• By Kevin Mount
  • Posted on Monday 12th May, 2008

We shape our children; our children shape us

The conventional wisdom used to be that what children experienced – meaning, for the most part, the quality of parenting they received in their homes – shaped the type of person they ultimately became. More recently, researchers have started paying renewed attention to the fact that natural parents give children more than parenting – if not exactly their “nature” then their genes. There is improving understanding, too, of how experiences outside the home – interaction with peers, for example – also influence children’s development. So the personality equation has been expanded to include genes, family environments, and other environments. To make matters yet more complex, researchers now also try to account for the effect genes have on the parenting environment. For example, children wired to be aggressive might elicit particular types of reaction from their parents and might choose particular types of friend. Among the many research teams around the world preoccupied with this increasingly context-orientedl web of relationships is a group from the University of Minnesota Center for Twin and Family Research, headed by Susan South. They are trying to shed more light on the interplay between genes and environment and how ultimately it affects the types of relationships parents have with their adolescent children.They examined information collected from 2,452 identical or fraternal twins between the ages of 16 and 20. Using data on twins meant that the researchers were able to tease apart genetic and environmental influences since identical twins are genetic duplicates whereas fraternal twins share only about 50 percent of their genetic makeup. All were asked about their own personalities, whether they tended to be happy and satisfied with life or to be psychologically distressed. They were also asked whether they tended to be conformist or cautious in life. And both adolescent and parent groups answered questions about their relationships with one another. South and company found that the degree to which genes and environmental factors influence teens’ relationships with their parents depends on the teen’s personality. Not only do nature and nurture interact to fashion various personalities, but those personalities then bear on the type of nurture received, which has a further shaping effect on a young person’s character. For example, the team identified a tendency among children with a positive outlook on life to have better relationships with their parents – which they speculated would elicit even more positivity on the part of the child. The process of developing a fairly stable personality appears anything but simple. Parents can no longer be seen as all-powerful sculptors of impressionable children, but also impressionable themselves.• Summary of “Adolescent Personality Moderates Genetic and Environmental Influences on Relationships with Parents” by Susan C. South, Robert F. Krueger, Wendy Johnson, and William G. Iacono in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, May 2008, Vol. 94, No. 5, pp 899–912.

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