Born to be wild (or mild)

DNA could determine whether children learn from mistakes or cope with abuse, some scientists now believe. About 30 percent of people are born with few dopamine receptors, which “is linked to an inability to avoid self-destructive behavior such as illicit drug use,” Newsweek reports.

But the effects spill beyond such extremes. Children with the genetic variant are unable to learn from mistakes. No matter how many tests they blow by partying the night before, the lesson just doesn’t sink in.

Researchers also say that mellow kids aren’t necessarily easy to raise.

One of the strongest and most counterintuitive findings in this nascent field is that children with a sweet temperament, which is under strong genetic control, are the least likely to emulate their parents and absorb the lessons they teach, while fussy kids are the most likely to do so. Fussy children have a hypersensitive nervous system that is keenly attuned to its surroundings—including what Mom and Dad do and say.

Hmm. My daughter was very mellow, but also very attuned to her surroundings and to parental influence. She wasn’t nervous. She was curious. Well, I guess there are many genes at work.

Some children are born with a gene that protects them from the emotional effects of abuse or neglect, Newsweek reports. They’re less likely to develop mental-health problems or alcoholism.

So, depending on the luck of the genetic draw, good parenting may not pay off as much as you’d expect and bad parenting may not hurt as much as you’d expect. I think it still pays to try to be a good parent.

About Joanne


  1. I hope it pays to be a good parent! It’s a lot of work, I want it to matter… My little guys do seem to be going their own paths, and, yes, following the lead of the kids at school. The Begley Newsweek article has been discussed at the 11D blog, here is a comment I put up there:

    Wendy, thanks for the Begley article, interesting. Interesting also that she managed to get through the whole subject – genetic makeup as setting a template for a lot of children, parenting having only moderate effect on many behaviors, without talking about Stephen Pinker or Judith Rich Harris. Here is a quote from a take-down on Pinker by Louis Menand from New Yorker 2002: “Here Pinker relies on a 1998 book called “The Nurture Assumption,” by Judith Rich Harris, which has been the object of some controversy in the field of developmental psychology. Harris claimed that “shared family environments”—that is, parents—have little or no effect on a child’s personality. (Strictly speaking, she claimed that parenting does not account for the variation in differences in personality, which is what genetic science measures.) Biological siblings reared together are no more alike, or less different, than biological siblings reared in separate families. Half of personality, Harris argued, is the product of genes, and half is the product of what she called the “unique environment”—that is, the particular experiences of the individual child. Harris suggested that children’s peers might be the principal source of this environmental input. This is distinctly not Clinton-era thinking. It was Hillary Clinton, after all, who sent parents of older children into a depression by announcing that personality is shaped in the first three years of life. If you missed those bedtime stories, there was apparently no way to make it up. Harris’s theory makes nonsense of this anxiety, as it does of virtually all expert child-rearing advice, which Pinker calls “flapdoodle.”

    What is personality, though? The answer turns out to be quite specific. The new sciences of human nature have discovered that personality has exactly five dimensions: people are, in varying degrees, either open to experience or incurious, conscientious or undirected, extroverted or introverted, agreeable or antagonistic, and neurotic or stable. (This is known in the literature as the Five-Factor Model, or FFM. The five dimensions are referred to by the acronym OCEAN.) All five attributes are partly heritable, and they are what behavioral geneticists look to for a definition of personality. It seems that there is no need for finer tuning, because OCEAN accounts for everything. “Most of the 18,000 adjectives for personality traits in an unabridged dictionary can be tied to one of these five dimensions,” as Pinker explains.” (

    An old girlfriend of mine who had two children used to say, “You have them, you feed them and water them, and you see what you have”. Some current writers are using phrases like, “The space for free will is getting smaller and smaller”.

  2. Stacy in NJ says:

    I have two children, ages 9 and 11, and while I agree that they were born with their own unique personality, I think that parenting does have a significant affect on their outcome.

    Go to any decent college and ask the kids there questions about their parents, then go to any jail and ask the prisoners the same questions. I think in most cases, not all, their answers will be very different.

  3. Lots to criticize in this report. It doesn’t even say who made this ‘discovery’ and where it was published (telling us that it was an experiment at the Max Planck Institute for Neurological Research in Germany is insufficient).

    And the idea that a particular genetic difference will result in a particular behavioral change is a bit suspect. While genetics no doubt influences outcomes, there is a long and complex relationship between them. Brains are plastic, not static, which means that they are not built at birth, but rather, grow from a seed.

    But all of that said, let’s take these results at face value. Let’s suppose that (among other things) children with fewer dopamine receptors are less able to learn from mistakes. Then it would follow that there *are* learning styles, as Howard Gardiner suggested. That, some children – such as these – do not learn as well by doing (trial and error), but rather, by hearing (being told).

    Contra people like Willingham – – it would be the case that the way we learn influences what we can learn. It is not simply the case that there are different kinds of knowledge (linguistic, musical, interpersonal, etc.) but that these are also different ways to learn, that would correspond with these forms of knowledge.

    And if this is the case, then it follows that the idea that there is a single way to teach children – and, indeed, a single way to test them – is absurd. Children with fewer dopamine receptors, say, may have the same knowledge as other children – that ‘Paris is the capital of France’, say – but it would be unreasonable to attempt to teach this knowledge to them in the same way, nor to test them for this knowledge in the same way,

    What we learn and how we learn are influenced by a wide range of factors. The child’s genetic structure is one of these factors, and rapidly becoming one of the easiest to detect. The nutrition a child receives, pre- and post-natal, is another factor. The child’s exposure to varied environments, including the provision of role models and exemplars to follow, is another.

    All of these have an impact on what we should teach and how we should teach it. Supposing that any single intervention – small schools, quality teachers, phonics – will resolve an education deficit is absurd and irresponsible.

    The only effective intervention is also the most difficult – across the board improvements in a child’s social and physical environment (good nutrition, quality experiences, positive social connection) along with personalized learning programs designed address the child’s strengths (in both learning domain and learning methodology) where possible and weaknesses where necessary.

  4. Dave S. mentions Steven Pinker above. Pinker’s book “The Blank Slate” is a fascinating read on the subject of nature vs. nurture in general. In the chapter on parenting, Pinker makes a very convincing argument along the same lines as the Newsweek article, saying that our character is much more predetermined than we generally think. When discussing the role of parents, though, he points out that while parents may have limited influence on the personalities of their children, they do have tremendous control over the experiences and particularly the happiness of their children. None of this research implies that there are no longer good or bad parents, just that we should think slightly differently about what being a good parent means.

  5. Good parenting may not guarantee future happiness and success, but it sure impacts the quality of our children’s lives today. Nothing wrong with a little happiness in the “Now”.

  6. Go to any decent college and ask the kids there questions about their parents, then go to any jail and ask the prisoners the same questions. I think in most cases, not all, their answers will be very different.

    Most kids are brought up by their genetic parents. Therefore this proposed survey can’t distinguish between genetic influences on personality and parental influences on personality. First thing to do to test the hypothesis at question is to look at the relationship between adopted kids and their adoptive parents’ life outcomes.

    The other thing that jumps out from your proposed design is that some independent measure of parental outcomes would be good.

  7. The term “good parenting” is a misnomer.

    There are a wide variety of parenting techniques that all have their benefits and drawbacks.

    What works with one kid, might not work with another. What works with young kids, might backfire with the same kid when they hit their teenage years.

    The way I figure it, their are a range of good parenting techniques about a mile wide. With some kids, anything in that range will work, with others only a sliver of those techniques will work. Here is the catch though, you only find out what worked after the fact.

  8. Interesting book on this general topic:

    The author has other interesting books as well.

    And here is a short video to get an overview of his work:

    And if you haven’t browsed TED, I highly recommend it!

  9. Ben-David says:

    The Newsweek article overstates the actual evidence all over – from the assertion that “sweet temper” is “strongly determined” by genetic factors, to the central finding: does anyone really think that 1/3 of children simply cannot ever learn from experience?

    What is the larger thrust of this type of research?

    It’s goal is to negate human free will – and therefore it is part of the Gramscian attack on Western notions of personal choice, responsibility, and morality.

    We have seen similar false assertions about the genetically determined nature of male/female/homosexual behavior, addiction, violence, temperament, and intelligence – all of them straining to uproot the notion that we humans can chart our own course in life, that we can choose how to act, learn and change.

    When one finally looks at the scientific evidence, one always sees a much more complex picture – one in which genetic factors influence, but do not determine, behavior. Yet that’s not how the media reports it.

  10. Kind of OT, but this paragraph reminded me of a personal experience —

    “One of the strongest and most counterintuitive findings in this nascent field is that children with a sweet temperament, which is under strong genetic control, are the least likely to emulate their parents and absorb the lessons they teach, while fussy kids are the most likely to do so. Fussy children have a hypersensitive nervous system that is keenly attuned to its surroundings—including what Mom and Dad do and say.”

    In college I was part of a fellowship group. There was one girl, who had a tendency to say yes to anything the leader said (very sweet person, not confrontational or argumentative), but then went ahead and did her own thing anyway. I on the other hand argued a lot and didn’t just go with the flow (I’m sure I tried her patience at various moments!), but did take to heart what the leader was saying. The leader did say that she appreciated the fact that she knew I was really listening to her.

    Of course not all sweet kids are like the girl in my fellowship group, but I imagine that a number of them are (ooh, we’re all different! alert the presses! *grin*). Of course parents should learn to discern between the two. My parents always refer to my brother as the good kid because he was so sweet, social, and uncomplaining as a youngster. On the flip side, he turned out to be more susceptible to peer pressure, the one who started smoking and drinking and getting moving violations and poor grades.

    Yeah, I know, the plural of anecdote is not data. 😛

  11. Margo/Mom says:

    Just let me throw in my anecdote, since I am an adoptive parent. The dopamine receptor connection makes sense–even though I have not read the report. It is the loss of these (or the dopamine itself?–it is normally a cycle of release and recapture)hat makes addictions work. The dopamine doesn’t get properly collected–leading to a depression that seeks relief in more of the addictive substance.

    I also know that kids with fetal alcohol syndrome and fetal alcohol effect have a really hard time connecting cause and effect–which makes learning from mistakes a pretty tough thing to do.

    One of the struggles that I have faced as an adoptive parent, and have found to be common to other adoptive parents, is being blamed for all the probloems, regardless whether they have their roots in things that you have nothing to do with. So, yes, good parenting makes a difference, but sometimes just not enough difference. Sometimes there is stuff that cannot be fixed.