley in chill out mode. Everytime it happens - trust me...

I have taken on board all the science proffered on this thread and have found it very interesting - but sometimes anecdotal evidence just seems overwhelming than any experiments done with mice and their progeny being studied in a lab of some university.
posted by jacobean at 2:12 PM on June 3, 2006

the kids appear nice because they are trying to fix the parents by being nice - i dunno - look up the karpman drama triangle.
posted by sgt.serenity at 2:25 PM on June 3, 2006

Person 1: I've noticed that cats go bark, and dogs go meow. Any theories on why this is?

Person 2: Did you get confused about which are cats and which are dogs?

Person 3: The science of noisology shows that cats go meow and dogs go bark

Person 1: God, you guys, science doesn't have all the answers, can we just stick to the question instead of all this ad hominem about me being "confused".

Person 4: Person 2 was right, you probably just misunderstood the animal names. Dogs really do go bark.

Person 5: You guys are assholes, Person 1 just said just wanted theories not bitching. My theory is that the cat vocal box is shorter, creating a bark sound.

etc. . . .
posted by dgaicun at 3:54 PM on June 3, 2006

er. . . Person 1 just said he wanted theories.

For the record, I've experienced just the opposite with the people I've met: Flanders usually have Rod and Tods, Homers usually have Barts. Thus is anecdote.
posted by dgaicun at 4:00 PM on June 3, 2006

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