Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Why Parents Probably Don't Influence Their Children As Much As They Think

 
When I was a young boy I grew up in a home that was almost completely absent of books and learning potential, with two parents whose background had little academic pedigree. They were amazing parents though, and what they lacked in scholasticism they more than made up for with love, kindness, support, reliability, generosity and encouragement.

When I started school, and began to meet parents and children from more academically illustrious backgrounds I soon saw what was missing from my home, so I set out to change that, acquiring as many books as I could beg, buy or borrow, and passionately tried to learn as much as I could. By early teens I would have five or six books on the go at once, and I'd regularly write critiques and theses as I built my own young man's worldview.
 
Now, being a writer aged 39, I can see through the lens of retrospection that those early discoveries were the biggest catalysts for shaping who I am today. In those nascent days of discovery I began to suspect that the personality of my parents probably would have only a partial effect on how I would be shaped - and from what I went on to learn from psychologists it seems I was onto something.

I've read numerous studies throughout the years - Robert Trivers, Thomas Schelling, and Konrad Lorenz are three good cases in point - that look at the relationship between nature and nurture. The findings are interesting - much more intriguing than you might expect, particularly regarding the issue of how little parents actually shape their children's lives. When it comes to traits and characteristics, there is a good way to test which of those traits are more to do with nature and which are more to do with nurture. Genotypes are perfect for real life social experiments. With nature, identical twins should share all genetic traits, irrespective of whether they grow up in the same home or whether they are separated at birth. Siblings should share lots of genetic traits too.

But if traits are part of socialisation (nurture) then children brought up in the same household should share many of those traits, even if they are not biologically related. While this kind of quantification is pretty sketchy, it is currently thought fairly consensually that approximately 50% of our personality is genetic. Studies show that identical twins separated at birth are still generally pretty similar in terms of personality, but those studies also show that non-related people who grew up in the same home usually turn out to be very different.

So the indicators are it's not correct to say that the other 50% of variability must come from how children are brought up in the home, as was the standard belief in the days of Freud and Skinner. The variation in the home in which you are brought up is now thought to account for only about 5% of the differences in children. Adoptive siblings in the same home turn out to be as different as two children picked out randomly from the population. In other words, after conception and all the genetic formations, parents only account for a tiny fraction of their children's personalities (see studies by David Cohen for more on this, and most prominently Judith Harris's seminal work The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do, which blows out of the water a lot of psychological and cultural myths about the parental role).

This will surprise a lot of people - instinctively it still surprises me - and there is bound to be contention from parents who want to insist that they have a major impact on their children's personality. But all the evidence shows that they do not. Point of note, that's not to say that the basic qualities like love, care, protection, guidance, tutelage and kindness are unimportant - they are essential. But what the evidence shows is that if you had say 50 children in 30 homes each with parents employing all those positive traits, you could switch all the parents around in any of the homes and as long as the children stayed in their own homes they would grow into pretty much the same adults under any set of those parents that they were going to anyway (save for the small variability in parents' actual influence, of course).

I understand this is counterintuitive - in fact, it almost beggars belief - but it is true, and Judith Harris as well as Trivers, Cohen (and later on in his career Lorenz), and countless others have amassed lots of evidence for it - children are shaped predominantly by genetic factors and by peer groups, not by parents once a certain quality of parental threshold is reached. Children's cultural heritage, their schooling, their friends, social groups, clubs, coteries and hierarchies are the main determiners of their adult personalities.

So all the evidence shows that if you want the best for your children in life, not only are you at the mercy of genetic factors, you are wise to concentrate a lot of effort ensuring as best you can that they are surrounded by positive influences in their schooling, peer groups, friendships and other social groups. Other than that, perhaps the biggest challenge a parent has is working out how they can have a continually positive impact in their children's well-being, and enrich their emotional and intellectual development when evidence that they are able to do this to any great extent is stacked against them.

 
* Photo courtesy of science:howstuffowrks.com

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