Relax, your parenting matters less than you think

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

I don't know about you, but I own a lot of parenting books. I'll admit, some are better read than others, and some have never been cracked open, but since becoming a parent 14 years ago I have thought a great deal about what sort of parent I am, how to be a better parent, and how my everyday decisions will impact on my children's lives.

How can I help them do better at school? How can I encourage them to eat a healthy diet and embrace the joys of exercise? How can I encourage them to love reading? How can I help them be the smartest, happiest, healthiest versions of themselves?

But a geneticist has told The New Scientist parents should relax about their parenting, because your child's DNA plays a much larger role in their development than your parenting does.

Robert Plomin is a geneticist at King's College London, and he's spent his career studying the DNA and environmental factors to dozens of human traits – from body weight to personality and academic success.

He says that genetics accounts for 50 per cent of a child's attributes as they grow up. And although the remaining 50 per cent is environmental, much of that is from circumstances beyond our control, and only a tiny amount can be traced back to our parenting.

In his book Blueprint, Plomin said, "We now know that DNA differences are the major systematic source of psychological differences between us. Environmental effects are important but what we have learned in recent years is that they are mostly random – unsystematic and unstable – which means that we cannot do much about them."

But does that let us off the hook? As parents can we really pour ourselves a glass of shiraz and pop on Netflix while our kids raise themselves?

Weighing up nature versus nurture could be the wrong approach, says Dan Auerbach, psychotherapist and relationship counsellor with Associated Counsellors and Psychologists Sydney.

"I think asking which is more influential on our children's development, genetics or parenting, is the wrong question," he says. "New developments in genetic research can't be ignored and may hold great promise for understanding certain trait differences in the future. But we already know from more than 60 years of research into caregiver-infant studies and research into adult functioning, that our early environment critical contributes to our wellbeing in adult life."

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Auerbach says the way we parent is still crucial to our children's wellbeing.

"Safe home environments where kids are soothed when they are distressed, where their interests are responded to and where they enjoy psychological and physical safety, repeatedly show much better outcomes in adult measures of life satisfaction, relationship security and productive engagement with work or education," he says.

"We also know that children who grow up in homes where there is repeated stress, trauma or fear, lead to much worse outcomes in adult life with regard to mental health, self-reported wellbeing and relationship stability and satisfaction.

"Infant brain studies also show that stimulation and responsive engagement from our caregivers is essential right from the very start for us to develop cognitively and emotionally."

So we're definitely not off the hook, which is nice because as parents it would be lovely we're losing all that sleep and income for a reason.

Auerbach says we have an enormous influence on the emotional wellbeing of our kids, which is something that shouldn't be underestimated.

"Our parents have the potential to teach us how to seek comfort, interest and support from another person," he says.

"This leads to a lifelong capacity to love, to seek refuge and support from a significant other, and to internalise the security that this brings. People who are well supported in early life usually develop greater confidence to explore their world, follow and engage with their interests, and maintain deep and satisfying relationships."

So, while we can't change our children's DNA, our focus as parents should be on providing our children with an environment that is psychologically safe and emotionally responsive, says Auerbach.

"That means soothing our kids when they are distressed and engaging with them in their interests," he says. "Soothing our kids helps them develop the capacity to self-sooth in later life. It also teaches them how to form strong secure connections with others. Sharing in our kids interests helps them internalise the capacity to develop interests in later life."

The shiraz and Netflix might have to wait.