Decoding your child

How your kid's genes and temperament should shape your parenting.

Welcome to Is My Kid the Asshole?, a newsletter from science journalist and author Melinda Wenner Moyer, which you can read more about here. If you like it, please subscribe and/or share this post with someone else who would too.

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If you’re a parent, you know that two children, even within the same family, can have very different ways of interacting with and responding to the world. My two kids are similar in many ways, but very different in others, and I’ve noticed that parenting approaches that work with my son sometimes fall flat when I try them on my daughter. Why is this, and what can we do about it?

Today I’m excited to be running a Q&A with Danielle Dick, a psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University and an expert on the genetic and environmental influences on human behavior, whose wonderful new book The Child Code: Understanding Your Child’s Unique Nature for Happier, More Effective Parenting answers these questions. Dick’s book explores aspects of parenting that I don’t see discussed nearly enough: How our own genes and temperaments shape our parenting, and how our kids’ genes and temperaments shape their responses to our parenting.

It sounds complicated, and it is, but Dick does a magnificent job of unpacking and explaining everything to make it accessible. And it’s helpful, too: There’s a quiz in the book that helps parents identify their children’s temperaments (as well as their own) based on three major dimensions and provides tailored parenting advice based on the results. Without further ado, here’s my fascinating interview with Dick.

What inspired you to write The Child Code?

When I had my son, I found myself raising the challenging child that I study. My research background was so helpful in my own parenting, but I found myself struck by how many of the parenting messages we get from the world didn’t match what I knew the science showed. I saw my hugely accomplished mom friends placing tremendous pressure on themselves, and worrying they were doing something wrong (or that something was wrong with their child) when their child was struggling, or even just not turning out to be the perfectly behaved child we all imagined having before we had children.

But the research unambiguously shows that our children’s genes play a large role in their behavior. By failing to take that into account, we’re actually putting more pressure on ourselves, and our kids, than we need to. Not only that, kids with different dispositions respond differently to the environment — including our parenting.  That’s why what works for one child often doesn’t work for another. It means that different parenting strategies actually work better (or worse!) for different types of kids. So, when we take kids’ natural tendencies into account it can make parenting easier, and reduce some of the friction and daily stressors in our lives. I felt like it was so important to get this research into the hands of other parents who could use it — so that’s what led me to write The Child Code.

In your book you share examples of the ways in which research on parenting has been misinterpreted over the years, and that it can be hard to know whether parenting is shaping a child behavior, or a child's behavior is shaping the parenting. Can you provide an example that illustrates this?

Yes, we make this mistake all the time! We see a parent acting a particular way and a child acting a particular way and we assume the parents’ behavior is causing the child’s behavior, for better or worse. So, for example, people used to believe that “cold mothers” caused autism. That was because studies found that mothers of children with autism didn’t interact with them as much — pick them up, smile at them, etc. But when researchers followed mothers and children across time, they actually found that the mothers of children who developed autism started out with the same level of interacting and smiling at their babies, but the babies didn’t respond to it or seem to enjoy it. So over time they did less of it. It wasn’t the mothers driving the child behavior, it was the child’s behavior driving the parental response.

This plays out in many other ways still today. We see a child throwing a massive temper tantrum in public and the parent doesn’t seem to be responding in the way we might think is warranted by the “bad” behavior, for example by forcefully telling them to stop or by implementing a consequence. Very often this leads people to believe that the child is misbehaving because the parent is too permissive, meaning the parent doesn’t implement adequate consequences for bad behavior. But some children are born with dispositions that make them more predisposed toward distress, frustration, and fear, which can lead to explosive behavior. Reacting harshly or implementing consequences in the moment actually causes the behavior to get worse, not better. So, the parent who is handling a child’s fit with a warm, gentle response is actually doing the right thing for that child. They probably started out implementing consequences and trying to clamp down on the behavior the way you might expect, but they have learned over time that implementing consequences in the moment actually creates more of a scene and leads to more bad behavior, not less. 

You make the distinction, though, that this doesn't mean that parenting doesn't matter, just that our parenting is constrained — that "you have to work with the hand you are dealt." Can you explain what you mean by this?

I want to be clear — I’m absolutely not saying that parents don’t matter. Of course we matter! I’m saying that genes matter too. And by failing to take that into account, we’re making parenting harder on ourselves. The fact that our kids come into the world with brains that are wired a particular way, and that their unique wiring plays a role in how their life unfolds, does remove some of the control we have as parents. So, if you were imagining that you could mold your child into exactly the person you want them to be, then you’re in for an uphill battle.

But I think about it a different way. I find it relieving to know that it’s not all on our shoulders! Our every decision isn’t make or break. Our children are their own little people that we have the privilege of getting to know, and helping shape the person they become, but we’re not starting from scratch. Their genes also do a lot of the heavy lifting.

One of our important roles as parents is to help fine-tune how our kids’ characteristics unfold. Think of your role as a parent like a radio dial: you can tune up or down certain tendencies. So, for example, if your child is naturally predisposed to be more introverted, then you probably are not going to convert them into someone who will eventually love dancing on tables being the center of attention. But you can do things to teach them to be more comfortable in group settings, and to ensure they don’t get overlooked at school. When we are intentional about understanding how our children are wired, we can better attend to each of our children’s specific needs.

Can you introduce the Three E's you discuss in your book and talk a bit about how kids' temperaments should shape the way we interact with them?

The book is organized into two sections. The first (much shorter) part is about the science behind how our kids’ genes shape their behavior. I even jokingly say that if you don’t care about the science and are willing to take my word for it, you can skip over that chapter. The second part of the book has quizzes for parents to fill out so you can figure out where your child falls on The Big Three E’s. The Three E’s are three big genetically-influenced dimensions that children differ on, that play an important role in shaping their behavior and development. They are Extraversion, Emotionality, and Effortful Control.  

Extraversion refers to how much children like active social environments and being around lots of people versus preferring quieter activities and a smaller circle of trusted friends or family members. We talk a lot about extraversion in adults, but children show preferences starting at a young age too. Just like the idea of spending Friday nights making small talk with strangers at a work party may feel like torture to an introvert, sometimes the root of family challenges is when we inadvertently put our kids in environments that aren’t a good fit with their natural tendencies. Kids thrive when there’s a good match with their temperaments and their environment.

Emotionality refers to the fact that some kids are more predisposed to frustration, fear, and distress. These kids are often viewed as “overreacting.” They get really upset over what seem like minor things (to us), and they stay upset for a long time and are hard to redirect. The standard parenting toolkit of rewards and consequences tends to less effective for kids who are high on Emotionality, so there are actually different parenting strategies that you can employ to help your child develop the skills that don’t come naturally to them to manage their emotions.

Finally, Effortful Control refers to how well children regulate their behavior. It’s what we often call self-control, and it takes effort! But some children are simply more impulsive and risk-taking than others; it’s a function of how their brain is wired. By understanding that, we can work on strategies to help them accentuate the good parts of being a risk-taker while also developing more self-control.

It’s also important for parents to remember that there is no such thing as a “good” or a “bad” disposition. Some traits create extra challenges for us parents at certain developmental stages. A highly emotional child can create a lot of parental distress, but when they get older and apply that passion toward fighting for the things they believe in, they’ll make you proud. A risk-taking child may land you in the ER a lot and cause some grey hairs, but CEOs and entrepreneurs are higher on risk-taking. Point being, by understanding your child’s disposition you can help them become the best version of themselves — accentuating their strengths, and avoiding potential pitfalls they may be more likely to encounter.  

Can you give an example of how your approach has shaped your own parenting?

The other part we haven’t talked about yet is that it’s not just our children who have different dispositions, it’s us parents too. So, the book actually has surveys for you to complete about your own disposition as well, so you can think about how that interacts with your child’s natural tendencies.

Here’s an example of why that’s important: every weekend when my son was little I’d plan a fun outing for us, which usually involved getting together with lots of my girlfriends and their children and going to a park or children’s festival or museum. I would be so excited about our day together and more often than not, as I’d tell him about our “fun” plans as he was pulling on his shoes, he would freak out, seemingly out of nowhere, and storm to his room and refuse to go. What the heck?!

What I realized, when I put my research thinking cap on, was that I am a huge extravert, and my son is much more introverted. So what sounded like a wonderful day of fun together to me sounded like a nightmare to him! And of course his brain wasn’t developed enough to explain this to me, or even to realize what was going on; he just became overwhelmed at the idea of it all. It was leading to a lot of upset in our family. Once I realized what was going on, I readjusted and would plan smaller group activities for just the two of us, and/or with a close friend or two, and then we actually did have fun weekends together.

Other news: Just a reminder that I’m on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook if you want to follow me there for more updates! Also, I spent this past weekend visiting old friends in Canmore and Banff, Alberta. It was beautiful. Here’s a photo I took of Moraine Lake, which we visited on Sunday.

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