The power of parenting: nature vs nurture

With regards to our children's personalities, what comes pre-packaged and what can be shaped? Dr Melanie Woodfield examines the case of nature vs nurture.

Pick any of the ‘big ticket’ human characteristics and you’ll find heated debate around the roles of nature and nurture. Intelligence, mental health, social skills, criminality … the list goes on. Research into whether our genes are responsible for how we turn out usually leans heavily on decades’ worth of studies into twins who share the same biology. It’s fascinating stuff, despite there being very few clear answers to the big questions.

But, as influential as genes are, there are many other factors which contribute to how a child develops and one of these is the parenting they receive. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a parent of a young child so you’re probably interested in exactly how your influence might shape the little person you’ve created. Can you sit back with cruise control on, or do you need to actively shape your child’s future? Given that this is such a big question, this article will focus on three areas that parents often wonder about – their child’s intelligence, behaviour problems, and anxiety levels. 

Personality plus
Many parents quietly congratulate themselves on their wonderful parenting skills with their first child. Then along comes the second or third, and the role of a child’s temperament can become crystal clear. Temperament (or a child’s nature, disposition or personality) is often apparent from early infancy. Some babies are calm and easily soothed. Others are fussy and fractious. Some toddlers are irritable, others more easy-going. These features may be very clear but they can also be hard to tease apart from what’s typical behaviour in early childhood – it’s normal for babies to cry and for toddlers to have tantrums at the drop of a hat. Temperament is inbuilt or innate, and temperamental styles can lean towards particular outcomes for children. But it’s not that clear-cut: not all strong-willed toddlers end up with prison tattoos! Enter the role of the parent, the life experiences the child has (positive and negative) and the influence of their environment in its broadest sense (not just the physical environment).

So temperament isn’t completely responsible for a child’s outcomes, and parenting plays a part. When it comes to parenting, there are a couple of clusters of parenting styles, and within those clusters, a whole lot of parenting practices. You may have heard of these three parenting styles: Permissive (very warm and nurturing, but not many boundaries or limits), Authoritarian (lots of boundaries and limits, but not much warmth and nurturing) and Authoritative (warm and firm). The science suggests that these styles and characteristics of parenting really do influence children’s outcomes. But it’s important to know that just because two things are related, it doesn’t mean that one causes the other. Young people wearing jeans have more car accidents than older people wearing business suits. But the jeans don’t cause the car accidents, and suits don’t keep people safe. So, particular parenting styles and practices might be associated (or correlated) with the development or worsening of children’s difficulties, but research evidence hasn’t concluded that parents cause their child’s problems. It’s also important to know that no particular parenting style is ‘bad’ as such. It’s just that a combination of a strong child temperamental style and a parenting style from a particular category can make for a powerful mix. 

Does slack parenting cause behaviour problems?
A popular belief (widely held by older generations and women in the supermarket) is that parents of children with behaviour problems haven’t provided boundaries or structure, and that if children were parented differently, they wouldn’t have problems. But the science would suggest that lax parenting doesn’t cause conduct problems (though it certainly doesn’t help the situation). Children with challenging behaviour often display particular personality features from a very young age. They require specialised parenting strategies and find it harder to manage inconsistency from parents than the average child. So a parent might find their usual strategies less effective and notice the need to adapt or seek support. 

Can you make your baby brainier?
Not really. Theories of intelligence are incredibly complicated, but boiled down, it’s thought that we’re each born with a reasonably stable capacity for acquiring and applying knowledge and skills. But this capacity does interact with a whole lot of other things – it can’t be looked at in isolation. Also, your intelligence and what you manage to achieve academically might be two different things. Think of a child who is of average intelligence, but has a very determined and hard-working nature – they might 'punch above their weight' at school. Or another situation where a child is of high intelligence but has a learning difficulty such as dyslexia, and their ability to achieve at school is impacted by this. We tend to associate intelligence with how well people fare at school. In fact, the two things are separate – your ability or capacity to acquire knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean that you will acquire that knowledge.

There’s no doubt that the richness of the environment surrounding a young child does impact on their development – cognitively, emotionally and socially. We know this from situations of extreme deprivation, where children have intentionally or unintentionally grown up in an environment without being spoken to, read to, cuddled, or looked at. These extreme situations are fortunately not common, but do shed a lot of light on what children need to develop well. Reassuringly, it’s not too much. Sometimes parents gather a collection of toys, DVDs, wall charts or CDs with the hope that these (often very expensive) products will make their baby brainier. The good news is that it won’t do baby any harm. The bad news? It’s not likely to do much good either. Children simply need a safe and warm place to live, with caring, interactive and responsive nurturing people to provide them with food, comfort and support to explore their worlds. 

Can you prevent your child’s anxiety issues?
There are definitely things you can do to lessen a child’s chances of suffering from anxiety. Anxiety disorders are one of the most common psychological sources of distress for young children and their families. Studies have shown that kids who have anxious parents, or parents who are very overprotective, are at higher risk for developing an anxiety disorder. Researchers think that a combination of environmental, genetic and biological factors foster the development of childhood anxiety. Some children are born with a tendency toward something called behavioural inhibition, and these children are more likely to be at risk for developing an anxiety disorder in childhood. Behavioural inhibition is a kind of temperament where children tend to be more wary, restrained or fearful when they encounter unfamiliar people, situations or things. When there are new people or situations, behaviourally inhibited children will tend to seek comfort from their parents, rather than approach the unfamiliar thing. They’re often described as shy but not all shy children develop anxiety disorders, and your parenting can absolutely lessen your child’s chances of this. 

Parenting to-do list
So, what are the key things you need to do as a parent to bring about the most benefit for your child?

• Foster your child’s emotional communication skills – engage in active listening (reflecting back what your child is saying), help your child recognise and label their feelings, and express them appropriately. Be sure to reduce negative communication patterns (like sarcasm, criticism and comparisons).

• Enhance, strengthen and develop a positive relationship with your child. Remember to interact with your child in everyday situations, not just when discipline is needed. Follow your child’s lead, and show interest in what they’re interested in.

• Give lots of positive attention for appropriate behaviour. Sometimes a cycle gets established where parents only provide attention when their child misbehaves, and stays quiet when their child is acting appropriately. It doesn’t matter if your attention is positive or negative, it will reinforce or reward whatever your child was doing at the time you provided attention. And behaviour that’s rewarded tends to happen more often. So, catch your child when they’re doing what you want to see more of (like playing gently, using a 'big boy' voice, or sharing) and comment specifically on that (“I like how you shared that with your brother”). And try to provide less attention to behaviour you want to see less of (like whining or complaining). If you’re keen to expand on this, try to provide praise for the positive opposite of a behaviour, so if you have an anxious child, notice and praise boldness or confidence. If you have a boisterous child, notice and praise calmness or sitting still.

• Use consistent, positive approaches to setting limits. And if your limit-setting isn’t working for your child, seek parenting support when they’re young.

• Encourage your child’s independence and autonomy, especially if they tend towards the 'behaviourally inhibited' temperament. You can also model coping strategies, problem-solving and goal-setting.

• Parents (especially mums) are good at guilt. Many parents assume that they’re solely responsible for their child’s difficulties. Getting caught up in whether it’s your fault is less helpful than accepting that you’ll probably never know all the reasons why you’re in this place: most psychological difficulties in children come about through the complicated interaction of lots of different factors. But even if you’re not directly responsible for your child’s difficulties, you’re absolutely the best placed person to foster change. And the younger your child, the more that’s true. So, gather the supports you need, and settle in for the journey.


More great parenting resources
• Evidence-based parenting programmes in NZ include The Incredible Years, Triple P (Positive Parenting Programme), and Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT).
• Other programmes, such as Toolbox parenting courses, can be really useful too. Signing up for a parenting programme, or having one suggested to you, doesn’t mean that you don’t measure up. Rather it’s a sign of your commitment to your child and your insights around needing specialised strategies to meet their individual needs.
• Some really sound evidence-based fact sheets are available with practical tips. For example, the University of Melbourne and Beyond Blue in Australia have produced How to reduce your child’s risk of depression and clinical anxiety, which can be downloaded from


Dr Melanie Woodfield is a clinical psychologist working for a child and adolescent mental health service in Auckland where she lives with her husband and two young children.


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