Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

What have I learned from 20 years of parenting? Never to underestimate how wrong I can be | Emma Beddington

What have I learned from 20 years of parenting? Never to underestimate how wrong I can be | Emma Beddington

How alike are parents and kids? Quite, right? Surely we all play that game. I, for example, am competitive like my dad (but without a shred of his energy); my sister got my mother’s compassion and I got her lust for crispy potato products and staying in bed. My husband and his mum, meanwhile, share a lively debating style (I’m choosing my words carefully); it’s why their conversations get so … animated.

It’s an assumption that transcends geography: there are “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” equivalents worldwide – mostly tree-related, although I like the Portuguese “a fish’s child knows how to swim”.

And it’s reinforced culturally. Searching for “like father, like son” throws up Mick Lynch’s son on a picket line and Cristiano Ronaldo’s son focusing on a football match rather than chatting as evidence of their similar personalities. (Predictably, looking up “like mother, like daughter” throws up far more matching bikinis.) You don’t even have to weigh up nature versus nurture: some fuzzy combination of the two must make us a bit alike, surely? It feels true, intuitively.

The thing is, it’s not. This isn’t news: psychologists have known for ages that parents and children don’t particularly share the “big five” personality traits (extroversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism). It is getting attention now because of a study that tried to change the way this question of family similarity is explored. Rather than participants only self-reporting their personality traits, they also chose a third party who knew them well to assess them.

This novel approach suggested more similarity between parents and offspring – approximately 40% rather than the 25% of previous studies. But that is still very low. The study concluded that it was “impossible to accurately predict a child’s personality traits from those of their mother or father” and that most relatives are not “much more similar than strangers”.

Huh. So it’s just our pattern-seeking brains that make us think little Timmy is “cheeky like his dad”; you might as well say he is “cheeky like that gull”. As a parent, this felt like a weight lifted: if my kids are like me (God help them), it’s not my fault – just dumb luck. The same study’s findings on the impact of home environment felt good, too: “Growing up together does not make people more similar.”

Is this a baby step towards relinquishing years of parenting guilt? There is more encouragement in this surprisingly sweeping statement from the study’s lead author: “People assume that upbringing shapes personality, that it shapes what people are psychologically, but there’s really no evidence for this.”

But parents aren’t entirely off the hook. Last year, a study of 9,400 11- to 17-year-olds declared: “Parent personalities have a significant impact on a child’s life.” The detailed results concluded: “Kids with neurotic parents scored relatively low on several measures, including grades, overall health, body mass index … and time spent on leisure activities.” (Sorry, kids, but it’s not just me and my fellow neurotics getting guilted: extroverts’ offspring also get worse grades.)

It would be bizarre if the people who raised us had no influence on how we turned out, but surely we will never understand with any clarity how our parents screw us up and how we screw up our kids in turn. There are too many variables; how could you ever work out what makes us who we are, what is innate and what isn’t? As one psychologist has put it, the most direct way to weigh nature against nurture is “to randomly assign children to parents”.

This gets to the real challenge of this field: you can’t double-blind-randomise parenting, so we are left stumbling around in the dark. Perhaps the most helpful thing to take from this surprising nugget is how wildly off the assumptions and labels we put on our loved ones often are. If I have learned anything worthwhile in 20-plus years of parenting, it’s never to underestimate how wrong I can be.

Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist

Source: theguardian.com