Monday, July 13, 2015

Parenting Doesn't Make Much Difference (to Personality)

I was reading a post in which the author was talking about tending her dog, and came across this line.
"Every time someone compliments his calm, sweet temperament is a secret gold star stuck on my heart and I think to myself, If nothing else, you did that."
I have never solely raised a dog (since the only dogs I have owned were family dogs, for whom my parents were primarily responsible), so I can't really evaluate how much of a dog's temperament is due to its owners. The statement made me think, though, about children's temperaments and how much, if any, credit parents can take for their children's good behavior. And honestly I think the answer is, basically none.

The general consensus is that at least 50% of personality traits are due to genetic factors, and possibly much more. This includes things like how cooperative you are, how outgoing you are, how curious you are and how anxious you are: in other words, all the traits which make one human distinct from another. Parenting, in contrast, plays very little role. In fact, this commonly cited paper states, "The similarity we see in personality between biological relatives is almost entirely genetic in origin". In other words, you are only like your parents because of your genes, not because of how they raised you.

Even when parenting does seem to play a role, its effects seem to be limited to the negative side of the spectrum. This paper argues that parenting (in terms of adolescents' self reported relationship with their parents) does have an important effect on personality, but only in a negative sense. If children perceived that their parents liked them a lot (high Regard) and did not argue with them much (low Conflict), then influences on personality were mostly genetic. But if children perceived that their parents did not like them, or argued with them constantly, then personality was heavily shaped by that. In other words, while bad parenting can warp the personality, good parenting just allows the natural genetic tendency to express itself fully, but does not change that tendency at all.

I think it is interesting to conceive as good parenting as only a way to make people more like themselves. Good parenting, then, accepts the child just as she or he is, and works to turn whatever preexisting natural tendencies there are into more constructive channels, so an aggressive child can learn to channel that aggression into sports, or the business world, instead of beating people up on the street. But the aggressive child is always going to be aggressive, and will never be described as agreeable or easy-going.

Usually when people talk about "well behaved" kids, though, they don't mean this. Instead, there is an "ideal" child in mind, who is calm, sweet, obedient, tidy, and outgoing. If a child meets some or most of these characteristics, then they are described as "good" and their parents as "good parents", even though that outcome is really due largely to chance (or rather, genetics). This is one reason why compliments on parenting are generally so useless (and criticisms, for that matter).

I hope that I can accept R's personality fully, and work with her to make the best use of her gifts (and deficits, for that matter). Sometimes this is easy, like appreciating her cheerful, outgoing nature (for which she always gets lots of compliments); sometimes this is hard, like accepting her high energy level (as a lower energy level person myself I can find it exhausting) or her lack of interest in tidiness and organization (I used to organize my sister's room for fun as a child: I cannot imagine R ever doing this). But it is incredibly important.

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