Does a child's personality come from her parents or the environment?

Are Parents Responsible for Their Child's Personality & Behaviors?

by Stephen Maughan

The debate over whether children's personality and behavior comes from their parents or through their environment has been raging on for hundreds of years. Some people think that a child's behavior, intelligence and personality are genetically inherited from their parents. However, other people say this is wrong, and that children's personalities are formed from their experiences and circumstances.

Nature Argument

The idea that our children's behavior and personality is hereditary really caught on back in the 19th century thanks to British biologist Charles Darwin. Darwin felt that it is through evolution that some species survive, while others do not. Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin, extended this theory to argue that children get their intelligence and personality through their parents' genetics. We sometimes say things like "She acts exactly like her mother," and when naughty children get into trouble, people comment "Well, his father is in jail, so that's where he gets it from." Those who follow this argument feel children are unable to change who they are, as it's part of their DNA.

Nurture Argument

Those who feel strongly for the nurture argument believe that children are the way they are, not from any inherited factors, but because of their environment. The 20th century American psychologist John Watson believed this was true, and he went so far as to say he could take any infant child and mold him into any personality he wished through environmental factors. Those on the nurture side of the debate point to adopted children, who often have a similar personality and behavior to their adopted parents, due to the environment of the adopted family.


Children can be influenced by their environment from a young age. Professor Audrey Curtis, author of "A Curriculum for the Pre-School Child" feels that children who grow up in an environment where their parents write a lot and read books are far more likely to be interested in writing and reading than those whose parents don't. The famous psychologist Sigmund Freud felt that many people's problems later in life could be traced to their childhood. So, if a child believed, rightly or wrongly, that he was neglected by his parents, then this feeling of neglect would shape his personality throughout his life. Children, even as babies and toddlers, copy the behavior of their parents and other adults in their lives. So, if you want your child to be kind and caring, she is far more likely to be kind and caring if you are yourself!


People still disagree over whether a child's personality comes from inherited factors or through the environment, but many now accept it is a mixture of both that makes us who we are. Psychologist Leon Kamin, well known for his contributions to learning theory, studied identical twins, separated at birth, and found the twins did share some personality traits but also had different behavior patterns.



  • Hereditary Genius; Francis Galton
  • Behaviorism; John Watson

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