Relax- Parents. We aren’t that important!

Dr. Surendran and wife Meera were friends of my father. They wanted to immigrate to the USA. Everything was ready for them. But they delayed the journey till their only daughter Prabha was five years old. As medical people, they believed that in the first five years the child’s basic attitudes and personality were set. Early upbringing was responsible for it- that was the conventional wisdom at that time. Once they were in the states, they spoke only their local language at home. The house was full of books on India and Indian culture. They wasted no opportunity to preach about traditional Indian values. They wanted the affluence and opportunities that America offered, both for themselves and for their daughter. But they wanted Prabha to be brought up as an Indian. The couple wanted her to remain Indian in spirit, throughout her life. That was the crux of their carefully thought out plan.

I am sure you can imagine what happened. Like countless other carefully thought out plans, this one fell into pieces. She turned as American as the kid next door. After sometime, she stopped speaking her native tongue, even in the house. She rebelled during her teens, and flapped her wings restlessly, resisting all attempts at cultural brain washing. As a young woman when she moved in with her boyfriend (and out of the house), their parents wondered what they had done wrong.

Their assumption was wrong. They had grossly overestimated their ability as parents to influence their offspring.

Parents among us, are always terrified- will minute lapses in bringing up our children affect them permanently?

There is a law of behavioural genetics that we knew for quite a long time now. But the general public doesn’t seem to be aware of it:

A good portion of the variation in complex human traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families. 

From half a century of carefully done research, including identical twin studies, (esp the MISTRA- an ongoing study of twins separated at birth and brought up in different families.) we know some things:

About 50 percent of our personality traits, including intelligence have a heritable component. That is – a good proportion of what we are, could be genetic.

But let us not forget that it leaves a substantial 40 to 50 percent. A huge window for other “environmental” factors. But how much are due to parental bringing up?

What puzzled researchers in twin and adoption studies are that the ‘shared environment’ had only a measly 10 percent effect on the various facets of personality. Shared environment means the parents and immediate family. Going by the example given above, the peers and the general cultural environment has a big influence. More than parents. Many unfortunate immigrant couples have found this out the hard way.

What was even more frustrating was the fact that among twins and siblings, most of the peer group and environment is similar. That still leaves a good 30 percent of variation between them unaccounted for.  What is this mysterious factor?

No one knows for sure. Psychologists call it ‘the unique environment’. It maybe chance. It could be the spontaneous differences in brain wiring, later accentuated by the person’s unique responses to events and experiences. Call it free will. Call it god’s will. Whatever you name it, we are not fully determined manufactured cars that will run just as predicted.

On the other hand, we have enough studies to say that, active abuse, and gross neglect have disastrous effects on children.

But an average, balanced parenting has the same bland effect- that is very small. What about extremely good parenting?

What about it? There is no such thing. No one has been able to define it still. But if you are not grossly bad, children develop just fine. It is the general culture, other people, peers, school and ‘unknown’ influences that determine how a child turns out to be.

Hard to swallow. But there is a good side to it. Parents- stop trying too hard- Relax!

(Jimmy Mathew. For more, get the book- Health and Happiness without Bullshit from

Dr Jimmy

I am a Doctor, Writer and Science Communicator. I am a member of Info- Clinic, and have written a few books. This site features my blog posts and stories. Thank you for visiting. ഞാൻ എഴുതാൻ ഇഷ്ടമുള്ള ഉള്ള ഒരു ഡോക്ടർ ആണ് . നിങ്ങളുടെ താത്പര്യത്തിന് നന്ദി .