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
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
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
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
5 GREAT AND NOT-SO-GREAT TRAITS TO PICK UP FROM MUM AND DAD
Less favourable traits
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
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
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.
THE GENERATION GAME
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!’