Throwing Out To Rule Book On Parenting
September 4, 2013

Parenting 101: Genetics Of The Child Can Influence Parenting Style

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

There is no simple recipe for raising children, as any parent will tell you. Parents receive hefty doses of advice – often unsolicited – from others, however the advice generally fails to consider one critical factor: the child. A new literature review of dozens of studies, performed by Hebrew University of Jerusalem, used more than 14,600 pairs of twins to reveal that children's genetics significantly affect how they are parented.

"There is a lot of pressure on parents these days to produce children that excel in everything, socially and academically," says Reut Avinun of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Since children are not born tabula rasa [blank slate], I felt it was important to explore their side of the story, to show how they can affect their environment, and specifically parental behavior." The research team found that most studies had focused on how parents affect their children’s experiences instead of the reverse.

Avinun and his colleague Ariel Knafo looked to twins to explore the other side of the equation. Identical twins share 100 percent of their genes, while fraternal twins share an average of 50 percent of their genes. The researchers reasoned that if parents treat identical twins more similarly than fraternal twins, it suggests that the child’s genes shape parenting behaviors.

The research team found that children’s genetically-influenced characteristics do affect parental behavior across 32 studies involving twins. They estimated that a child’s genetics influenced 23 percent of genetic differences in parenting. Children evoke different responses from their environment through genotype-related differences. An antisocial child, for example, is more likely to elicit harsh discipline than a more social child.

Boys with less self-control are more likely to experience lower levels of maternal behavior, according to one recent study the team examined. A particular genotype – a polymorphic region in the gene that codes for the serotonin transporter – predicted mothers' levels of positive parenting and the boys' level of self-control. This was not true for girls. "In other words, boys' genetically influenced level of self-control affected the behavior of their mothers toward them," Avinun says.

The research team found that children’s shared environment – including socioeconomic factors, cultural exposure and others – accounted for 43 percent of parenting differences. The non-shared environment - different schools, friends, etc. – accounted for 34 percent of the differences. The researchers suggest that parenting does not necessarily affect children in the same family similarly.

The extent to which parenting is influenced by genetics is influenced by several factors. For example, the researchers found that age was important. This supports the theory that the child's genetic influence on parenting increases with age. "As children become increasingly autonomous, their genetic tendencies are more likely to be able to affect their behavior, which in turn influences parental behavior," Avinun says.

Overall, Avinun says that their research "means that parenting should not be viewed solely as a characteristic of the parent, but as something that results from both parental and child attributes." This means that any interventions or treatments considered to help parenting should take into account both the parents and children. These interventions could vary even within a family.

"The discussion of 'nature vs. nurture' has transformed into 'nature and nurture.' We now understand that most characteristics are determined by the interplay between genetic and environmental influences," Avinun says.

There can never be a general rule book for raising children because children are born differently, Avinun explains. "There isn't one style of ideal parenting. Each child requires a different environment to excel. So parents should not invest a lot of effort in trying to treat their children similarly, but instead, be aware of the variation in their children's attributes and nurture them accordingly."

The findings of this review were published in Personality and Social Psychology Review.