In 1980, a popular news story swept the US media. It was about three college-age boys—Eddy, David and Bobby—who, through a series of coincidences, had discovered they were identical triplets who’d been separated at birth and adopted.
After being joyfully reunited, the handsome, affable teenagers were caught up in a whirlwind of public attention. They did the daytime talk-show circuit and laughed as interviewers marvelled over their similarities: They all smoked the same brand of cigarettes, had the same favourite colour and even liked similar women. They were, in many ways, seemingly indistinguishable, despite having grown up in entirely different families on different sides of the country.
But as a recent documentary, Three Identical Strangers, explores, it turns out there was a chilling secret at the heart of this feel-good story. The boys were being used as subjects in a sociological experiment aimed at testing the age-old question of which matters more: Nature or nurture?
Have you ever agonized over whether you should even bother nagging an unmusical child to practise piano? Or wondered why two siblings raised in the same home can turn out to be so wildly different? Perhaps you’re starting to suspect that all those hours you spent straining organic parsnips, attending sing-and-sign classes and smiling over flash cards didn’t actually make much difference to the person your kid is turning out to be. If so, you’ve got nature versus nurture on the brain.
As modern parents, most of us believe we have significant control over who our kids become and that, by extension, their future successes or failures ride largely on our shoulders. That’s why we debate the pros and cons of breastmilk versus bottle, worry about the cognitive effects of screen time and wonder whether we should be more free range, helicopter or tiger mom. But what if that just wasn’t true? What if the most effective thing we could do as loving, responsible parents was to simply sit back and relax?
A new body of groundbreaking genetic research points to a glaring truth: As parents, we’re not as important as we think we are.
The role of genetics
How people become who they are has been the subject of psychologist and geneticist Robert Plomin’s research for years. A professor at King’s College, London, Plomin is one of the world’s leading experts on the study of identical twins, and his book Blueprint explores how DNA forms human character. At a recent public debate in London, he was unequivocal: “Parenting matters,” he said, “but not in terms of determining a child’s psychological outcome.”
What Plomin means is that while it’s hugely important that we love and care for our kids, other things matter far less. According to Plomin, new data shows things like which school your child goes to, whether they travel, how many books you read them when they’re small and how hard (or if) you push them into certain activities, aren’t likely to have much, if any, effect on who they fundamentally are now, or who they become. Put another way: If your child is defiant and strong-willed, they’re almost certainly going to spend their life challenging authority whether you run your household on a strict military timetable or unschool them in a yurt.
It’s a thought that flies in the face of virtually every piece of parenting advice you’ve likely ever encountered, but Plomin’s research into behavioural genetics and twins has been wide-ranging and largely conclusive. He’s currently conducting the Twins Early Development Study of 26,000 children born in England and Wales from 1994 to 1996. Before that, he worked at Pennsylvania State University studying elderly twins reared together and apart. Over decades of research, he’s concluded that many character traits widely assumed to be the result of environmental factors and social conditioning—like curiosity, diligence, intelligence, fastidiousness, academic inclination and drive—are, in fact, highly heritable. For decades, Plomin writes, sociologists have mistakenly attributed such factors to environment, but breakthroughs in genetics now prove that’s just not the case.
Take my own family. As a writer married to an editor, I’m bringing my son up in a house full of books, surrounded by people who read a great deal both for work and pleasure. If my son shows an aptitude for reading, is it down to his environment or his genes? As countless identical twin studies have shown, almost certainly the latter. If he’d been secretly adopted at birth by a family of book-loathing professional wrestlers, it’s probable my son would be locked in his bedroom with a novel from the library, wondering why he’s so different from his siblings. Similarly, all the research that suggests “breast is best” or that screen time leads to cognitive delays or that piano practice is good for motor skills is inconclusive in Plomin’s view, for one simple reason: You can’t effectively control for genetics, and genetics are the key determining factor in everything we are. Studies that show, for example, that infants who eat organic parsnips turn out smarter, healthier and richer because of their diet are largely ignoring the fact their parents, from whom infants inherit their genes, are probably smarter, healthier and richer to begin with.
The effect of our nurturing instincts
Freeing as it is, the idea that all the focus you put on parenting your kid doesn’t have much influence is also deeply unsettling. As a mother, I instinctively cleave to the notion that my efforts toward encouraging my son to do his homework and make his bed must count for something. If not, motherhood seems like an endless and dispiriting list of chores. Geneticists and evolutionary biologists have theorized that, as parents, we are naturally predisposed to imbuing our efforts with deeper meaning because it keeps us eager to get our genes into the next generation, but in truth, are we really just glorified chauffeurs, housekeepers and cooks?
Thankfully, no. Research shows that while the “extras” of parenting (like music lessons) might not be crucial, the basic care we provide actually matters significantly. Ann Pleshette Murphy, a therapist and parenting counsellor who faced off against Plomin at the same public debate, says that while she doesn’t dispute the role genetics play, environment is also hugely important and should not be discounted. She points out that in recent years, several key neurological studies have found that the architecture of infants’ brains is demonstrably affected by the often seemingly subtle ways in which they are parented.
Researchers at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University stress the importance of “serve-and-return” play between infants and carers, saying that, “When an infant or young child babbles, gestures or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills.”
Similarly, a 2017 study from the University of British Columbia showed that cuddling children when they are babies can actually alter their genetic makeup on a molecular level and result in improved resilience later in life. There is also plenty of evidence that spanking and other forms of violent corporal punishment can have a deleterious effect on kids’ future psychological outcomes.
“Genes matter,” says Pleshette Murphy, “but the house must be built on love. Even if we concede that DNA accounts for 70 percent of our character traits, the remaining 30 percent can make 100 percent of the difference.”
The rise of child-centred parenting
So if love matters but everything else is incidental, how did we get to the point where every day we are bombarded with messages that if we only parented a little harder, a little better or a little differently, we would send our kids down a path of well-adjustment, happiness and prosperity? It’s been a long journey. The act of parenting, in the child-centred sense, didn’t really exist as a marketable concept until the middle of the last century, when Dr. Benjamin Spock published his book The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, the first bestseller on the subject. Throughout the late 1960s, the genre proliferated, and a new crop of self-anointed experts began churning out books designed to fill the needs of anxious baby boomer parents who craved baby- and child-rearing advice.
Prior to that, most people simply raised their kids by example, and the unique emotional needs of children were, by and large, considered subordinate to the needs of adults. (You’ve likely heard the old chestnut about children being “seen and not heard.”) With the rise of youth culture in the ’50s and ’60s, many middle-class baby boomers decided they wanted to do things differently when they had their own families. My parents, for instance, grew up in a time when corporal punishment was widely accepted and school teachers hit students as a matter of course. Like many of their generation, however, they chose not to continue the tradition. And although I was shouted at as a child, I have never once raised my voice since giving birth. (Just kidding—I yell at my kids on occasion, but at least I don’t do it while smoking in a car with no seat belts.)
Our collective interest in the welfare of children, in both the private and public arenas, has driven enormous positive social change. Children all over the world today are protected under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (ratified in 1990) that recognizes and seeks to protect their universal human rights. Before it came into effect, children in most parts of the world, including Canada, were understood both culturally and legally to be the exclusive property of their parents. In many places around the world, they still largely are.
While the move toward child-centred public policy and parenting has been beneficial for children on a societal level, it also means we have come to substantially overstate the effects (positive, negative or otherwise) of parenting in the home. While our own parents were mostly on their own with Spock, moms and dads today are overwhelmed by a tsunami of unsolicited parenting advice. Our Facebook feeds alone offer a constant stream of revelations, opinions and heated debates over the minutiae of caring for a child. As a consequence, it’s easy to be seized by the notion that every little choice matters hugely as a new parent, but lots of data suggests the opposite is true. Let’s take the example of breastfeeding. Today’s collective wisdom (and North American public health policy) suggests it’s crucially important and that mothers who cannot or choose not to breastfeed are potentially putting their kids at future risk.
But an exhaustive landmark study conducted by researchers at Ohio State University and published in the journal Social Science & Medicine in 2014 looked at thousands of US families over many years and, for the first time ever, comprehensively measured the long-term effects of bottle-feeding versus breast. This study was unprecedented because it included a sample group of more than 1,700 families in which one child was exclusively breastfed and another exclusively bottle-fed. When comparing within families, researchers found the extended benefits of breastfeeding to be virtually non-existent. This finding effectively upended decades of research that suggested breastfeeding is linked to better future outcomes in health and intelligence. In fact, what this study showed is that it’s a combination of genetics and environment—not the magic elixir of breastmilk—that determines a child’s long-term outcome.
Letting go of the guilt and anxiety
Child-centred parenting seems lovely in theory, but what about all the unnecessary guilt and anxiety it has caused parents who “fail” to live up to its exacting standards? Recent research from Cornell University found that an overwhelming majority of 3,600 respondents—regardless of race or income—thought a hands-on approach to parenting was superior to a ‘natural growth’ approach, where parents set rules but kids have more freedom. This is a bit of a double-edged sword for disadvantaged families who may struggle to meet this ideal given the prevalence of economic and social challenges. If you’re a single mother with three kids and working a low-income job, you have less time and mental space to worry about things like breastfeeding or screen time or homework. The fact is, a child-centred approach is a much easier option for affluent families with the time and money to devote to it.
Even for those with the means to bring their child up in a baby-led world of sing-and-sign classes and toddler yoga, the pressure to do the “right” thing for your kids can be crippling. Like so many new mothers, I struggled daily when my kids were small with feelings of inadequacy and guilt. The tiniest details took on enormous emotional significance—a view that was, in turn, exacerbated by the effects of sleep deprivation. I remember bursting into a flood of self-loathing tears as I bought infant formula for the first time so my husband could do the night feed and allow me to sleep through the night—something I hadn’t done in six months. What was that about?
The danger of child-centred parenting is that it encourages caring (especially among new mothers) as a performative act—a way of signalling to those around you that you are “doing it correctly” and are, by extension, a good parent. New parents tend to be hard on themselves, and the culture we live in only adds fuel to that fire. Competitive anxiety; playground hovering; the kind of baseless, evangelical urgency with which we advise pregnant women and new mothers on how best to give birth and care for their babies: These are the pernicious downsides of what has otherwise been a positive trend for children.
Parenting does matter—of course it does—just not in the overly complicated, competitive, anxiety-ridden way most of us have been led to believe. Our kids are born who they are, Plomin says. As parents, it’s our job to love, support, accept and enjoy them. The rest is gravy.
This article was originally published online in May 2019.