How Kids Are Raised Matters Less


It is an age-old question: are we shaped more by nature or nurture? Robert Plomin, a geneticist at King’s College London, has spent his career teasing apart the contributions of DNA and environmental factors to countless human traits, from body weight to personality and academic success. Environment is undoubtedly a key influence on almost every aspect of our lives. But Plomin argues that genetics plays a more important and measurable role, even to the extent that our parenting and schooling don’t matter that much. We caught up with him to discuss his sometimes-controversial views.

Give us an example showing how little influence parenting has on the way children turn out.

Take our propensity to be overweight. If zero means parents have no influence and one means total influence, when two siblings grow up together, their body mass index has a correlation of about 0.4. It’s easy to see how people attribute that mainly to nurture, because parents provide both siblings with the same food. But it turns out that isn’t true, and obesity runs in families for reasons of genetics.                            

Is this true for intelligence and personality too?

Definitely for cognitive abilities. There aren’t as many studies on personality, but we know that identical twins reared apart are as similar in personality as identical twins reared together. I’ve studied identical twins who have grown up apart, and I find it amazing how they are so similar in things like the way they laugh or talk.

Are you really arguing that there’s no advantage to sending your child to a private or grammar school?

If you want your kid to go to private school because it’s just a nicer place and has lots of sports fields, fine. Don’t do it because you think you’re going to make them achieve more because they won’t.

Can you empathize with those who don’t like your ideas about parenting?

Parents should lighten up and enjoy their children. Because, despite what they think, parents aren’t in control. If you think your kids are clay that you can mold, forget it. I think it’s better if we think of parents as resource managers, whose job it is to find out what their kids like to do and give them opportunities to do it. Why not accept that it’s a relationship – enjoy it as best as you can and watch who your children become.

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