Jafar's Reviews > They F*** You Up: How To Survive Family Life

They F*** You Up by Oliver James
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Nov 10, 2007

it was ok

I remember listening to an interview with Steven Pinker on NPR right after The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature was published. There were these angry moms who kept calling in and telling him, What do you mean I can’t micro-manage my child’s personality? They should read this book instead. They’d love it. Despite the title, the book doesn’t say that parents are necessarily fucking up their children. What it does say is that children really are blank slates, and just about everything about us is determined by how our parents treat us in our childhood. If there is such a thing as genetic determinism, this book represents the opposite pole: parental determinism.

James is hardcore. When it comes to the nature-vs.-nurture debate, he won’t let you give the safe and cliché “it’s a bit of this and a bit of that” answer. It’s almost always and almost entirely nurture. Only in extreme cases like schizophrenia and autism does he allow some genetic influence. Boys vs. girls? He grudgingly says that maybe they’re born different. (I wonder what happened to “anatomy is destiny.”) Homosexuality? Determined by the parents. Violence, relationship issues, depression, neurosis, religiosity, creativity, intelligence, personality disorders, etc. are all decided by our parents. Child prodigies and geniuses? No biological differences here either. He doesn’t say it explicitly, but he actually makes the laughable implication that you can take any average, snot-nosed brat and turn him into Shakespeare or Einstein or Beethoven or Michael Jordan. It’s all about how we treat and educate and train them. And don’t try to bring friends and peers into the picture. Only our primary caregivers in our childhood are allowed to shape our, um, nature.

That’s really the main point of this book. Everything else is just a cover for this idea. The title of the book is completely misleading. James is really pissed off that some people have been claiming that our personalities are influenced by our genes/brain chemistry/biology. He’s a child development psychologist by training, and he doesn’t have much respect or patience for psychiatrists, let alone biologists and cognitive scientists. I’m glad he didn’t name any names and didn’t take on anyone in particular, as he’s no match in intellect and knowledge for the likes of Pinker and Dawkins and Dennett.

James doesn’t shy away from letting us know that he’s a leftist/liberal and that this debate has significant implications in social policy making. He thinks that the “nature argument” is being used by the Right to advance its agenda (even though the scientists and philosophers on the “nature’s side” are decidedly liberal). The truth, however, is independent of our political preferences.

PS: I don’t get why people act indignant about our genes/biology partly (or even largely) shaping our personality. They think it’s against our human dignity and freedom to be slaves to our genes. Why is it better to be slaves to our parents and be permanently scarred by that stupid thing that they said or did when we were little? More importantly, most psychologists (including James himself) still believe in the Freudian notion of subconscious (an idea for which there’s no real scientific evidence whatsoever), a shadowy agent that holds our real but hidden desires and motives and controls us without our being aware of it. How is being chained to a dark and mysterious subconscious any less oppressive?
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Jenne (last edited Aug 25, 2016 02:02PM) (new)

Jenne Yeah, not to mention how oppressive it is for the poor parents!
Kid turns out to be a murderer? Yep, totally your fault!


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

I have always believed that genetics are more important. Enjoyed your review.


Shane "He doesn’t say it explicitly, but he actually makes the laughable implication that you can take any average, snot-nosed brat and turn him into Shakespeare or Einstein or Beethoven or Michael Jordan."

This isn't actually true. The book does explicitly talk about geniuses, claiming that they are the product of a less-than-perfect upbringing (causing them to be driven to prove themselves), but also that only a tiny fraction of children brought up in this way end up being high achievers.

At least according to the book, those of us with great upbringings end up well-adjusted, happy and productive; genius is a sign of mild disorder.


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