Like parent, like child


Like parent, like child


Are you and your child like peas in a pod? Or more like chalk and cheese? Psychologist Dr Nicola Davies looks at the genetic and environmental factors that make parents and kids alike – or not!


Interest in how parents pass personality traits and abilities on to their children has led to the nature versus nurture debate. One school of thought is that personality traits are passed through the generations genetically and are pre-determined. So, you can predict a child’s personality just by knowing the personality of the parent. Others think that early environment is what determines a child’s personality, and that children turn into their parents through modelling them. In truth, both genetics and environment have a significant role to play in determining how personality traits are passed from parents to children – so most children are a mix.


What you’re born with


Research with twins shows a strong genetic influence in determining personality. In one study, identical twins were separated at an early age and raised apart in different environments until adulthood. When the siblings were eventually reunited, researchers observed many similarities, such as marital history, lifestyle choices, habits, hobbies and psychological behaviours.


The twins’ test scores for various personality measures were very similar, suggesting that children are likely to inherit most personality traits from their parents regardless of how or where they are raised. The most common characteristics strongly linked

to genetics include ambition, risk taking, temperament, and neuroticism.


And what you learn


Environment is also important in personality. Children learn a lot

from their parents, both directly and indirectly. They are like sponges in their very early years, soaking up all of your individual quirks – good and bad.


For instance, children who are taught to be kind and helpful by their parents are likely to adopt these traits. On the other hand, children who are allowed to bully others (maybe because parents turn a blind eye) will likely continue behaving this way as they grow up.The way parents set rules and encourage or discourage

certain behaviours will influence how children develop and the adults they become.


The impact of the environment extends beyond the family to include your child’s neighbourhood and school. Research shows that children also pick up personality traits from their peers, with one study revealing that even pre-schoolers take on each other’s

personalities when they spend time together.


Children tend to pick up traits such as industriousness and extroversion from their play partners, but not traits such as anxiousness. This seems to disprove the notion that personality

traits are ingrained and unchangeable. Children can be taught desirable characteristics that may help them succeed in life, and they can also be deterred from picking up negative traits that may hold them back.


Parents usually instinctively want their children to associate with well-behaved peers and not those they see as misbehaving or ‘troublemakers’. It looks like this is a good instinct, as other kids do influence the personality traits a child picks up.





Facial features most likely to be genetic include:

Inner corners of the eyes

Shape at the end of the nose


Area above the lips

Area below the lips


The gender trap


Parents pass on their own gender beliefs to their children, directly and indirectly. Boys are likely to be encouraged to take on masculine traits such as aggression, competitiveness, and ambition. For girls, feminine qualities such as kindness, gentleness and passivity are normally encouraged.


Gender-based traits are typically learned at home and then reinforced by school, peers and the media. This kind of gender socialisation persists despite increased awareness of the wide- ranging potential for children raised without gender restrictions.


Practice makes perfect


Parents can identify the favourable and less favourable elements of their own personalities and abilities, so that they have some control over what they pass on to their children. It isn’t always easy for us to carry out an honest assessment of ourselves, so it is worth paying attention to what other people say about us!


Family, friends, neighbours, and colleagues are in a good position

to identify the favourable and less favourable aspects of our personality traits and behavioural quirks, so it’s worth trying to listen to feedback without taking offence.


At the same time, it can help parents to note the good and bad character traits their children exhibit, and choose which to encourage and which to discourage. Encouragement, gentle guidance and love can help you to develop positive personality traits in children, whatever they were born with!


For instance, you might want to encourage behaviour such as

being responsible and disciplined, working hard, completing tasks and exercises, cooperating with others, showing commitment, and expressing appreciation for the efforts of others. Ensure your children have a clear understanding of what is expected of them regarding their behaviour.


Most children will exhibit some traits that their parents don’t like and would prefer to change. This requires a careful approach. If not handled delicately, it could result in ongoing conflicts between parent and child. If your child is behaving in a way you don’t like,

it’s better to try to understand the meaning behind the behaviour before you take action.






Favourable traits








Less favourable traits









Changing behaviours


Sometimes children are simply acting out or rebelling as a way of

expressing their dissatisfaction about something. Once the root cause has been identified, the issue can often be amicably resolved so that it doesn’t lead to constant confrontations.


You need to try to exercise self-control as you address behaviour or traits in your child that you don’t like. Raising your voice and getting angry is likely to make the situation worse and may even reinforce misbehaviour: your child now knows how to get under your skin! If the parent-child relationship becomes strained, it will

make it much harder to teach more favourable behaviour. In fractured parent/child relationships, children might react by refusing to listen to anything coming from a parent!


So, the best approach is always a diplomatic one that seeks to establish a healthy relationship and creates a positive atmosphere in which you can teach children about the sort of behaviour that will help them get on happily in the world, and another sort of behaviour that may not work so well for them.


Chances are that some personality traits, such as being temperamental or stubborn, may be passed on to children even if you try hard not to let that happen. When this occurs, children

can be coached on how to handle themselves so that these personality traits don’t impact on them negatively.


For example, short-tempered children can be taught how to manage their anger and stay patient in stressful situations. Stubborn children can be shown the importance of listening to

reason and to other people’s opinions. If, as a parent, you work on your own bad points, this can be a really positive role model for your children and help them see that people can change.




Marie Daniels first noticed her seven-year-old son Nathan showing similar traits to her when he was aged two and started to express his personality.


‘Some of the personality traits I’ve passed on to Nathan include humour, empathy, creativity and outspokenness – and he’s also sporty, like me,’ she says. ‘When he was just three years old, I noticed how he showed empathy by choosing to sit in solidarity

with another child who had been kicked out of their gym playgroup.


‘Procrastination is a negative trait that I’ve tried hard to change in Nathan, with little success,’ she adds. ‘He is just not well organised, and although I’ve tried to help him, he just doesn’t seem to see the point!’











January/February 2018

All information is correct at time of publishing