Red Flags or Red Herrings?

illustration by Robbi Behr, Williams Class of 1997
Illustration by Robbi Behr '97

According to Williams developmental psychologist Susan Engel, there’s not much parents can do to change who their children are and who they will become.

“An awful lot of what we debate about parenting doesn’t actually matter in terms of who the child becomes,” says Engel, whose latest book, Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become, was published in February. “It matters much more who the child is, at his or her core, and who the parents are, and the quality of the relationship that exists between the two.”

Engel’s message is reassuring for parents feeling overwhelmed by the seemingly constant flurry of advice, research and headlines telling them how to raise a perfect, and perfectly happy, child. It’s also a message grounded in 30 years of research that she has conducted in living rooms, in classrooms and on playgrounds across the country, often with the help of Williams students.

At the core of Engel’s book is a simple idea: Every child is born with a series of fairly immutable traits that remain constant over the course of his or her lifetime, regardless of home or school environment. It’s unlikely that any parent, however loving or involved, can fundamentally change whether a child is dreamy or driven, shy or gregarious, optimistic or anxious. Nor can a parent influence whether a child has a temper or calm demeanor, what captures his interest or even her basic IQ.

Red Flags or Red Herrings is rooted in solid, empirical research, citing 20 pages worth of studies, newspaper articles and books. But it’s the book’s reassuring tone that has resonated with clinicians, academicians and mainstream readers alike. Take her chapter on happiness, in which she writes: “Happiness comes in many shades, and to some extent, we are all born with our happiness thermometers set at different points. … Children can get through really tough times. A generally happy child can weather terrible sadness or frustration.”

Williams developmental psychologist Susan Engel
Photo of Susan Engel by Jean Pagliuso

“There’s no perfect experiment on child-rearing,” Engel says. “Parenting is confusing, and parents today are under an awful lot of pressure to get it all right. But some of what people tell them to do actually matters; some doesn’t. That’s what I’m interested in sifting through in my work.

“I hope,” she adds, “it will help parents relax a little and enjoy their children a little more.”

Read more about Susan Engel in the September 2011 Williams Alumni Review. (To read the text-only version, click here.)

You can also watch a video of Engel’s Williams Thinking presentation on the curious mind here.