How parents behave towards their children may have much less influence on their personalities than most of us assume. Jerome Burne reviews research which suggests that genetic inheritance together with peer group pressure is what really countsby Jerome Burne / January 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
If a young man committed a serious crime in pre-colonial China his parents were liable to be executed with him, on the grounds that they were also to blame. This logic is reappearing in contemporary social policy: parents are responsible for shaping their children’s behaviour; delinquency is rising; parents must be doing something wrong. If a few were made an example of, the rest might mend their ways and bring up their children properly. But do even the best of parents have that much control?
One of the best kept secrets of psychological research over the last ten years is the growing volume of work which suggests that parents do not have nearly as much influence over their children as we both hope and fear they have. Part of this evidence comes from the controversial discipline of behavioural genetics. Popular coverage of this has concentrated on the sensational (and false) notion of a gene for alcoholism, homosexuality and so on. But a decade of research by Robert Plomin and others at the Institute of Psychiatry in London, together with studies of twins in the US, suggests that about half of our adult personality is the result of our genes. If identical twins are separated at birth and brought up in different households, their adult personalities will be as much alike as if they had been brought up together. Many parents’ actions, which you would imagine must make a difference, do not.
Take eating: what could be more obvious than the idea that children whose parents both overeat will grow up to do the same? But this is not the case. Adopted children, who do not share the overeating parents’ genes, do not copy their behaviour. The same applies to watching television. Adopted children in a household which watches a lot of television will not sit glued to the box, unless watching television is something their biological parents also like to do. Even attitudes to, say, hanging or jazz, apparently prime candidates for parental influence, turn out to have a strong genetic component.
Public debates about the effect on children of corporal punishment, divorce or violence on television, scarcely mention a fact which every parent of more than one child knows-that different children respond differently to the same broad influences. This is because developmental psychology has resolutely ignored genetics for the past 50 years.
genes and personaLITY
One researcher who…