Luck, genes and the limits of parenting

Family planning: A harmonious scene in James Peale’s portrait of himself and his family (1795).

Your path in life largely depends on how your parents treated you. Or so we think. An academic is arguing that the influence of parents is overrated. So what exactly makes us who we are?

The son of immigrants is likely to grow up bilingual. The daughter of musicians could well become one herself. Kids who grow up around books often develop a love of literature.

The idea that you are heavily influenced by the environment your parents provide is taken for granted in society at large. It has spawned a huge “parenting advice” industry. It encourages people to thank their mum and dad when they succeed and blame them when they fail.

But according to a leading criminologist, this line of thinking is mistaken. “Parenting does not have a large impact on how children turn out,” writes Brian Boutwell in Spectator Life. Far more important to our mental development, he argues, are genetic factors.

Take identical twins who have been separated at birth. They have totally different upbringings, but almost the same genes. Studies have repeatedly shown that they develop similar traits, from job choices to hobbies to laughs. Genes must be responsible.

Boutwell does not deny that environments affect people. But even here, he believes that experiences created by parents — which academics call the “shared environment” — are relatively insignificant.

More important are all other environmental factors, lumped together in the “non-shared environment” category. These range from your friends’ and teachers’ influence on you to sheer pot luck. Hence why unrelated children who are adopted into the same family tend to be quite different.

Boutwell’s arguments are controversial, as he acknowledges. Parents love their children and like to think that they are responsible for their development. If Boutwell is right, they are wrong, and “parenting advice” is largely nonsense.

It goes further. Many social policies are built on the theory that parenting shapes a child to a great extent. If this is untrue, we need to radically redesign some aspects of our society.

(Don’t) think of the children

Time for a rethink, say some. Boutwell’s arguments (and evidence) point to an uncomfortable truth: apart from genes, parents cannot offer much to their kids. They must be less pushy and more accepting of differences — in personality, achievement, interests — between their children. And they shouldn’t obsess over their own mistakes. After all, these won’t matter much in the long run.

Even if Boutwell is right, reply others, parents still have a very important role to play. They may not have much control over their children’s mental development, but they can still choose to provide them with a happy childhood, which counts for a lot. Human relationships are the most important thing in the world. By showing love and affection, parents can at least teach their kids this important lesson.

You Decide

  1. Do you want children? Why (not)?
  2. Should parents take parenting advice from anyone? If so, who?


  1. Pair up. Write a list of the similarities and differences between you and your partner (excluding physical attributes). Then discuss: why have you both developed the way you have?
  2. Read Philip Larkin’s poem in Become An Expert (warning: explicit language). Then write a poem that summarises Brian Boutwell’s ideas.

Some People Say...

“Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.”

— Proverb

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Scientists today agree that a person’s development is shaped both by “nature” — i.e. their genes — and “nurture”, or environmental influences. This subject has fascinated thinkers since Plato, who knew nothing of genes, but believed that a human’s behaviour is determined by innate factors. His student Aristotle argued the opposite: all babies are born as “blank slates”, to be moulded by the world around them.
What do we not know?
The balance of importance between nature and nurture is constantly debated. Lately, however, the theory that nature has a big impact on mental development has fallen out of fashion, largely because it was used to justify racist policies in the early 20th century. This is another reason why Boutwell’s views are a little controversial.

Word Watch

Almost the same genes
It was long thought that identical twins have exactly the same genes. But recent research has shown that the genes can vary slightly due to mutations that occur during development. This is one reason why identical twins are not literally identical.
Barbara Herbert and Daphne Goodship, identical twins separated at birth and reunited decades later, were nicknamed the “giggle twins” on account of their similar laughs.
Boutwell makes an exception for cases in which parents seriously neglect or abuse a child. Research suggests that this tends to have a big impact on the child’s mental development.
Pot luck
Think of identical twins who get similar jobs in two similar companies. One company goes bust; that twin loses her job. The other twin goes on to have a successful career. For reasons unrelated to them, the two end up in very different situations.
Social policies
The Incredible Years programme, for example, encourages the parents of difficult children to spend more time with their offspring, and to communicate with them more effectively.

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