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Problematic Parenting or Problematic Genes?

Behavior patterns vary in the degree to which they are influenced by genetics.

Key points

  • Twin studies that seem to indicate a major effect of genetics on behavior patterns often neglect behavior that is subject to family rules.
  • While the "village" that raises a child does affect child behavior, there are cliques within the village.
  • With which cliques a child associates is strongly determined by family rules.
Wikimedia Commons: Twins by Glow at Danish Wikipedia, C.C. Attribution-share alike 3.0
Source: Wikimedia Commons: Twins by Glow at Danish Wikipedia, C.C. Attribution-share alike 3.0

In an article in the Atlantic magazine, author and data scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz opines that in determining how parents affect their children in the long run, almost none of the decisions they make matter nearly as much as they think they do. He emphasizes their DNA and uses twin studies in discussing the nature-nurture debate, something I have covered extensively in my blog.

He trots out the kind of story you often hear in these debates of two twins who were raised separately from the age of four weeks. They reunited at age 39 and found that they were both six feet tall and weighed 180 pounds; bit their nails and had tension headaches; owned a dog named Toy when they were kids; went on family vacations at the same beach in Florida; had worked part-time in law enforcement; and liked Miller Lite beer and Salem cigarettes. There was one notable difference: Jim Lewis named his firstborn James Alan, while Jim Springer named his James Allan.

These are some very superficial similarities. Many involve things like their physical appearance, which is of course dictated by their genes. Tastes in food, assuming that they do not involve a false self, are also most likely somewhat determined by genes. The author also seems to imply that what these twins named their children was somehow coded in their DNA. Really? I also wonder how many hundreds of other twin pairs like this gave their children completely different names. Or where one bit their nails and the other did not.

A study he mentions suggests that such things as teaching kids cognitively demanding games, such as chess doesn’t make them smarter in the long term. A meta-analysis of bilingualism found that it has only small effects on a child’s cognitive performance.

The author does emphasize the importance of “the village” or neighborhood in which a child grows up in determining things like schooling and career opportunities, because they provide role models as well as money. Of course the village is divided into cliques with differing values, and with which people one chooses to associate may involve the influence of one's parents, but no matter. When it comes to parenting, he tells us the data shows that moms and dads should put more thought into the neighbors they surround their children with—and lighten up about everything else.

It’s hard to argue with these ideas, and a lot of parents do indeed need to lighten up and let their kids learn about themselves and the world. The problem here is that the author is ignoring a most important issue: interpersonal relationships and the rules by which people operate in their social context. In particular: social roles, both functional and dysfunctional, and one’s freedom to self-actualize (follow one's own muse even if the family disagrees) versus having to behave in ways that stabilize family functioning.

Children learn predictive models that determine to whom they are drawn to and how to respond to them in various situations. Most of that becomes subconscious and automatic. Personality disorders and family dysfunction arise from these. And the author doesn’t mention adverse childhood experiences like child abuse.

That’s a pretty big omission.

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