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New parents often share a sunny fantasy: they will manage their child perfectly, they will apply the latest theories and advice faultlessly, and their baby will develop into the perfect child.

This fantasy lasts just as long as it takes for Baby to assert his own ideas. Parents quickly discover that child-rearing isn’t something they do alone; their child is a full partner in the process.

A new study of over 14,000 pairs of infant twins confirms this fact. Babies’ inborn predispositions and inclinations shape their behavior and influence how their parents treat them. Babies are not passive recipients of their parents’ efforts. Babies shape their own family’s dynamics.

Researchers compared family interactions in homes of identical twins to those in homes of fraternal (not-identical) twins. They speculated that if babies’ genetic predispositions influence parents’ behavior that moms and dads would treat identical twins similarly to each other but would treat fraternal twins less-similarly.

This is exactly what they found. Babies who share 100% of their genetic inheritance were treated very similarly by their parents. Babies who share only 50% of their genes (as all children in a family who are not identical twins do), were treated differently from each other. This indicates that parents respond to babies’ preset traits and inclinations. Babies influence their parents.

This might seem obvious, but notice that most parents act as if it’s not. As lead researcher, Reut Avinun says, “There is a lot of pressure on parents these days to produce children that excel in everything, socially and academically. Since children are not born [as a blank slate], I felt it was important to explore their side of the story, to show how they can affect their environment, and specifically parental behavior.”

Not only do new parents tend to believe they have total control over their children’s academic and athletic futures, they also believe everything they read in parenting guides. But these guides can never take into account the child’s side of the story. Avinun says, “There isn’t one style of ideal parenting. Each child requires a different environment to excel.”

Parent-child interactions, then, are a dialogue, not part of a plan formulated by adults. The child’s inborn personality influences how parents respond to them. These responses influence the child’s actions in return. This interplay of personality and inclinations is what makes every child’s experience different, even children in the same family. According to Avinun, “parents should not invest a lot of effort in trying to treat their children similarly, but instead, be aware of the variation in their children’s attributes and nurture them accordingly.”

What does this mean for us, in practical terms?

Finally, we should remember that children are people too. Funny, special, quirky, surprising people. They have the power to show us things we never could have imagined.

Letting children be themselves develops the best in both of us.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.