The major role of genes in development is incontrovertible.  That I think, is nature’s gift to the newborn, the baby and the developing child.  Parents don’t teach you to cry when you are hungry, tired, or in need of comfort.  If they did, chances are they would surely teach you to cry less!  They also don’t have to spend priceless hours teaching you to smile or stand up, or hold a spoon.  Nature provides the necessary motivations.  Similarly, we know now that major temperament traits come with you right from the moment of birth.

However, since first reading about the non-shared environment concept, I have continued to shake my head in disbelief.  That children totally cared for by the immediate family in their earliest moments–learning to walk, talk,  love, hate, trust  (or not) adults that they must totally rely on, are simply unaffected by this experience is unbelievable.  This is particularly hard to accept, given that half or more of development is shaped by environment–just not the early home environment or parental bonds.  Can having a non-shared experience like a long recovery from a broken leg be 100 times more meaningful than having an icy, unloving parent?

With this is the fact that child development researchers go right on finding the effects of parenting variables on developmental outcomes.  Thousands of studies, many of them wrong, certainly, but many, many others well done and positive in findings.

In 1999, Thomas and Chess, famous for their studies on infant temperament measures, published a book entitled Goodness of Fit.*  They were likely the first to develop a successful scale in this area that carefully measured temperament differences and tested the outcome in rigorous longitudinal studies.

The Thomas and Chess factors were developed with the young child in mind, originally, and included Activity Level, Rhythmicity (regularity of eating, sleeping etc.), approach or withdrawal reactions to new stimuli, quality of mood, and five other categories.  Analysis of these factors produced the overall categories, the Difficult Child, the Easy Child, and an in- between category labeled “Slow to Warm Up”   The two especially important ideas related to this were that (a) these characteristics existed prior to any later parenting effects, and (b) that their existence affected the parent and the parenting strategies that come to be used.  Thus the concept of ‘Good Fit”   In Goodness of Fit, they advance the idea strongly that developmental outcomes are the result of interactions of child temperament with the environment provided by parents, families, and the larger community.  When the abilities and behaviors of the child were a “good fit” with the expectations and actions of the environment, both small and large, there was a good fit, and the child should develop optimally.  A poor fit could occur either because these expectations were unreasonable, or because of innate vulnerabilities in the child (or some combination of the two).

The Thomas and Chess view has been carried forward by many other child development researchers, some using the same scales and others advancing new measures. Parenting continues to have a major role in this research.

In 2011, a major review was published with C. Kiff, as the lead author, it was a review and theory paper on the role of temperament in parenting success, and is entitled Nature and Nurturing:  Parenting in the Context of Child Temperament.** This paper began with the comment  that “Extensive empirical evidence leaves little doubt of the importance of parenting in children’s social, emotional and behavioral development.  Aspects of parental control, including discipline, monitoring, and autonomy granting, as well as affective components of parent behaviors, including warmth, acceptance and responsiveness consistently emerge as as predictors of children’s adjustment.”  This is a strong and clear rejection of the idea that there are no environmental effects on child development that occur within the family.  And it sits back to back with the 2011 cry “Why are children in the same family so different?”

In a very different sense, however it is clear that there is a non-shared aspect to this.  So long as the non-shared environment is defined as one that does not make children more alike in the same family, some portion of parenting may be non-shared–that is that it happens within the family, but effects for each child are unique to the parent-child interaction in keeping with both the temperament of the child and the temperament of the parent.  Here in 2011 we have researchers using some measures that are similar to those of the “Goodness of Fit authors and others that are newer.  Most important of these is Effortful Control, a measure of the infant, child and adult ability to focus attention, to inhibit impulses in service of goals, and ignore distractions.

Here are some examples of the relationship of child temperament and parent strategies found in the Kiff et al. paper:

1.  With respect to the broadly difficult child (one with frequent intense and often negative moods, avoidance of the new, and low adaptability) they are seen as having an increased risk for adjustment problems unless parenting is very sensitive and positive.  On the other hand children low in emotionality, including low fear, and also low in empathy/prosocial behavior, may be remarkably insensitive to parenting behaviors, good or bad.   Positive, sensitive parenting would be unlikely to make any difference here.  Not surprisingly, whether child temperament cause or effect, the difficult child seems to have parents who are less warm and supportive. If parenting style is high on the control factor, also, the child’s reaction may simply be more negative.  Here are two extremes in which a specific parenting style might be effective in one case, but relatively meaningless in another.

2. As noted, effortful control is the extent to which children (and adults) have the ability and intent to exert control or self-regulation in their behaviors.  Like many other aspects of temperament this is believed to have a large genetic component–estimated to be nearly 50%.  (See more on this blog site: Effortful control–the uber temperament).

If a child is low in effortful control and parents are both inconsistent and harsh in disciplining, a likely outcome is external- acting-out behavior, such as fighting, lying, rule breaking, etc.  For children high in effortful control the same discipline interaction just does not happen. With or without parental consistency they will continue to develop this ability,  So here, there is a parenting approach that might do harm to a child of one temperament, and a variety of other approaches that would make little or no difference to the opposite–a child high in effortful control.

3.  Next, impulsivity, though certainly often found with a lack of effortful control, presents a somewhat different picture.  It is tied especially to strong positive approach tendencies and desires for positive rewards, and/or lack of sensitivity to negative rewards (punishments).  Here, children seem to be helped to improve with discipline that is “clear, consistent, but non-punishing.” In other words, high parent control, but not harshness.

3. Among the more specific child problems there seems to be a child/parent interaction between child frustration and irritability.  Children who are easily frustrated and easily respond with negativity seem to respond badly to “negative parenting behaviors such as rejection, inconsistency, and harsh parenting, and children higher in irritability are more prone to…problems in the presence of negative parenting behaviors.”

4. The child’s level of fear and anxiety seems to be a major point of vulnerability, also, but with more complicated outcomes.  Overall, the authors note that “fearfulness appears to render children highly sensitive to parenting efforts, both positive and negative.” Here the right parent with the right parenting strategy (calm, firm control, but lots of warmth and patience) can be very effective in the child’s development, where harsh, and impatient treatment can do much harm.  As noted earlier, low fearfulness is a completely different story.  Now the commonest reports are that “low-fear children do not seem to be adversely impacted by parenting that is harsh or power-assertive.”

Simply looking at these examples, several things seem to emerge.  First, maternal warmth and acceptance is a positive thing in general, and consistent, firm, but non-harsh discipline is best.  Within that, however there are such differences as the child with high effortful control who seems to be little harmed (if at all) by imperfect parent discipline, and the low effortful control child who really needs it in the best possible form; the high fear child who needs especially sensitive and predictable discipline and the low fear/low empathy child who will not be very responsive to any form of discipline.  Then there are strong indications that seriously negative behaviors on the child’s part very likely elicit more negative parenting–unfortunate, but true.

Where does this take us?

First of all, good parenting may seem simple in the sense that parental warmth and responsiveness are generally good, and firm but calm and consistent discipline is in general good, but the heart of the matter lies in the individual parent-child team.  Children at the extremes of these temperament qualities will react very differently, some doing well in far less than perfect parenting situations, some struggling fiercely though parents have the best of intentions.

Second, it seems pretty clear that parents are affected by the behaviors and responses of the child. Negative, hostile and unresponsive behaviors clearly produce changes for the worse in many parents, and that is quite likely to produce a vicious back and forth cycle.

So, to some degree, a given child may improve with sensitive parenting, and another child may remain unchanged, a third one worsened, and all averaged out.  Parents, in turn, may be positive agents for growth, or may be mired in their own problems and may, in some cases, worsen development.

And, although this review dealt in depth with good and bad discipline strategies, and good and bad levels of parental warmth and responsiveness, it did not cover parental temperament explicitly.  No matter what model a parent is committed to, the adult temperament is surely going to affect the parent-child relationship also. To take a simple example, a strongly extraverted parent with a painfully introverted child may or may not be helpful to that child.  If she/he accepts the introverted behaviors as a given, and simply helps her child to learn some techniques to cope with social situations, it may be very positive, but if there is a lifetime undertone that says “you have a problem and need to change” it may also be a lifetime burden. Helping a child to be his or her own best self requires not only warmth and caring, but the acceptance that comes from a depth of understanding of these issues.

To the best of my knowledge, differences in child/parent temperament or child/adoptive parent temperament have not been considered in the twin studies of the non-shared environment.  For that matter, I have not seen in the twin studies, an examination of individual outcomes and differences in parental warmth and positive/negative discipline strategies.  The general approach is to test twins reared-apart and reared-together on personality variables and then look at average differences. What I am suggesting is that the averages may be entirely obscuring the shared environment effects in individual cases—both good and bad.

And lastly, is “Why should children in the same family be so different” the wrong question?

There is a perfectionist assumption in taking it for granted that parenting should make children more alike. In part this may come from the use of measurement scales that have strongly emphasized good and bad extremes. It may (or may not) be true that the world would be better if everyone was somewhat, but not too extraverted, tending to approach new things but wise about what to avoid, adaptable, but not so adaptable that they could be led anywhere, and so forth, but if half of personality development is genetically given, then biology has the first word.  Should parents be trying to make their children more alike, or more successful in being the individuals they were born to be?

A few conclusions

From the 1990 book “Goodness of Fit” to the comprehensive review of Kiff et al., events appear to be moving in the direction of greater focus on what works in the individual parent-child dyads, including temperament considerations for both parties.  A number of popular online articles on the role of temperament have reflected this.  For example, the Huffington Post included a 2012 article entitled “Parenting Styles:  Is your Child’s Temperament a Good Fit with Yours?” emphasized the Thomas and Chess concept that a good fit between parent and child temperaments was critical. A second online article in the same time period commented on “How a Parent’s Temperament Influences Parenting Style.”  A third was entitled “Your Child’s Temperament:  Finding the Right Parenting Style to Match.”

And perhaps forecasting a paradigm shift in this whole area is a 2014 research article whose list of authors included Robert Plomin—principle author of many of the previous studies asking why children in the same family should be so different.  This article is entitled Genetics of Parenting:  The Power of the Dark Side.*** The authors’ conclusions are a slightly grudging approach to the idea that parenting styles do matter. They note that “Previous research has shown that children’s genetically driven characteristics elicit parenting; our pattern of our results suggests that what is critical is the ‘dark’ side of these characteristics for eliciting negativity from parents whether feelings toward the child or control strategies are considered.”  This does suggest that the important parenting effects have more to do with bad outcomes than helpful ones, but they do conclude that “Ultimately, studies that succeed in teasing out such child and parent effects could have key implications for informing parenting interventions.”  It is a small move in the right direction.

The Kiff review cited earlier makes a stronger statement about understanding parent/child temperament conflicts.  In their section on Implications they say “…parenting interventions need to account for temperament because the children who are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of negative parenting behaviors are precisely the children who elicit these behaviors from parents.  Parents…might benefit from training in mindfulness of their own reactions to their children, strategies for managing their own emotional and behavioral reactions, and strategies tailored to managing children’s particularly difficult emotions and behaviors.”

Finally, our own experience at our temperament sorter site, Parenting by Temperament.com, also suggests increasing interest and concern about child/parent temperament interactions. In the three years that our temperament sorters were offered free of charge, some 28,000 of them were taken.  Also of interest, we have a Brief Manual for teachers and family counselors which is increasing in sales, suggesting more professional interest in this area.

All in all, the era of mindless assumptions about the “Non-shared Environment” may be coming to an end, and mindful parenting by temperament may be coming into its own!


*Chess, S. & Thomas, A. (1999).  Goodness of Fit:  Clinical Applications from Infancy through Adult Life. Philadelphia:  Bruner Mazel.

**Kiff, C.  (2011) Nature and Nurture:  Parenting in the Context of Child Temperament.  Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review. 14, 251-301.

***Oliver, B. R., Trzaskowski. M. & Plomin, R. (2014).  Genetics of Parenting:  The Power of the Dark Side.  Developmental Psychology 50(4) 1233-1240.

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