May 30, 2024

How are similar parents and children? Totally right? We all play that game after all. For example, I am competitive like my father (but without an ounce of his energy); my sister got my mother’s compassion and I got her cravings for crunchy potato products and staying in bed. My husband and his mother, meanwhile, share a spirited debating style (I choose my words carefully); that’s why their conversations get so… animated.

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

And it is culturally reinforced. Search for “like father, like son” throws up Mick Lynch’s son on a picket line and Cristiano Ronaldo’s son focus on a football match rather than chatting as proof of their similar personalities. (Predictably, looking up “like mother, like daughter” brings up a lot more matching bikinis.) You don’t even have to weigh nature vs. nurture: some fuzzy combination of the two we have to be a little alike after all make? It feels true, intuitive.

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

This new approach suggested more similarity between parents and offspring – about 40% rather than the 25% of previous studies. But it 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 family members are not “much more alike 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, it 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 the home environment also felt good: “Growing up together does not make people more alike.”

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

But parents are not completely off the hook. last year, a study of 9,400 11- to 17-year-olds states: “Parent personalities have a significant impact on a child’s life.” The detailed results concluded: “Children with neurotic parents scored relatively low on several measures, including grades, general health, body mass index … and time spent on leisure activities.” (Sorry, kids, but it’s not just me and my fellow neurotics who are guilty: extroverts’ offspring also get lower scores.)

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 in turn screw up our children. There are too many variables; how can you ever work out what makes us who we are, what is innate and what is not? As one psychologist put itis the most direct way to weigh nature against nurture “to randomly assign children to parents”.

It gets to the real challenge of this field: you can’t double-blind randomize parenting, so we’re left stumbling around in the dark. Perhaps the most useful thing to take from this surprising nugget is how wild the assumptions and labels we often place on our loved ones are. If I’ve learned anything worthwhile in 20 or more years of parenting, it’s never to underestimate how wrong I can be.

Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist

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