Nature versus nurture: what influences kids the most?
FOR decades we have heard that the nurture we give our children is key to their progress and success.
But what if that nurture mattered little? Or we couldn't determine which aspects of nurture would boost kids' futures?
Robert Plomin is a geneticist and psychologist who says the evidence is that half our differences and similarities are set by our genes.
The other half is the result of factors we don't yet understand - some random and some intentional on the part of anyone who influences that child's development.
Dr Plomin and his views are controversial and some people think it means we are doomed to a life set by those genes.
But all is not lost. He argues that once we have an idea of how a person's genes affect them we can provide better support to maximise their progress and minimise problems.
Clare Wilson from New Scientist grilled him on his theories recently and they are also in his book Blueprint: How DNA makes us who we are.
This is about averages - there will always be individuals who do not fit. Plomin agrees his theory only applies to the vast majority of the population.
And anyone who has been severely abused does not fit the pattern because the abuse can override the impact of genes.
He bases the theories on studies of twins and particularly on twins separated at birth.
In many cases and for many factors that have been measured, twins grow up to be remarkably similar regardless of sometimes massive differences in upbringing.
One example he gives is bodyweight. A child who is adopted and raised next to a child who becomes overweight will not necessarily also become overweight, despite having the same diet and family circumstances.
However, twins split at birth and raised in different circumstances are likely to have very similar bodyweights, regardless of differences in food, activity and the like in their adoptive family.
The nurture we give definitely plays a part in how kids turn out, but there is little evidence that we can predict what that is and how it will work out.
There is a correlation between how parents parent and how kids turn out. But if you look at such things as whether reading to children causes an interest in reading, it doesn't seem to be so. What does seem to influence the child is an interest in reading, in acquiring knowledge or in disappearing into the wormhole of delights that reading can offer. Again - genes are playing a key part.
But don't give up. Instead, work with the child's interests.
We can encourage the full expression of the genes with what we do and we can assist children to divert or otherwise deal with any limitations or negatives from their genes.
When we see a child hitting another he says we still need to intervene to deliver the moral code the child needs and of course we still need to reinforce the assertiveness the hit child needs.
Even when it comes to tiger mums driving their kids forward, Plomin says the child's success in life may be more the result of "tiger genes” than tiger pushing.
Plomin says sending children to private schools is most likely a waste. His other research found private schools do better because they select children with the propensity to do well rather than because of anything the school delivers.
His message to parents is simple - lighten up and enjoy relating to your children and seeing who they become. You're not in control. Come to see your job as a resource manager and find out what your kids want to do and offer opportunities to do that.