Every parent wonders what sort of person their baby will turn out to be. You may ask how will your diet or other prenatal activities, such as listening to music, contribute to your child’s development? Also, will your parenting style affect his personality? Well, science says that you have already done most of that shaping by simply passing on a portion of your genes to your baby.
In fact, we inherit about half of our character traits from our parents. Also, the environment someone grows up in can actually affect his predisposed genetic traits, deciding if or when these genetic components show up. A child’s diet or nutrition (environmental factor) can affect his height or weight (genetic factors).
Ongoing studies also show that children who are brought up on healthier, more nutritious diets demonstrate slightly higher scores on IQ tests, compared to their less healthy peers. However, a good diet supports brain growth as well as cognitive functions like boosting concentration and memory. Which means that the impact of genes (nature) and the way we’re raised, coupled with our environment (nurture) is more or less equal.
Factors that influences personality
If how you raise your baby strongly inﬂuences how he turns out, you’d expect siblings raised together to resemble each other more in personality than two random people off the street. But they don’t. When it comes to personality, the environments that leave a mark seem to be anything other than the one that parents create at home.
Dr Robert Plomin, a behavioural genetics professor who analyses twin studies and adopted children, concludes that the environment siblings share while growing up has no bearing on their personality or basic psychological development. This includes the entire family’s mood and priorities, the parenting style, and whether their upbringing was “healthy” or “unhealthy”.
A “healthy” environment is free of abuse or neglect while an “unhealthy” one is when parents rely heavily on reacting to their emotions and have trouble coping with their emotions rationally. Instead, Dr Plomin argues that a non-shared environment — time away from the home — is what inﬂuences personality.
Researcher Judith Rich Harris observes that children are mainly inﬂuenced by same-age friends — which you can, of course, control to some extent when your kids are babies. However, other psychologists who feel that peer groups generally only have a short-term effect, suggest that how people — and the world — react to us also play a part in shaping our personalities.
Our appearance and intelligence affect how others react to us. And this reaction can become part of our personality. So, this back-and-forth interaction with people we meet helps to regulate our personality.
Many genes help shape personality
Modern genetics shows us that we’re dealing with nature and nurture. Indeed, the meeting of nature and nurture is still largely a mystery, though we know it’s an ongoing negotiation. Social scientists are finding evidence of genetics in everything — from our tendency to be fashionable, to our political leanings and even whether we go make an effort to vote. But there is no single gene that makes a person conservative or liberal. Instead, this interplay between many genes helps to shape our personality and temperament, which makes it more or less probable that we’re religious or an atheist. Even traits we would never think of as residing in the twists of our DNA can be affected by genes. Our capacity for empathy can be inherited, so is our tendency to become a hoarder. This explains why we’ll ﬁnd children who are very much “like” their mum or dad in temperament as in looks.
Intelligence, measured by our IQ — is one of the most heritable traits. Between 60 and 80 per cent is passed on. While school and learning are vital, trying to turn your child into a genius should not be on a parent’s priority list. Trying to squeeze in as many tuition sessions and enrichment classes as possible can result in burnout, a dislike of learning and potentially limited social skills. So it’s best to let your child be a child. Let him enjoy playing and learning through stimulating activities and interactions.
Children need to relax and have fun, so that they can function optimally. If the experience is fun and engaging, they’ll be more motivated to learn independently. So, parents also need to know their children’s personality and learning style well.
Reassure and encourage your child
From the moment of conception, our DNA is constantly being re-interpreted. Individual genes are turned on and off in response to the world around us and the lives we live. Some developmental child psychologists and researchers also believe that the environment can start shaping our baby’s personality while it’s still in the womb. So, a mother who experiences much stress during pregnancy may impact her baby’s stress level after birth. We do not have any control over biology and genetics, and while we can partially shape and manipulate variables in the environment, our children can be just as easily exposed to situations that we can’t control.
Perhaps recognising that you, as a parent, aren’t totally responsible for how your children turn out may actually be good news. Knowing that not every little thing you do and don’t do might have a major consequence on your child can ease some of your guilt and anxiety, and you can relax more. Who knows? You may even become a better parent!
So, heed the advice of neurobiologist and science writer, Dr Lone Frank, who recommends, “What you can do as a parent is to ease your child’s way in the world and enrich his life with reassurance and encouragement, building a strong foundation to explore the world from.”
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