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Heredity and Environment Help Shape Personality

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Children seem to have distinct temperaments almost from birth. Some are cheerful and easy to care for, whereas others are fussy and demanding. Researchers have identified many temperamental styles that emerge early in life and are relatively enduring, including general activity level, adaptability, persistence, adventurousness, shyness, inhibitedness, irritability, and distractibility. Most psychologists agree that such temperamental differences are biologically based and have genetic origins (Bates & Pettit, 2007; Caspi & Silva, 1995; Kagan & Snidman, 2007; M. Pfeifer, Goldsmith, Davidson, & Rickman, 2002; A. Thomas & Chess, 1977).

Genetic differences in temperament are only predispositions to behave in certain ways, however, and environmental conditions may point different children with the same predisposition in somewhat different directions (Keogh, 2003; R. A. Thompson, 1998). One influential environmental factor is the parenting style that mothers, fathers, and other primary caregivers use in raising children. In mainstream Western culture the ideal situation seems to be authoritative parenting, which combines affection and respect for children with reasonable restrictions on behavior. Authoritative parents provide a loving and supportive home, hold high expectations and standards for performance, explain why behaviors are or are not acceptable, enforce household rules consistently, include children in decision making, and provide age-appropriate opportunities for autonomy. Children from authoritative homes tend to be happy, energetic, self-confident, and likeable. They make friends easily and show self-control and concern for the rights and needs of others. Children of authoritative parents appear well adjusted, in part, because their behavior fits well with the values espoused by mainstream Western culture. They listen respectfully to others, can follow rules by the time they reach school age, are relatively independent and self-regulating, and strive for academic achievement (Barber, Stolz, & Olsen, 2005; Baumrind, 1989, 1991; Gonzalez & Wolters, 2005; Gray & Steinberg, 1999; Maccoby & Martin, 1983; J. M. T. Walker & Hoover-Dempsey, 2006).

Authoritative parenting is not universally “best,” however. Certain other parenting styles may be better suited to particular cultures and environments. For instance, in authoritarian parenting, parents expect complete and immediate compliance; they neither negotiate expectations nor provide reasons for their requests. In many Asian American and Hispanic families, high demands for obedience are made within the context of close, supportive parent–child relationships. Underlying the “control” message is a more important message: “I love you and want you to do well, but it is equally important that you act for the good of the family and community” (Chao, 2000; Halgunseth, Ispa, & Rudy, 2006; Rothbaum & Trommsdorff, 2007). Authoritarian parenting is also more common in impoverished economic environments. When families live in low-income, inner-city neighborhoods where danger potentially lurks around every corner, parents may better serve their children by being very strict and directive about activities (Hale-Benson, 1986; McLoyd, 1998). In any case, keep in mind that parenting styles have, at most, only a moderate influence on children’s personalities (W. A. Collins, Maccoby, Steinberg, Hetherington, & Bornstein, 2000; Weiss & Schwarz, 1996). Many children and adolescents thrive despite their caregivers’ diverse parenting styles, provided that those caregivers aren’t severely neglectful or abusive (J. R. Harris, 1995, 1998; Lykken, 1997; Scarr, 1992).

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