What if parenting doesn’t change who your kids are?

By December 21, 2023Psychopaths, Teens

In 2021, a group of researchers set out to determine whether parenting style had any effect on the personalities of their children.  They wanted to know whether it mattered if you show physical affection, whether you are consistent, whether you are predictable, whether you are encouraging and attentive or whether you are more likely to be scolding and controlling. They were shocked to discover the answer was a resounding – no.  When it came to the most well known and widely used model of personality type, parenting style made no real difference.

The study used data from almost 4,000 students in 99 German schools who first undertook personality testing in year 5 and were then followed up for each of the next three years.  Their parents also answered questionnaires designed to categorise their parenting style. The personality trait measure used was the Big Five model, the most widely accepted personality theory in psychology today.

The Big 5 personality traits are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism (often remembered using the acronym OCEAN). Each trait represents a continuum between two extremes, such as introversion and extraversion.

Openness emphasises imagination and insight the most out of all five personality traits. People who score high on openness tend to be curious, creative, and adventurous. They enjoy trying new things and learning new skills. They also have a broad range of interests and are not afraid to express their opinions. People who score low on openness tend to be conventional, practical, and conservative. They prefer routine and familiarity over novelty and change. They may also be more sceptical and critical of new ideas.

Conscientiousness describes a person’s ability to regulate impulse control to engage in goal-directed behaviours. It measures elements such as control, inhibition, and persistence of behaviour. People who score high on conscientiousness are organized, disciplined, detail-oriented, thoughtful, and careful. They also have good impulse control, which allows them to complete tasks and achieve goals. People who score low on conscientiousness may struggle with impulse control, leading to difficulty in completing tasks and fulfilling goals. They tend to be more disorganized and may dislike too much structure. They may also engage in more impulsive and careless behaviour.

Extraversion represents a continuum between extreme extraversion and extreme introversion. It reflects how sociable, outgoing, energetic, and assertive a person is. People who score high on extraversion are friendly, talkative, enthusiastic, and enjoy being around others. They seek stimulation and excitement from social interactions. People who score low on extraversion are reserved, quiet, thoughtful, and prefer solitude or small groups of close friends. They seek depth and meaning from their experiences.

Agreeableness refers to how people tend to treat relationships with others. Unlike extraversion which consists of the pursuit of relationships, agreeableness focuses on people’s orientation and interactions with others. People who score high on agreeableness are kind, cooperative, compassionate, trusting, and helpful. They value harmony and avoid conflict at all costs. People who score low on agreeableness are suspicious, uncooperative, competitive, distrustful, and manipulative.

Neuroticism often involves sadness or emotional instability as well as anxiety or nervousness about various aspects of life such as health or work performance . People who score high on neuroticism experience negative emotions more frequently or intensely than those who score low on neuroticism . They also tend to be more sensitive to stressors , criticism , or rejection . People who score low on neuroticism are calm , confident , resilient , optimistic ,and emotionally stable.

Your position on the scale for each of these five main traits can help you figure out if you have other additional personality traits. These other traits are usually divided into two groups: positive personality traits and negative personality traits. Positive traits include being creative, friendly, co-operative, humble, optimistic, insightful and thorough. Negative traits include being aggressive, arrogant, deceptive, egotistical, intolerant and judgemental.

Using this model other researchers have found that most people fall into one of four personality types.

  • Average – the most frequent type, marked by high levels of extroversion – friendliness and enthusiasm – and neuroticism – nervousness and anxiety – and low levels of openness – not open to new experiences)
  • Self-centered – Self-Centered people score very high in extraversion and below average in openness, agreeableness and conscientiousness. These are people you don’t want to hang out with.
  • Reserved – emotionally stable, but not open or neurotic. They are not particularly extraverted but are somewhat agreeable and conscientious.
  • Role models – low in neuroticism and high in all the other traits. These are people who are dependable and open to new ideas. They are good people to be in charge of things. Life is easier if you have more dealings with role models.

The parents were asked to rate their involvement in the child’s school on a 4 point scale with questions like “I have enough time and energy to get involved in my child’s school.” They also had to rate their level of structure and cultural stimulation with questions like “I make sure that my child does his homework at fixed times every day,” and “How often do you go to a museum with your child?” Lastly they were asked to rank their parental goals from 1 to 17 from a list that included “order and discipline”, “intellectual curiosity”, and “righteous and helpful behaviour”.  The questionnaires also included controls for the parent’s socioeconomic status and where each of the parents rated in the Big 5 model themselves.

After the data was in and some serious maths was performed the results were, well, surprising. In short the relationship between parenting style and children’s personality types “were not statistically significantly different from zero.”  Being a supermum (or dad), hugging the kids constantly, turning up to every parent teacher night, helping them with their homework, being encouraging, not scolding, would not change the type of kid you raised.  If they were a self-centred brat at Year 5, they still were by the time they hit Year 8.  And the same was equally true of parents who didn’t get involved with the school, didn’t encourage their kids to experience culture and had no particular parenting goals.  The kid will be who they are going to be regardless of parenting style.

This study didn’t look at the extremes of parenting.  There are definitely types of parenting which are more about chaos and neglect which would seriously affect the way a kid grows up, but even so, this study suggests that we are who we are wired to be from birth and whether our mum helps us with our homework or not is unlikely to change that.