Parents’ influence on children

Tonight I watched an uncommonly interesting program on the TV, featuring Harald Eia trying to discover explanations for sociological phenomena. It’s called “Hjernevask” (brain wash), and tonight’s topic was to which degree parent’s really influenced their children.
Check it out:

Now, NRK is, as I’m already sure you know, the best and most intelligeble broadcaster known, but tonight it exceeded itself.

Harald Eia is a commonly known comedian, but he also has a history as a sociology student, hence – undoubtedly – his interest in making this program series. Tonight he asked the question of why children reproduce the skills, intelligence and habits of their parents. In the beginning of the program I thought it would be a repetition of everything we learn in basic sociology told in a popular language, but it turned out it had a twist. Contrary to common sociology beliefs fronted by many famous sociologists (amongst others some of my curriculum authors) saying that children imitate their parents, the program shows some research results saying that environment makes a much slimmer impact on a person than originally thought, and that genes is much more important. Now, this is exceptionally interesting to me because it devastates everything I’m told at sociological institute.

Now, sociology is a very interesting field, but it can possibly be criticised for not taking the influence of genes into a greater account. And there is a lot of questions one can ask one self.

The first is why children borne in high class families do better at school than children with a smaller socio-economical status. The normal sociological answer to this one is that parents with a high education will accentuate the importance of stimulating the child intellectually, which then makes the child develop a more advanced intelligence. The normal Freudian thought of parent’s impact on young life and the children being an empty blackboard or a tabula rasa is the big thing here.
The second is why children imitate their parents when it comes to things like smoking and drinking. Here, the same explanation can be applicable.

Well, the research of a Robert Plomin (a british psychologist not know to me, but someone I’ll definately look up further) states that the home environment doesn’t make a big impact in the large scheme of things. From studies done on adoptive children, he states that the child doesn’t take after it’s adoptive parent’s IQ (IQ being a somewhat strange index (in my opinion) to describe someone’s real intelligence), but the IQ of it’s birth parent’s with whom it has had no social connections with. For children who start to drink or smoke, it can be argued that their genes make them disponed to these sorts of behaviour, and not the environmental influence they’ve grown up with.


For a sociologist this is like saying to a Christian that God didn’t make Earth after all. It means, basically, that all or nearly all the efforts done by parents to mould and shape their children is futile.

Now, I know. This can be a bit disturbing for many, myself included. But the discussion about nature vs nurture in complex and hard to cover in the scope of a thirty minute long program. I think the goal of it isn’t to make a clear statement in either direction, but maybe to encourage academics in the social and natural scientific traditions to stop being so overconfident of their rightness and rather acknowledge the importance of both nature and nurture, and maybe start seeing the pair in a new and dynamic perspective. A way to explain why smart parents get smart kids is maybe that their genes dispones for cleverness, and that the children than chooses the environment that stimulates them in a clever direction. In this way, we get a reproductive effect, but the genes is taken more into account, and the environment isn’t “deterministic”.

The program criticise sociologists for not remembering the importance of genes (which is understandable). In the sociological tradition, there isn’t really much research done where genes is taken into account, and the well-known effect of parent’s influence can therefore in theory very well be a spurious factor. But I think it’s important to be humble for both the sociological and the evolutional approach, and think that the two works in a motorcyclic relationship. What is also important to remember, I think, is the influence not done by parents. Same-aged peers can be a massive influence on your personality, as well as your own experiences and the lessons you learn from them.

The program made me think about new explanations for why I’ve turned out the way I have.
I think I got a fairly good bag of genes from my parents, both of them being very clever in their own way. But I’ve thought many times of how unlike I am to my mother, and I have always thought it was just me being strange, but I’m realising it’s a common thing that I’ve went through. Being shaped by my peers during childhood – or, rather – being reactive to my peers, I made an active choice both to distance myself from many of those my age (being the weird one), and, later on, to distance myself from many of my mum’s values, making myself a quite different personality. During a troublesome time as a kid, I toughened up mentally, making myself somewhat more stable in my view of life and my personality (but the latter by no means set in stone), and still, though I had to make a ditance to my parents, I retained some of the basic values and – I guess – pesonality treats that one can grant genes.

Taking all this into account, I think the model of nature versus (parental) nurture is too easy.
In my own model (studying sociology makes one exceedingly fond of models) of what shapes a person, I would include both nature (genes) and (parental) nurture, each one being intertwined and in constant influence of each other, and I would also add societal influence and one’s own experience. Neither one of these factors are in themselves deterministic. Genes, I think, makes a very important foundation of one’s abilities, intelligence and also one’s foundational personality treats or dispositions. Parents, on the other hand, can provide an environment in which the latent abilities provided by genes can develop and reach it’s full potential. Society provides all the social norms one has to follow to be a successful individual, and the influence of one’s peers and the interaction with these will undoubtedly make an impact on one’s personality. Lastly, it is life’s coincidences and the experiences these coincidences give, and not least of all how one react to these experiences that makes the person. With constant feedback from others you can over time construct a stable cognitive image of yourself, and this image will be reaffirmed when you act according to it.

All of these things, I think, is important in the shaping of you and me, and plays a part in the abilities and personal traits you have/obtain/fulfill the potential of.

So there you have it! Thanks to Harald Eia for making a program that really made my mind wander.

2 thoughts on “Parents’ influence on children

  1. Eddie the Eagle says:

    “In the beginning of the program I thought it would be a repetition of everything we learn in basic sociology told in a popular language”

    Did you actually expect Eia to promote the mainstream view of environment as important? His previous programs have had pretty much the same message, and they have received enormous attention from the media. If you study sociology in Norway and don’t notice this, you really should read more newspapers.

    • Mari says:

      Being cooped up in a university all day, sorrounded by professors and academics and far from what one may call the real society, it’s a bit hard to know what you mean by mainstream view of environment. But feel free to tell me.

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