Robert Plomin Ph.D.

Blueprint

Parents Matter but They Don’t Make a Difference

DNA is the major systematic force that makes us who we are.

Posted Sep 27, 2018

Stock Rocket/Shutterstock
Source: Stock Rocket/Shutterstock

It’s stressful being a parent if you believe you are completely responsible for how your children turn out — how well they do at school, how happy they are, how nice they are. Good news: This is not true. My new book, Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, explains why parents don’t make a difference in how their children turn out, even though parents matter a lot in their children’s lives. 

The most important thing that parents give to their children is their genes. Many parents will find this hard to accept. As a parent, you feel deep down that you can make a difference in how your children develop. Parents are bombarded with childrearing books and the media telling you how to do it right and making you anxious about doing it wrong. 

During the past four decades, scientists have used special relatives, like twins and adoptees, to test the effects of genes and environment. This research has built a mountain of evidence showing that genetics contributes importantly to all the psychological differences between us. Inherited DNA differences account for about half of the differences for all psychological traits — personality, mental health and illness, and cognitive abilities and disabilities. 

The environment is responsible for the other half, but genetic research has shown that the environment does not work the way environmentalists thought it worked. For most of the 20th century, environmental influences were called nurture, because the family was thought to be crucial in determining environmentally who we become. 

Genetic research has shown that this is not the case. We would essentially be the same person if we had been adopted at birth and raised in a different family. Identical twins reared apart from birth are as similar as identical twins reared together in the same family. Children adopted away at birth resemble their biological parents, not their adoptive parents. 

Experiences matter — parents, teachers, friends — but they don’t change who we are. The impact of our experiences is mostly unsystematic, unstable, and idiosyncratic — in a word, random. What look like systematic environmental effects, such as correlations between parenting and children’s development, are mostly reflections of genetic influence. In the tumult of daily life, parents mostly respond to genetically driven differences in their children. We read to children who like us to read to them. We go along with their appetites and aptitudes.

Putting these findings together calls for a radical rethink about parenting: Parents matter, but they don’t make a difference environmentally. Parents matter tremendously in their children’s lives. They provide the essential physical and psychological ingredients for children’s development. Parents are the most important relationship in children’s lives. But parents do not make much difference — in terms of how their children ultimately differ from others — beyond the DNA they provide at the moment of conception. Parents can control their children’s behavior, but they can’t change who they are.

It’s important for parents to know that, beyond genetics, most of what happens to children involves random experiences over which parents have no control. The good news is that these experiences do not make much of a difference in the long run. Some children bounce back sooner, some later, after difficult experiences, such as their parents’ divorce, moving house, and losing friends. They bounce back to their genetic trajectory. 

Instead of trying to mold children in our image, we can help them find out what they like to do and what they do well. We can try to force our dreams on our children — for example, that they become a world-class musician or star athlete. But we are unlikely to be successful unless we go with the genetic flow. If we try to swim upstream, we run the risk of damaging our relationship with them. 

Parenting is not a means to an end. It is a relationship, one of the longest lasting in our lives. Just as with our partner and friends, our relationship with our children should be based on being with them, not trying to change them. 

I hope this is a liberating message, one that relieves parents of some of the anxiety and guilt piled on them by parent-blaming theories of socialization and how-to parenting books. These theories and books can scare us into thinking that one wrong move can ruin our child forever. I hope this message also frees parents from the illusion that a child’s future success depends on how hard they push them. Instead, parents should relax and enjoy their relationship with their children without feeling a need to mold them. Part of this enjoyment is in watching your children become who they are.

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