Environment, Genetics, Social Science, Top Stories

Do Parents Make a Difference? A Public Debate in London

On Monday in London’s Emmanuel Centre a debate took place that pitted two Quillette contributors—Robert Plomin and Stuart Ritchie—against two “experts” on child psychology—Susan Pawlby and Ann Pleshette Murphy. The motion was “Parenting doesn’t matter (or not as much as you think)” and we knew from the outset where people stood thanks to the format adopted by Intelligence Squared, the company that organized the debate. The ushers asked people to vote for or against the motion on their way in and then again at the end, the idea being that the “winners” would be the side that persuaded the most people to change their minds rather than the side that got the most votes. Which was just as well for Plomin and Ritchie since only 17 percent agreed with them at the beginning of the evening, with 66 percent against and 17 percent saying “Don’t Know.” Would they be able to level that up a bit over the course of the next 90 minutes?

Plomin, a professor of behavioral genetics at King’s College London, went first, summarizing the evidence from twin and adoption studies—his area of expertise, having designed and overseen many of those studies himself. Using slides, which is unusual in a public debate, he drew the audience’s attention to two key findings that have emerged from this research—that siblings raised together are as different from each other as siblings raised apart, and identical twins raised separately are as similar to each other as identical twins brought up in the same home. In short, genetic differences between people influence how different they are from one another, but parenting seems to have little effect.

Plomin made it clear he wasn’t claiming genetic differences accounted for all the differences in how children turn out. He estimated that genes explain about half the variance when it comes to the Big Five personality traits, with the environment accounting for the other half. However, that doesn’t mean nurture is as important as nature. The salient environmental inputs are not those things we normally think of as “nurture,” such as parents and schools. Rather, what matters, according to Plomin, are random, serendipitous events—what he refers to as the “non-shared” environment and which are, by definition, non-systematic.

Robert Plomin is a professor of behavioral genetics. Tim Bowditch / Intelligence Squared

Quoting from Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, his recently-published book, Plomin said: “Parenting matters, but it doesn’t make a difference.” He acknowledged that this left him feeling slightly ambivalent about the motion—”Parenting doesn’t matter”—and was at pains to make clear that he wasn’t providing deadbeat dads with a license to goof off. Parenting matters in the sense that how parents behave affects their children’s well-being in the moment, if not over the course of their lifetimes, and we have a duty to look after our children and make sure they’re happy, at least while they’re under our care. It also matters in the sense that it affects what will be among the most important relationships of our lives. Finally, he acknowledged that parents have an important role to play in helping children discover and cultivate those talents that they’ve been genetically endowed with.

But parenting doesn’t affect how children will turn out when it comes to key psychological traits like conscientiousness—the ones correlated with important life outcomes, such as educational attainment and socio-economic status. If we think helicopter parenting will boost our children’s IQ or increase their chances of getting into Harvard, we’re kidding ourselves. So parenting matters, but not in the way that overanxious, middle-class parents imagine, according to Plomin. However, he did add one important caveat: Terrible parents—those guilty of extreme neglect or abuse—can have a long term, negative impact on their children.

Next up was Susan Pawlby, a development psychologist with a background in research as well as clinical practice. She began by citing a number of studies showing that the experiences of pregnant women can have an effect on their children’s personalities. For instance, high levels of stress in expectant mothers is correlated with higher levels of cortisol in their blood, as well as their amniotic fluid. That, in turn, she said, can affect a prenatal baby’s brain and lead to problems later on, like developmental delay. Another example she gave was the Dutch famine of 1944–45, which had created a natural experiment, enabling researchers to measure the effects of maternal undernutrition on the life course of the offspring who’d experienced the famine in utero. The IQ of this cohort, many of whom are still alive, hasn’t been affected, but they are more prone to obesity, schizophrenia and anti-social behavior.

Pawlby also brought up epigenetics and claimed that some environmental inputs affect gene expression, such as breast feeding. She didn’t spell out how this undermined Plomin’s argument, exactly, but perhaps what she meant was that some of the findings from twin and adoption studies might be confounded by epigenetics. For instance, it could be that some of the genetic variance that Plomin and others have linked to phenotypic variance could have been influenced by environmental differences that triggered epigenetic effects.

Pawlby closed by entreating everyone in the audience to ask themselves one question: “Have your parents made a difference to who you are?” If the answer was “yes,” you had to vote against the motion.

The next speaker was Stuart Ritchie, a lecturer in the Social Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at King’s College London, and the author of Intelligence: All That Matters. He queried whether the research studies cited by Pawlby constituted evidence that parenting matters since they all concerned environmental effects on prenatal babies. Does the behavior of pregnant women come under the heading of “parenting”? It would be particularly odd to describe the undernutrition of expectant mothers during the Dutch famine as a form of parenting.

However, he allowed that there was plenty of research that appeared to show parenting did have an impact on important life outcomes and, as an example, cited a recent paper that had been covered in the Guardian under the following headline: “Growing up in a house full of books is major boost to literacy and numeracy, study finds.” Looking at a sample of more than 160,000 adults from 31 different countries, the authors of that study found that subjects who’d grown up in homes containing a large number of books performed better in literacy and numeracy tests than those brought up in homes with almost no books.

Stuart Richie and moderator Xand van Tulleken. Tim Bowditch / Intelligence Squared

Unfortunately, Ritchie explained, this research tells us very little about the underlying reason for this correlation because the authors hadn’t made any attempt to control for genetic similarities between the children in the study and their parents, which could be confounding the results. After all, it’s probable that parents who have a large number of books in their home have above average levels of literacy and numeracy themselves, so it’s not surprising if their children turn out to score well in literacy and numeracy tests too, given that those traits are at least 50 percent heritable. He had looked at the paper and typed in Ctrl + T “genetics” but there was no mention of the word. That is a flaw in nearly all the research purporting to show a link between various outcomes and a person’s childhood home environment, he said, and then rattled off a list of parenting fads that some of these studies have given rise to, from “Baby Mozart” to “orgasmic childbirth.” (I made the same point in the Spectator recently about a study claiming to show that helicopter parenting had a negative effect on children’s ability to self-regulate.)

Ritchie also gave short shrift to epigenetics. The research showing large epigenetic effects in humans, particularly that relating to transgenerational inheritance, is pretty sketchy and more work needs to be done before any conclusions can be drawn. (There’s a Twitter account called @EpigeneticsBs that monitors some of the more outlandish claims made on behalf of epigenetics.)

In general, he said, the behavioral genetics studies showing that parenting effects are small are based on large samples, have been replicated numerous times and are being corroborated by work being done in molecular genetics. The parenting studies in developmental psychology, by contrast, are, for the most part, based on small samples, confounded by genetics and have proved hard to replicate—although he did say there are some exceptions to this rule, and singled out this study showing that early interventions can have a positive effect on conduct disorder. I daresay Ritchie will expand on this survey of the literature in in his forthcoming book about the replication crisis in psychology.

It was left to Ann Pleshette Murphy, the former parenting correspondent of ‘Good Morning America,’ to fight back. She had prepared a case against what she called Plomin’s “genetic determinism,” so began by expressing her disappointment that he’d taken up a more moderate position on this occasion, allowing that environmental inputs could have some effect. The man before us tonight, she said, was “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” She then delivered the speech she’d written in advance, focusing on Plomin’s use of the word “blueprint” in his book title. According to her, that implies our genes provide a rigid schematic that dictates how we turn out, when they’re only responsible for half the variance in individual differences. “DNA may provide a blueprint, but it’s love that builds the house,” she said.

Former ‘Good Morning America’ parenting correspondent Ann Pleshette Murphy speaks. Tim Bowditch/ Intelligence Squared

Listening to Murphy, I didn’t think her criticism of Plomin was fair. While the title of his book is a bit misleading, he makes it clear throughout that he’s not a genetic determinist, a point I stressed in my last article for Quillette. He didn’t make any concessions to environmentalists in his speech that he hadn’t made in Blueprint. His hypothesis is not that we are entirely determined by our DNA, but that DNA is the most important systematic force on how we turn out because the salient environmental inputs are almost entirely non-systematic. Interestingly, this is a point of slight disagreement between Plomin and Ritchie. Ritchie recently published a paper with Elliot Tucker-Drob that analyzed 42 data sets involving over 600,000 participants and concluded that school attendance does boost IQ. According to them, each additional year a child spends in school raises their IQ by between one and five points. Plomin isn’t completely dogmatic about this—he says in Blueprint that the shared environment is responsible for a modest amount of the variance in key psychological traits—but Ritchie certainly seems a bit less hereditarian. Had I been arguing against the motion, I would have brought up Ritchie’s most recent paper and asked him whether the surprisingly large effect size he and Tucker-Drob had discovered for years of education had made him reconsider his dismissal of parenting effects.

One of the weaknesses of Pawlby and Murphy’s case is that they didn’t have a convincing story to tell about why parenting effects don’t show up in twin and adoption studies if, as they were claiming, parents play such a critical role in influencing how children turn out. Murphy actually said, “What we do as parents makes a huge difference,” which begs the question. In fairness, she did take a stab at explaining why siblings brought up together are as dissimilar as those raised separately, saying it was because parents treat each of their children differently. She pointed out that they tend to be much more anxious about their first born, fussing about their exposure to germs and so forth, than they are about their younger siblings.

But that wasn’t very convincing. There isn’t much evidence that birth order has an effect on extraversion, emotional stability, agreeableness, conscientiousness, or imagination (see here), and you’d expect the dissimilarities in how the same parents treat their different children to be smaller than the dissimilarities between the parenting styles of two completely different sets of parents—and if parenting “makes a huge difference” for that discrepancy to show up in adoption studies. But it doesn’t.

The debate was well-chaired by Xand van Tulleken, a doctor and broadcaster who has an identical twin brother named Chris, and, after he’d taken plenty of questions and done his best to sum up, the audience was asked to vote again. As expected, a majority still disagreed with the motion, but Plomin and Ritchie had succeeded in persuading some people to change their minds. The number against the motion declined from 66 percent to 51 percent, while those in favor increased from 17 percent to 29 percent, with 20 percent saying “Don’t Know.” That made Plomin and Ritchie the winners.

Photos courtesy of Tim Bowditch/Intelligence Squared.


Toby Young is an associate editor of Quillette.


  1. How disappointing, that only 17% of the audience were scientifically literate.

    • @ Tom

      You wrote: “How disappointing, that only 17% of the audience were scientifically literate.”

      That’s exactly what I was thinking. In fact, that depressing percentage figure was my biggest takeaway from the article.

    • DrJack says

      Well, if the motion was ‘Parenting does not matter’, then I would not have changed my mind either, even though I think that Plomin and Ritchie collectively made a much better case for the importance of inheritance.

      No complex systems can, by their very nature, afford simple yes or no answers.

      • Snarkasyerous1 says

        Complex systems can be – and frequently are – partially explained by simple yes or no answers.

        “Helmet use matters in likelihood of motorcyclist fatality.” YEP.

        “Depression is a factor in many suicides.” YEP.

        But you keep on believing that by mischaracterizing issues, you’ve demonstrated nuance and insight.

      • js cantrell says

        “No complex systems can, by their very nature, afford simple yes or no answers.”


        I remain skeptical that any study of twins or non-twin siblings can really develop any meaningful generalizations regarding the nature/nurture equation, especially given epigenetics. There are too many mysterious and unknown variables, so there is probably no equation. The system is too complex.

        50/50 seems like a good rule of thumb for practical reasons. It somehow seems to minimize excuses, outs, and fingers to point for “bad” parents or “bad” kids.

        But I would also say that even one serious breach of trust by a parent towards a child at a certain critical, vulnerable childhood moment could be emotionally devastating for the child long term, and affect the child’s life trajectory dramatically.

        • Such breaches of trust happen in divorce all the time. The outcome may be some reduction in trust as the child goes along but Plomin, whose book I am reading, points out that genetics in later life tends to dominate rather than parenting.

    • E. Olson says

      Given all the recent evidence of advocacy biases among “scientists” that results in the publication of “research” in many social science and humanities fields that proves to be unreplicable and non-predictive, it should not be surprising that an audience likely comprised of mostly parents want to believe their parental sacrifices and mentoring have or will make a difference in their children’s lives. And even among the childless, virtually everyone has been raised by a parent(s) who we hopefully most often look back on with great appreciation, or sadly in too many cases with great disgust, anger, or disappointment. Among the few well replicated findings from psychology is the great weight be put on personal experience in judging things.

      • E. Olson – Parents are important. They provide stability, emotional support, financial support, offer places to live and vacation, monitor friends, set bedtimes, feed, provide healthcare and clothing…. These are all very important to the child, but they don’t generally make a child strong/weak, bold/fearful, risk-taking/safe, social/loner, smart/stupid, etc.

        • E. Olson says

          David I agree – the best research suggests it is far important to not have detrimental parents than to have outstanding parents, but I thank God every day for my wonderful parents.

          • Aylwin says

            Or, thank them, rather than some abstraction/displacement object

          • I. M. says

            The “good enough parent”. I recall a study that came out roughly ten or so yeas ago to that effect. Just don’t screw up too badly and your children will eventually turn out fine. Or if they don’t, it was likely for reasons beyond your control.

    • Totally agree! I’m not even sure you can’t include non-systemic environmental effects under measurement error.

  2. The behavioural geneticists have been crying out for a competent debating opponent since at least 1998 (The Nurture Assumption, Judith R Harris): it doesn’t sound like they found one here.

    You’re parti pris, and I am too, but still: so much waiting.

  3. Alphonse Credenza says

    Parents don’t need any academic — ever — to tell them what’s good for their children. The pomposity of the academic, forever butting his brainy nose into other people’s business, is just jaw-dropping.

    • Yeah, what’s with smart people looking around and trying to understand better?
      A typical parent has no training to be a parent, educator, molder of personalities….and a few just read some books that comport with their pre-conceived notions of how to raise a child.

        • During most of those years, families provided the instruction manual for young mothers. It is modern times with smaller extended families, that challenge child rearing.

  4. Farris says

    While there can be no doubt that IQ is heritable, behavior is the more difficult to quantify. For instance most can probably recall witnessing intact families where one child is an angel but the other is hell on wheels. Since both children are brought up in the same household these differences in behaviors would mitigate toward a genetic explanation. However most have probably observed intact families with no parenting structure, where the child is seldom disciplined and rules the roost. To no one’s surprise these children frequently turn out to be antisocial, having been able to buck authority throughout their childhoods. Studies of separated twins is compelling but one variable or question appears seldom addressed. Are adopting couples prone to be of a certain or similar type? For instance, it would be reasonable to conclude that few if any low income or low functioning couples adopt. It would be further reasonable to conclude that most adoptees are placed in families able to provide for a child. It would also be reasonable to presume most adoptive parents meet a certain personality type. In other words the fact that twins are raised in different households does not necessarily mean they experienced different family structures.
    Admittedly I am a neophyte on this topic, possessing more opinions than facts. Finally I admit a certain amount of bias. I do not relish the notion that most of my parenting efforts may have been in vain. I welcome any posts that can shed more light or suggest illuminating sources. The debate makes for a fascinating read.

    • Parenting is important; it just doesn’t create personality or behavior traits. You can certainly help or hurt, provide not hold back, love or hate/ignore, and that matters. Just don’t think you can parent a stupid child into a smart one, a lazy child into a diligent one, a shy one into a social one, etc.

    • “It would also be reasonable to presume most adoptive parents meet a certain personality type. In other words the fact that twins are raised in different households does not necessarily mean they experienced different family structures.”

      Farris all kinds of people adopt. What adoptees share is an early experience of abandonment which likely colors their lives more than anything the adopters are doing. Bowlby wrote the book(s) on that.

    • Jenn D says

      I would only be a case study, but I wanted to respond to this great question and give my thoughts/experience. We adopted 3 of our 6 children. My husband and I are high achievers (a doctor and engineer), with higher IQs and conscientiousness. We devoted a lot of time and resources to all of children (we both worked part time, even home schooled all of them for their earlier education, and have been a very close family). My boys have definitive “family traits”. The oldest two have career interests that mimic ours exactly. They are quite high achievers with full rides to college and an interest in math (my major) and computer engineering. My three girls, adopted (2 as infants, one at 6 years old) and not biologically related to each other either, are so different from the rest of us and each other. Their academic achievement has been much lower, with one being on the cusp of intellectually disabled and with mental illness (adopted as infant). We have always read to our children, visited museums, etc., and the one who has been challenged has had many special resources from home schooling, to tutoring, to special education plans. I can maybe attribute some of this to their time before our family (trauma of adoption itself?), but none of them are very similar to our biologic boys or even to each other (the one adopted at 6 is better adjusted than the others, at least externally, which seems to be related to her temperament). Anyway, the point is, I can see some behaviors they have which are clearly a result of being in our family and what we value and prioritize. But so much of who my kids are is clearly just how they were born — a genetic temperament. After 14 years of parenting my oldest adopted girl, I am amazed at how little our parenting has affected who she has become and overcoming her difficulties. I am sure it has had some positive impact as we encourage her and support her throughout these difficulties — I cannot imagine how she would be now if she were in a neglectful home or with aloof parents, and without the resources that she has had. So I am sure that our parenting has impacted who she has become — but only within already set boundaries The further I get into this parenting journey, the more I am convinced that they are who they are, and our parenting can either optimize that or in the worst case, completely derail it, but we can’t really change that. The most important thing I have learned is that the outcome may be predetermined to an extent, and I need to be okay with that even if it doesn’t look like what I expected. The journey, however, is where we as parents can make a huge different in both the optimization of that outcome and in the quality of their lives.

      • I. M. says

        Your instinct about adoption trauma is correct. There is a fair amount of science behind it – adoptees are more prone to drug addiction and mental illness, do underperform. You sound as though you are doing as good as job you can. Pretending their are no differences, I believe, does more damage than acknowledging them. Being and involved parent still will make a difference in the long term. The science is often ignored because it is convenient to do so. Here is a good video your daughter might relate to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwOnQagQNuQ

  5. parent says

    Perhaps it would be better to ask what kind of differences parenting can make, rather than whether parenting makes the difference.

    • James Lee says


      From the article, it sounds like that’s what Plomin did.

      The modern West is so under the blank slate spell that otherwise intelligent people just can’t grok that shared environment counts for so little in terms of intelligence, later educational attainment, major personality traits, etc. as long as parenting is within normal limits. Nobody is saying that the quality of parent-child relationships is meaningless and doesn’t impact children. For most people, the quality of their relationships is incredibly important in terms of their overall satisfaction and happiness.

      But no matter how many times these points are repeated, it doesn’t seem to gain much traction in the current cultural climate.

      One of my “favorite” stats is from a 2017 Pew Poll which indicated that 25% of women and 18% of men believed that differences in physical abilities between men and women are based on societal expectations.

      Do these people actually believe that? Or is this Communist-era style lying, where you just speak the lies that you think you are expected to say?


      BTW, from the first Quillette podcast, I love Toby’s idea of subsidized IVF to augment IQ for the lowest income groups. I also respect Jordan Peterson’s point that the most likely outcome of any experimental manipulation is that it won’t do what you expect, but will do things that you don’t expect.

      • Andrew Mcguiness says

        “One of my “favorite” stats is from a 2017 Pew Poll which indicated that 25% of women and 18% of men believed that differences in physical abilities between men and women are based on societal expectations.”

        Well, *some* differences are due to societal expectations. Generally speaking, women can undertake (reasonaby) heavy work and put on muscle, it’s just that they don’t because it’s ‘not what women do’. it’s no doubt true that more (or even most) men would be stronger than most women, if they both did heavy work to the extent of their ability. However, more men actually do undertake heavier work (or sports and exercise) at or near the extent of their ability than women do, so the sex-based biological difference is amplified by cultural expectations.

        TL;DR – Women might not be able to lift furniture but they could put the bins out if they grew up doing it.

        • Peter Kriens says

          I think that even trained women rarely match the strength of males upper body strength. I’ve seen graphs that were almost completely disjoint.

          • Foyle says

            pound for pound elite male athletes are about 30% stronger than elite women athletes, and 10% faster in all running disciplines. It’s an unbridgeable gap.

        • Emmanuel says

          @Andrew McGuiness, in France, an anthropologist named Priscille Touraille wrote her phd thesis on how men are taller than women because of a global prehistoric patriarcal conspiracy that deprived women of proteins to keep them weak.

          I would love to write an article about that but I don’t have time right now.

        • Debbie says

          Look up the differences in records for male and female Olympic weightlifting records. Eve when you compare like weight class there’s a dramatic difference .

      • Andrew Leonard says

        @James Lee The modern West is so under the blank slate spell that otherwise intelligent people just can’t grok that shared environment counts for so little in terms of intelligence, later educational attainment, major personality traits, etc. as long as parenting is within normal limits.

        Blank slate thinking is a manifestation of a perfectionist mindset. What is the root cause of this mindset? Is it a personality trait, or does culture play a role?

        I recall reading a quote (cant’ find it, unfortunately) of a woman, who, in regard to the possibility of IQ differences between the races, said “If that were true we would have to kill them” (the “inferior” race). She was therefore opposed to the idea of these differences, because she was horrified by the seemingly necessary outcome. So facts that fail thought experiments become non-facts (and ultimately, “hate speech”). Note also the reference to ‘we’, rather than ‘you’ (as in you people who believe in racial IQ disparities).

        This astonishing statement struck me as crucial in understanding the psychology of the left-winger (she was left-wing). The mindset is so thoroughly perfectionist, to the point that if the perfectibility of mankind were undermined by the knowledge that some or other race had a lower average IQ than the others, the only recourse would be genocide!

        What I also want to know is, are left-wingers who refer to Conservatives and Libertarians as Nazis, aware that the non-perfectibility of mankind is actually one of our core tenets? Are they ignorant of this fact, or just wilfully slanderous, knowing that they can get away with it?

        • James Lee says

          @Andrew Leonard

          I like your conceptual trajectory with the “perfectionist mindset”. It instantly recalls Thomas Sowell’s idea of the unconstrained vision, and is obviously present in all the utopian visions.

          I’m going far afield, but it seems to me that in order to pursue such visions, you need a culture that actively suppresses negative feedback. In the communist Soviet Union, for example, the disasters and famines produced by the ideologically guided “biology” of Lysenko were covered up for decades.

          How about in the modern West?

          We don’t seem to teach our kids much about the horrors of the Communist systems.

          Many of our foreign policy elites have led us to disaster after disaster and not only suffered no real repercussions, but are still in positions of influence (Frum, Boot, Bolton, Hillary Clinton and her destruction of Libya).

          Our financial elites faced zero repercussions after the massive 2008 crash. Their errors were paid for by the masses.

          In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s parlance, in much of the West we seem to have an anti-Hammurabi code. When the architect builds a defective house that collapses, the family of the dead pay the builder for his troubles.

          “What I also want to know is, are left-wingers who refer to Conservatives and Libertarians as Nazis, aware that the non-perfectibility of mankind is actually one of our core tenets?”

          I think they are aware of this, and they dislike it. I think they interpret non-perfectability as an acceptance of the status quo, a justification for bigotry.

          “What is the root cause of this mindset? Is it a personality trait, or does culture play a role?”

          I’ll speculate that our cultural software (which co-evolved with our genes) has a suite of traits for innovation, change, etc, and those traits are currently in overdrive. My guess is they are in overdrive because we in the modern West are facing an incredibly low level of survival threat.

          • Andrew Leonard says

            @James Lee

            … in order to pursue such visions, you need a culture that actively suppresses negative feedback.

            In a comment to a recent Q article, I said that political systems were part nature (designed), and part nurture (defined by social processes). Suppression of negative feedback is due to a belief that there is no nurture component, as this implies unpredictable outcomes, which is unacceptable to the social perfectionist. However, in my view this suppression leaves totalitarian regimes in an indeterminate state.

            We don’t seem to teach our kids much about the horrors of the Communist systems.

            We don’t seem to mind people wearing the hammer and sickle logo, whereas anyone wearing a swastika would cause a meltdown, and is actually illegal in many parts of the world. Consider that the 120 million killed under Communism amounts to 120 thousand deaths per month, for a century. The swastika represents industrialized killing, but the hammer and sickle represents long term horror. What this situation indicates is that it is the political left who define the terms of debate and political acceptability, and the center accepts these terms without question. Perhaps this amounts to pragmatism in the aid of making two party democracy a more or less even contest.

            I think they interpret non-perfectibility as an acceptance of the status quo, a justification for bigotry.

            Even though another Conservative/Libertarian tenet is that individuals should not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character?

            Western society needs a shared goal. Sending humans to Mars and returning them safely to Earth would be a good one, but it needs a finish date. The 75th anniversary of man on the moon – 2044 – sounds realistic.

  6. Parents of one child believe that parenting is the major influence in their off-spring’s life. Virtually anyone who has more than one child believes in genes, even if they have no comprehension of the complexity of recombination. The current trends in industrialised countries for singleton offspring is bound to reinforce social norms that consider parenting to be of critical importance. To them the data on the heritability of personality traits is irrelevant.

    • Agreed. I don’t know anyone who has two or more kids who believes that children are blank slates. When you see even infants and toddlers demonstrate dramatically different temperaments and capabilities from siblings, it’s clear you’re dealing with unique humans who have strong innate tendencies.

  7. Morgan says

    The problem is the confusion between potential and actualization.

    If every human being were able to maximize their potential, differential outcomes would be largely dictated by their genetic make up. But the differences in most cases would be small (normal distribution).

    However, since it is the case that very, very few human beings are able (or care) to maximize their potential, differential outcomes are largely the result of behavioral patterns, including those of parents in very critical ways (e.g., early nutrition and interaction).

    And so, the best grades unfailingly go to those that work the hardest, not to those that simply have the highest IQ’s.

    Potential greatness that comes to nothing is as valuable as potential mediocrity that comes to nothing, that is to say, neither have any value whatsoever.

    • E. Olson says

      Morgan, unfortunately much of what you write is not backed by the science. Jordan Peterson’s work seems to suggest that the great achievers that make outsized contributions to human knowledge, culture, and wealth generation tend to have very high conscientiousness and IQ. There is little dispute in genetics that IQ is mostly hereditary, but personality traits also seem to be heavily genetic, and hence if you had hard working parents setting a “good example”, they likely inherited high conscientiousness as a personalty trait and passed it on to their children along with their IQ (whether high or low).

      • Morgan says

        @E. Olson

        Unfortunately, you did not read what I wrote.

        Your claim is that because individuals with high IQ and exceptional achievements exist, anyone with their IQ will automatically achieve what they did.

        What I state is that a high IQ amounts to nothing if it is not put to use.

        • E. Olson says

          Morgan – I’m sorry if I misunderstood. My interpretation of what you wrote is that someone with an 80 IQ who works hard (e.g. high conscientiousness) is likely to have a far superior life outcome than a lazy person with a 120 IQ (i.e. wastes their potential), but I’m not sure the plucky underdog story happens very often outside of the movies (most often in sports contexts such as Rocky or Rudy). I tend to think that plucky underdogs are much more likely to actually be geniuses born into very modest surroundings (e.g. Ben Carson) or greatly bored by school (with consequent mediocre grades – e.g. the plot of Good Will Hunting) who later are discovered/mentored by someone recognizing their potential, or they become inspired by some event or person, or they find their calling, and then become a great success in life. Thus they actually aren’t people with modest IQs, but people with backgrounds or poor grades usually associated with modest IQ, and their success therefore gets misattributed to hard work rather than their innate high intelligence (plus some hard work and luck). On the other hand, we have probably all known people who were very smart but coasted on their natural ability through school without studying hard and still got decent passing grades, and while it is safe to say they never reached their potential, most probably end up doing reasonably well as mid-level managers, bureaucrats, or professionals (which is more than nothing). My claim, which I think is backed by research, is that most people who end up making big positive contributions (i.e. reach their potential) tend to have both high IQ and high conscientiousness (and perhaps high openness and low agreeableness), which are also largely hereditary characteristics. Obviously someone born with more modest intelligence might still reach their potential such as being good parents, or owning a profitable small business, or being a valued lower-level employee, but their more modest potential also means they are less likely to be featured on magazine covers or in biographical documentaries.

    • “And so, the best grades unfailingly go to those that work the hardest, not to those that simply have the highest IQ’s.”

      But the discipline to work hard, what psychologists call conscientiousness, is also a heritable trait. And it may be even more important than intelligence in influencing outcomes. If you have a one child of middling intelligence who is a self-motivated hard worker, and another child of high intelligence who lacks discipline, I’d bet on the former earning more in adulthood. And regardless of how much effort you into it, you may not be able to turn the child who lacks discipline into a diligent hard worker.

  8. In fairness, she did take a stab at explaining why siblings brought up together are as dissimilar as those raised separately, saying it was because parents treat each of their children differently. She pointed out that they tend to be much more anxious about their first born, fussing about their exposure to germs and so forth, than they are about their younger siblings.

    That’s a very implausible hypothesis given that dizygotic twins are born at the same time yet are about as different from each other as any pair of “normal” siblings.

  9. “we have a duty to look after our children and make sure they’re happy,”
    While being happy is nice, there’s no duty to make sure others are happy.

  10. Sydney says

    Every day the Canadian far-left union- and far-left public-policy- school system tries to parent my children.

    Every day its incompetent, indoctrinated, propagandizing teachers and admin act like they know best. They don’t. Every day I’m struck anew by their stupidity.

    Every day from 3PM til bedtime I push back. My kids know exactly what’s going on.

    @Alphonse Credenza said it well further up the comments. The arrogance of the question is astonishing.

  11. X. Citoyen says

    I fail to see why so many are so gobsmacked by the result of this debate when the practical implications are far from obvious, especially for parents—the ones with skin in the game.\

    Take Jane, a conscientious mother of three. She knows that children differ from one another in all sorts of ways. Still, she goes into the debate believing that somewhere around 80% of their outcomes will be determined by her parenting. After weighing both sides, she’s persuaded by Plomin that parenting only amounts to 50% of the outcome.

    Does Jane change her vote? If you suppose that she should vote for the weaker proposition that “parenting doesn’t matter as much as you think” because Plomin shaved 30 percentage points off her prior hypothesis, then you’re not as smart as Jane is. Like you, Jane was initially going to change her vote, but being high in fluid intelligence, she quickly realized that having less influence on the outcome has no ramifications for her behaviour, rendering the conclusion that parenting matters less a moot point.

    Put another way, what should Jane do differently now that she knows she probably has less influence on her children than she thought she had? Should she “decrease her parenting by 30 percentage points” to bring it in line with its probable effects? What does that even mean? What possible implications could this have for Jane? If it has no implications, then her parenting “matters” as much as it did before,

    You might object that she should lower her expectations about what she can accomplish. But are these findings reliable enough and generalizable enough to justify any change by Jane? I fail to see how.

    • D.B. Cooper says

      @Citizen X

      While, I wouldn’t describe my reaction as gobsmacked, I would describe your treatment of the term ‘matter’ as an example of deliberate equivocation – at least as it pertains to the motion, “Parenting doesn’t matter (or not as much as you think).”

      Taken in this sense, the term ‘matter’ most obviously refers to the percent of the total variance that parenting hypothetically accounts for. The motion concern a quantity’s (parental influence) explanatory power, not the implications (or lack thereof) contained therein.

      Assuming Jane has been persuaded (from 80% to 50%), and then to claim that her parenting “matters” as much as it did before, is to engage in rhetorical tactics that are not germane to the issue. Not really. Regardless of whether Jane’s parenting influence accounts for 50% or 80% of the total observed variance in a trait/outcome, it is nevertheless true that 100% her parenting influence accounts for X percentage (be it 50%, 80%, or some other %) of the total variance, by definition.

      That is, whatever state Jane’s parenting influence may take (good, bad, or otherwise), it is true, by necessity, that 100% of the effects of that quantity (her influence) will account for X percentage of the total variance. 100% of her influence will always account for some percentage (0-100%) of the total variance. How could that not be the case? Therefore, to say her parenting “matters” as much as it did before, is to say nothing at all. 100% of it always, and will always, matter.

      As you know, or should know, scientific facts alone, neither restrain nor prescribe any particular parenting implication, because parenting edicts (or policy prescriptions for that matter) are a consequence of values; therefore, the question of implications is largely beside the point. To believe otherwise is to derive moral prescriptions from scientific observations, i.e., naturalistic fallacy.

      • X. Citoyen says

        From the standpoint of the proposition debated, yes, I’m equivocating between two senses of “matters.” But the from the standpoint of the parent—the one with skin in the game—the debaters are equivocating between “matters” in the sense of “has less influence on” and “matters” in the sense of “reason to change what you’re doing.”

        So if Jane had gone for purely intellectual reasons, she should’ve changed her vote. But if she went as a conscientious parent—and the provocative proposition invited this—she should not have changed her vote because the change in the level of influence she has on her children had no implications for how she parents them.

        In different terms, when gov’ts and especially militaries train people to write briefs and reports for ministers and generals, they tell them they have to answer the “So what?” question or not write at all. Why? Because even if everything you say is true and unknown, it doesn’t matter unless it suggests the need for some practical change.

        I think we forget nowadays that the original and only function that publicly funded social science has ever had is providing the public with useful information. This debate is emblematic of the bait and switch that we tend to get instead. We’re promised a big revelation—Parents don’t matter!—only to get “Me and my sciency friends think that parental influence is maybe/might be/could be somewhere in the roundabout vicinity of 50%, a number we admit is a guess about average observed influence, not causal influence, and that it only matters if you happen to think the number is higher and our findings and our number are actually true.”

        I’m probably guilty of poor execution in this comment and the last. But I think there’s an important consideration that was lost in this article and the reaction to it.

        • D.B. Cooper says

          @Citizen X

          In the interest of good form, I’m happy to concede the point that “…even if everything you say is true and unknown, it doesn’t matter unless it suggests the need for some practical change.” From a pragmatic standpoint, a useless fact has far less (or none, strictly speaking) utility than a useful fiction.

          Take for example, a parent who tells their child that all snakes are poisonous, rather than the actual truth, i.e., not all snakes are poisonous. Assuming the child believes the parent – or at least behaves as though he/she does – it seems apparent, at least as it pertains to the child’s well-being, that the falsehood has, or would potentially have, a higher utility than the truth. Of course, the exception to this – that resulted in the truth having a higher utility – would be if the child were able to perfectly discern poisonous from non-poisonous snakes… every… single… time. I’ve got to be honest, though, I’m not sure I’m rolling that dice.

          Lastly, I should say that I think your being a bit unfair as to the intentions of the debaters, but that’s not really my concern. They’re capable of defending themselves, if they so feel the need.

          • X. Citoyen says

            Part of your analogy is right. Jane’s prior belief was an intuition based on experience (all snakes are dangerous) that can operate as a reliable heuristic (Stay away from all snakes!), even if it’s strictly false. But your poisonous and non-poisonous list has a rather important lacuna undercutting its utility: Constrictors are not poisonous to humans, but they are dangerous to humans. Thus, the survival utility of your list depends on the prevalence of constrictors in the child’s environment—which means you were wise to not roll the dice with your list.

            Plomin’s evidence is, at best, like that partial list of dangerous snakes. His “half” figure (to the extent it’s a figure at all) is an educated guess, to be sure, so it does trump Jane’s anecdotal belief that all snakes are dangerous. Being incomplete, however, Plomin’s list does not speak against Jane’s heuristic. Her admonition to stay away from snakes is still the most reliable piece of advice in the absence of complete knowledge about dangerous snakes.

            Getting back to the concrete, it should have been clear from the start that I’m more persuaded by Plomin et al. than I am by the infinite potential crowd—I didn’t even consider the possibility that the genetics side lost the debate. My point is that their victory has no implication beyond correcting misperceptions among lay people. Suppose two of Jane’s kids are good at math and one, Sam, is mediocre. Jane already knows that natural aptitude has something to do with it, but she’s been trying various means to get Sam’s math marks up. How does Jane’s revising her beliefs from 80% to 50% inform her efforts with Sam? IQ research isn’t solid enough to tell her with any confidence that math mediocrity Sam is a lost cause and that she should focus on his strengths.

            No doubt, IQ is a fairly reliable (but not perfect) predictive tool with large groups. But it’s nowhere near being a diagnostic tool for individuals. So findings that go no further than tweaking the number for the relative influence of parenting on children have no practical import because, even if true, they have no practical consequences.

  12. n.i. silver says

    They should start by reading Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be the Verse.” To Larkin, the question isn’t “Nature or Nurture?” It’s “Nature or Torture.”

  13. It’s been my observation watching other Intelligence Squared programs that when the initial vote is one sided against the motion more of these votes will be moved at the end. This happens everytime.

  14. Jock Asnt says

    Culture is always left out of the equation. Any one of us brought up as a farmer in ancient Egypt would do particularly well on literary tests. Nature vs. nurture always seems to mean genes vs. family upbringing, never the wider culture. Thomas Sowell is excellent on this.

  15. If “parenting doesn’t matter”, explain why the majority of males in prison come from single mom households.

    Holds for educational achievement, too.

    I agree there is significant “nature” involved in basic personality traits and IQ. But ethics, principles and morality are taught. There’s no ‘civility’ gene.

    • Alan N says

      Darleen, you raise an important question, but because correlation doesn’t equal causation the answer isn’t necessarily straightforward. The other side to the chicken and egg argument is this: if you lived in a community where men tended to be violent and feckless, how keen would you be on getting married?

    • Debbie says

      Likely because dead beat dads pass genetics to their child thst resolt in irresponsible behavior.

  16. Fluff says

    All of these comments are far too theoretical. What about when you have a child with mental illness, developmental conditio or other adverse event? Then good parenting, and wise parenting will definitely influence the outcomes for that child. What about the fact that even controlling for iq children from British private schools still outperform children from state schools in terms of access to good jobs. Some forms of socialisation especially in class ridden societies will always confer huge advantage.

  17. Alan N says

    I marvel at the magical thinking that sees literacy (and even more bizarrely, numeracy – how many parents collect maths books?) seeping into kids from their parents’ bookshelves.

    I grew up in a home full of books, and now my own home is full of books (not to mention the 200 on my Kindle). A clear causal link? It might be if I had been interested in reading my parents’ books. With few exceptions, I never was.

    You could almost believe that the prime consideration in designing this kind of research is that social scientists shall not work themselves out of a job…

    • R Henry says

      “social scientists shall not work themselves out of a job…”

      Indeed. The can do the same “research” using the same methodology, for a lifetime, and never get the same result twice. No replicability indicates a distinct lack of validity, yet a lack of replicability is what characterizes social science research. Yes, it is mostly bovine excrement with more bovine excrement “peer review.”

  18. R Henry says

    Does parenting matter?

    A visit to innercity USA where most boys are raised without the benefit of a father will tell the whole story.

  19. Tim Peery says

    The obvious factor that is generally left out of these discussions, including Pinker and this one, is the deliberate self-differentiation of siblings. If your family was at all like mine, you had to avoid siblings’ roles and goals to define your unique place. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself; everyone else is taken”.

    • Tim Peery says

      Also, would not be surprised if parents treat children differently because they don’t want them to be too much the same, consciously or not, and push them in different directions. Discuss.

  20. I listened to a remarkably interesting conversation between Sam Harris and Charles Murray during which the topic touched on parenting, with Murray saying pretty much the same as Plomin and Ritchie.

  21. Arthur says

    Don’t expect the nurture crowd to ever accept the scientific evidence. If they were to do so, it would throw a massive wrench in their world view. It would also put a ton of them out of business.

  22. gebhard long says

    Johann Sebastian Bach lost both his parents at the age of 5 and was given to the care of an older brother who apparently begrudged Johann to the extent that he kept musical scores from Johann,s eyes.

    Imagine what a good composer Bach could have been had he kept his loving parents and been treated better by his older brother.

  23. I. M. says

    Overall parenting probably doesn’t matter if your parents fall into the “normal” range of social functioning. However for a child growing up under a lone severely messed-up parent, or two extremely messed-up parents (chronic drug addiction, unemployment, psychiatric disorders, severe emotional & physical abuse) will have too much psychological crap to overcome to get the kind of start you need to get onto a decent career track. Nor do they often have the social network they can depend upon that more functional people take for granted.
    However once you exclude for the small percentage of parents who are utter failures as individuals then I would agree that the overall differences in outcome of their children are not that stark.

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  25. Realworldman says

    Interesting how psychological experiments and research can lead to conclusions that are consistently proven wrong by history. The breakdown of the nuclear family and the onset of social media as the ersatz care giver, has coincided with the most catastrophic decline in performance, behavior and morality ever witnessed in America. Our schools are war zones! The very fabric of society is being ripped apart at this very minute by the destruction of fatherhood (and maleness in general) by the very “experts” in the Humanities who are championing gender studies and other toxic fantasies. Humans are born absolutely helpless and vulnerable. Their mental development is sustained through adolescence and beyond. What they are fed, shown, told and allowed to do during this period is the very essence of their programming. These same “experts” will testify to the tragic harm done when a parent abuses a child. And it is unquestioned that poverty is correlated to crime, poor health and reduce academic performance. Even alcoholism is higher among people whose parents were afflicted. It has been shown statistically that having a father in the home reduces the chances or dropping out of school, drug use and unwanted teen pregnancy. It has even been correlated to higher I. Q.s. Me and my wife are currently battling gaming addiction with our twelve year-old son. With our strict intervention he is gradually learning how to control this behavior so he does not fail in school. If we just let him game whenever he wanted, he would literally become a shut-in and die. It is everything we can do to keep him on track. What may be said truthfully is that the modern version of parenting is almost irrelevant, if not harmful. Allowing children to do anything they want, anytime they want and never enforcing strict standards with real discipline, is itself child abuse and has a profound negative affect on children.
    So please stop wasting everyone’s time with the ignorant proposition that parenting doesn’t really matter. You cannot have your statistical cake and eat it too. I don’t care how sophisticated and expensive a computer may be, without adequate programming, it remains a doorstop. Parents who actually do their jobs, are wet-ware programmers. And they are programming the future of our species. Being a parent is still one of the most important jobs humans can undertake.

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