Is it all in the genes?

Recently the Times of London ran a rebuttal of Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother stance, stating that her arguments were flawed because everything is really genetically predetermined. The author insisted that the reason Chua’s children were successful had nothing to do with her authoritarian parenting style, but resulted more from the fact that their parents were both Yale professors and thus highly intelligent and accomplished. They needn’t have done anything and their children would still have excelled.

The writer quotes studies of twins reared apart to support his argument that “it’s all in the genes.” In line with more modern research findings, as we describe in more detail in our book EMOTIONAL MUSCLE: STRONG PARENTS, STRONG CHILDREN, we see these matters entirely differently.

In fact, genes work like an old-fashioned jukebox – there are many selections possible, but it takes someone pressing the button to play the song. Parents and the environment are the ones pressing the buttons, selecting which influences are going to trigger the expression or suppression of particular genes. (You can find a detailed discussion of this in David Shenk’s very readable book “The Genius In All Of Us,” published 2011.)

Shenk’s description of cutting-edge genetic research meshes with our view that parents’ emotional muscles work together with their childrens’ to generate character and resilience. It is now recognized that genes and neurobiological factors interact with the environment so that genetic risk or protective factors are expressed in the context of environmental risk or protection. To put this succinctly, the environment turns genes “on” or “off.”

This is true even for IQ, which, for over one hundred years, has been considered to be one of our main inherited characteristics. Recent research overturns this idea. Turkheimer and his associates (2005) found that the impact of growing up impoverished overwhelms children’s inborn genetic capacities. Home life is the critical factor for youngsters. “If you have a chaotic environment, kids’ genetic potential doesn’t have a chance to be expressed,” Turkheimer noted (quoted in New York Times, July 23, 2006). When the experiences of children from different economic family backgrounds are compared, children growing up in poor families have typically heard by the age of 4 a total of 32 million fewer spoken words than those whose parents are professionals (Hart and Risley 1995).

So what parents do and what parents offer makes a profound difference, more important than any other factor. In our book we describe many ways to implement these ideas, taking every opportunity in daily life to include the dimension of emotional muscle, so that each child can realize her full potential.

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One Response to Is it all in the genes?

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