To what extent are children’s personalities determined by the genetic lottery and how important are parenting practices in shaping characters?

All parents feel proud when their child performs well in school, is popular with friends, exhibits curiosity and exudes a calm confidence. Naturally, parents of such children pat themselves on their backs for raising a ‘star’ child. When these parents encounter a sulky, whiny or aggressive child, they feel that the child is not being reared properly by his/her parents. The arrival of a second child can throw these parents out of kilter as their later born child presents new parenting challenges that they did not encounter the first time.

Second time round

Colicky, irritable and anxious, little Dev is everything Dheeraj was not. While the older one used to wait patiently for his milk, the younger one brings the roof down. Changing diapers, bath time, feeding, putting the child to sleep … every aspect of parenting suddenly seems more strenuous and assumes Herculean proportions. The second-time round parents are flummoxed as they thought they were experienced and did a fine job with the first child. What went wrong suddenly? Only when a second child enters the family crucible do parents appreciate the role of temperament on a child’s behaviour. The age-old debate of nature versus nurture assumes significance as parents learn to grapple with each child’s unique temperament. To what extent are our children’s personalities determined by the genetic lottery and how important are parenting practices in shaping children’s characters? Research suggests that both nature and nurture play significant roles with some children being more sensitive to parenting styles than others.

Harvard psychologist, Jerome Kagan found that highly reactive infants differ from their more composed counterparts as early as four months of age. These children, whom he termed ‘inhibited’ are anxious and easily aroused. They also display all physiological markers of stress when placed under mildly threatening situations. Kagan found that inhibited children grow up to be shy, anxious children while the uninhibited ones are more outgoing, sociable and confident.

This finding should not be interpreted to mean that a child’s temperament or biology is destiny. How we respond to children’s innate proclivities and predilections can make an enormous difference to their personalities. Consider the case of two high reactive children. Eighteen-month old Rahul cried every time he was taken out, especially to crowded places. As any outing was fraught with tension, his parents avoided taking Rahul to crowded malls, birthday parties and family functions. As a result, Rahul continues to perceive the outside world as threatening. At age 14, he prefers keeping to himself and shies away from rambunctious boys. On the other hand, Manoj, who had a similar behavioural profile at one and a half years, is quite different as a teenager. As an infant, Manoj was encouraged to befriend new children, which he did diffidently at first, explore unfamiliar places and gradually got used to his noisy joint family. Nowadays, Manoj often gets boys together for a football match.

Change parenting practices

We also have to change our parenting practices if we feel that they do not mesh with a child’s personality. Often, if a parent has a similar temperament as her child, it may result in a self-fuelling cycle. For example, an anxious mother may pass on her anxieties to her already anxious child who then ends up making the mother more anxious. Likewise, an irritable father may react impulsively to his easily irritable son’s outbursts, thereby modelling inadequate emotional control.

Parents often remark on how differently their children react to praise or scolding. One child may take criticism in his/her stride while the other one may be hypersensitive. One child may respond to parental control more benignly while the other exhibits defiance. In a study cited by Kagan, “inhibited children were affected by the parental socialisation style more clearly than the uninhibited ones.” Thus, as siblings differ in their temperaments, we need to make adjustments according to each child’s unique characteristics.

Human development researchers Bruce Ellis and Thomas Boyce draw a poetic distinction between ‘orchid children’ and ‘dandelions’ that is grounded in science. Dandelion children are psychologically more resilient and tend to survive and possibly thrive irrespective of their environments. In contrast, orchid children, like their namesakes, are more fragile and sensitive to environmental differences; they can either flounder or flourish depending on the home environment. Behavioural geneticist Danielle Dick and her colleagues have actually identified a gene that interacts with home environments to produce either desirable or undesirable outcomes. Children with a variant of the gene who were exposed to harsh homes and negligent parenting tended to exhibit aggressive behaviour, whereas children with the same genetic variant who grew up in nurturing homes were the most promising.

While parental neglect of a child’s basic needs of food, security and comfort is damaging, psychologist Madeline Levine also cautions parents against being over involved and pushing children to the hilt to win accolades. Putting a premium on a child’s achievements can erode his/her sense of self. Parenting is indeed a tightrope balancing act as both neglect and over involvement can cause psychological imbalance. As we straddle a child’s biological, emotional, cognitive and social needs, we have to ensure that the child always remains psychologically whole.

Email: arunasankara@gmail.com