Father teaching his son to skateboard

How much influence do parents have on their children? Less than we’d assume, it appears.

I have to say, much to my shame, that it’s taken me a long time to realise how different my own kids are to me. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as I’m quite different from my own parents. Although, of course, there are some pretty huge overlaps in our interests, but that’s to be expected, given how much time we’ve spent together.

[P]sychologists have known for ages that parents and children don’t particularly share the “big five” personality traits (extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism). It is getting attention now because of a study that tried to change the way this question of family similarity is explored. Rather than participants only self-reporting their personality traits, they also chose a third party who knew them well to assess them.

This novel approach suggested more similarity between parents and offspring – approximately 40% rather than the 25% of previous studies. But that is still very low. The study concluded that it was “impossible to accurately predict a child’s personality traits from those of their mother or father” and that most relatives are not “much more similar than strangers”.

Huh. So it’s just our pattern-seeking brains that make us think little Timmy is “cheeky like his dad”; you might as well say he is “cheeky like that gull”. As a parent, this felt like a weight lifted: if my kids are like me (God help them), it’s not my fault – just dumb luck. The same study’s findings on the impact of home environment felt good, too: “Growing up together does not make people more similar.”


But parents aren’t entirely off the hook. Last year, a study of 9,400 11- to 17-year-olds declared: “Parent personalities have a significant impact on a child’s life.” The detailed results concluded: “Kids with neurotic parents scored relatively low on several measures, including grades, overall health, body mass index … and time spent on leisure activities.” (Sorry, kids, but it’s not just me and my fellow neurotics getting guilted: extroverts’ offspring also get worse grades.)

It would be bizarre if the people who raised us had no influence on how we turned out, but surely we will never understand with any clarity how our parents screw us up and how we screw up our kids in turn. There are too many variables; how could you ever work out what makes us who we are, what is innate and what isn’t? As one psychologist has put it, the most direct way to weigh nature against nurture is “to randomly assign children to parents”.

Source: The Guardian