Nature vs. nurture: How much influence do parents have?

At some point as a parent, you will engage in the nature versus nurture debate. You may ask yourself if your kid just has a natural flair for words or if it’s because they went to an after-school reading program every day. You may question if they’re a successful physicist because of genetics, or because you took them to science camp every summer.

Nature versus nurture is an age-old argument that, frankly, has no one school of thought. Some people believe that nature (our genes) is always at play, while others believe it’s your environment (nurture) that determines your individuality. And then there are those who believe both nature and nurture play defining roles in shaping personality, physicality, and intelligence. But as a parent, you may wonder: How much influence do you really have over either?

The science behind nature vs. nurture

Some research suggests that genes determine personality traits. The breakthrough Minnesota study of twins from 1990 found that identical twins reared apart were as similar as identical twins reared together, meaning that genetic factors affect general intelligence and psychological differences — a claim made in 1929.

A 2004 University of Minnesota survey made similar claims. And a 2013 Journal of Personality study of adult American twins discovered that genes determine happiness. Particularly, the genetic factors and biological mechanisms influencing self-control, purpose, agency, growth, and positive social interactions reinforce psychological well-being.

But other research from the last decade proposes that nature and nurture are both influential. In 2005, sociology professor Guang Gao asserted that a combination of environment and genes create complex human traits — not just genetics, as traditional twin studies often stress.

Gao’s theory is supported by recent research out of the University of Queensland. In 2015, Dr. Beben Benyamin found that, on average, our health is determined 49 percent by genetics and 51 percent by our environment. More so, British science journalist Matt Ridley writes that pitting nature and nurture against each other is a “false dichotomy.” Rather, Ridley states, environmental factors play a role in how our genes behave. Or simply: Our body reacts to the outside world.

So how much influence does a parent have?

A lot. Children are naturally predisposed to certain characteristics. There is no doubt that genes play a role in whether your child is bubbly, highly frustrated, or calm.

But your parenting style can determine the intensity of your child’s behavior, just as your child’s traits can determine how you parent, according to a 2011 Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review study. It’s circular logic: The study found that negative parenting could exacerbate frustration, impulsivity, and poor self-regulation in your kid, while those adverse behaviors can provoke a harmful parenting style. The same is true for positive traits and positive parenting styles.

A 1996 Developmental Psychology study looking at the correlation between antisocial children and adoptive parent practices came to a similar conclusion. The study found that, while an adoptive child’s antisocial traits are linked to the mental illness of biological parents, the adoptive guardian’s parenting techniques affect the adoptee’s disruptive behavior, and vice versa. Other research showsthat maternal depression can negatively impact a child’s behavioral and emotional development because of both genetic and environmental influences.

Not all research sounds the alarm. A 1962 American Psychologist study argues that that creative talent can bloom through nurturing in school. In 2010, psychologist George W. Holden theorized that a parent’s day-to-day decisions can determine a child’s growth and future success. A child may grow up to be a successful lawyer because of how their parent guided them through development, rather than if they just reinforced or punished behavior.

In other words, your child’s genes may give them the intelligence needed to be a lawyer, but how you interact with them as a parent could determine their progress.

On a broader scope, geography can influence our traits and our environment. After studying 13,000 pairs of twins, researchers at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry concluded in 2012 that where they lived in the United Kingdom directly correlated to what extent their genetic traits were expressed.

One example they give is that your child may be at a higher risk of becoming diabetic because of their family history, but they may never develop the disease if they eat healthfully and exercise frequently.

Another example is that living in an area with a high pollen concentration could expose your child’s genetic predisposition to seasonal allergies, whereas a low pollen area may not. And you the parent determine where your child lives.

The takeaway

Don’t understatement your influence on your child’s development. Yes, it’s true that genetics may determine if your child has a natural talent for math or ballet. But you as the parent will help determine if they become a math professor or a classically trained dancer.

A child may or may not realize their potential based on the decisions you make and the behaviors of the people they interact with. Of course, there will always be disagreement among scientists about whether nature or nurture is more influential. But enough research suggests that in reality, it’s both.


Bouchard, TJ, Lykken, DT,  McGue, M, Segal, NL, and Tellegen, A. “Sources of human psychological differences: The Minnesota study of twins reared apart.” Science. 250(4978): 223-8. Web. October 1990.

Holzinger, KJ. “The relative effect of nature and nurture influences on twin differences.” Journal of Educational Psychology. 20(4):241-248. Web. April 1929.

Bouchard, TJ. “Genetic influence on human psychological traits.” Current Directions in Psychological Science. 13(4):148-51. Web. August 2004.

Archontaki, D, Lewis, GJ, and Bates, T. C. “Genetic influences on psychological well-being: A nationally representative twin study.” Journal of Personality. 81(2): 221–230. Web. April 2013.

Polderman, TJC, Beben, B, de Leeuw, CA, Sullivan, PF, van Bochoven, A, Visscher, PM, and Posthuma, D. “Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies.” Nature Genetics. 47(7):702-9. Web. July 2015.

Ridley, Matt. The agile gene: How nature turns on nurture. Perennial. 2013. Print.

Kiff, CJ, Lengua, LJ, Zalewski, M. “Nature and nurturing: Parenting in the context of child temperament.” Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review. 14(3): 251. Web. September 2011.

Ge, X, Conger, RD, Cadoret, RJ, Neiderhiser, JM, Yates, W, Troughton, E, and Stewart, MA. “The developmental interface between nature and nurture: A mutual influence model of child antisocial behavior and parent behaviors.” Developmental Psychology. 32(4):574-89. Web. July 1996.

Kim-Cohen J, Moffitt TE, Taylor A, Pawlby SJ, Caspi A. “Maternal depression and children’s antisocial behavior nature and nurture effects.” Archives of General Psychiatry. 62(2):173–81. Web. February 2005.

Mackinnon, DW. “The nature and nurture of creative talent.” American Psychologist. 17(7):484-95. Web. July 1962.

Holden, GW. “Childrearing and developmental trajectories: Positive pathways, off-ramps, and dynamic processes.” Child Development Perspectives. 4(3):197–204. Web. December 2010.

Davis, OSP, Haworth, CMA., Lewis, CM, & Plomin, R. “Visual analysis of geocoded twin data puts nature and nurture on the map.” Molecular Psychiatry. 17(9):867-874. Web. June 2012.

Get the Ovia Parenting app
Get our app at the Apple App Store Get our app at the Apple App Store Get our app at the Google Play Store Get our app at the Google Play Store