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I'm not a parent and I haven't done as much research as anyone on this website.

This question is motivated by looking at many of my friends. Sometimes, I find that one sibling is a high achiever, moral person, etc., while the other sibling is addicted to drugs, robs stores, and is overall an immoral person. Both children had the same parents yet grew up to be wildly different from one another in so many ways.

Is there any evidence that the parenting makes a big difference on who the child becomes? Any accepted research on nature vs nurture in parenting?

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7 Answers

The short answer is that there is absolutely no way to accurately quantify the extent of influence parenting has on children. There are just too many variables. Genetics, birth order, familial influences outside of parents (siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, etc.), geographic/regional, educational, and peer interactions all play a part. However, it is clear that parenting does play a part in development. How much of a direct influence that role exerts depends largely upon the parenting style. It is my belief that permissive styles of parenting give the other factors mentioned above a stronger role in determining personality, while authoritarian and authoritative parenting styles tend to play a larger influencing role (although this influence is by no means guaranteed to be exclusively positive).

There is no doubt that parenting can play a major role. Unfortunately, it is easiest to see this in negative examples. Abuse and neglect by parents have well documented, and oft-studied impact on children.

There is considerable research available specific to the nature-nuture debate. In particular, twin studies is a popular source of research into the subject.

I think the abstract from this study states it quite clearly (emphasis mine):

Current findings on parental influences provide more sophisticated and less deterministic explanations than did earlier theory and research on parenting. Contemporary research approaches include (a) behavior-genetic designs, augmented with direct measures of potential environmental influences; (b) studies distinguishing among children with different genetically influenced predispositions in terms of their responses to different environmental conditions; (c) experimental and quasi-experimental studies of change in children's behavior as a result of their exposure to parents' behavior, after controlling for children's initial characteristics; and (d) research on interactions between parenting and nonfamilial environmental influences and contexts, illustrating contemporary concern with influences beyond the parent–child dyad. These approaches indicate that parental influences on child development are neither as unambiguous as earlier researchers suggested nor as insubstantial as current critics claim. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2010 APA, all rights reserved).

This article summarizing Michael Rutter's Genes and Behavior: Nature–Nurture Interplay Explained mentions some statistics that appear relevant (again, emphasis mine):

Unraveling the detailed design of twin studies was followed by the findings of these approaches in a catalogue of mental illness after which Rutter concludes that ‘virtually all psychiatric disorders show a significant genetic contribution to individual differences, with heritabilities at least in the 20 to 50 percent range’.

So where does the 50 to 80 on the other side of the equation come from? Rutter turns his attention to this issue by first explaining the strategies for examining environmentally mediated risks. Here we learn of twin adoption studies of children abused and neglected, longitudinal studies of institutional deprivation with its resulting psychological dysfunction and the impact on poverty and childhood-disruptive behavior of a new casino on an Indian reservation, as well as the effects of cannabis. I found this chapter fascinating and would have liked to read much more and was left agreeing with Rutter's conclusion that ‘It is all too obvious that much remains to be learned about the effects of experiences on the organism, and that remains a key need for the future’.

The implication is that more than half of our mental development (at least in the case of psychiatric disorders) is the result of our environment. Granted, parenting style is not 100% of our environment; there are countless other factors involved. However, there is no question that our parents greatly influence our environment, even indirectly:

Using structural equation modeling techniques, the author found that the socioeconomic factors were related indirectly to children's academic achievement through parents' beliefs and behaviors but that the process of these relations was different by racial group. Parents' years of schooling also was found to be an important socioeconomic factor to take into consideration in both policy and research when looking at school-age children.

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+1 for actual studies. –  deworde Mar 6 '12 at 1:05
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I agree with the sentiment of @monsto's answer, although saying parents contribute 100% to a child's outcome is an exaggeration.

Answering a question like "why was child A successful and child B unsuccessul, despite having the same parents?" is very difficult and context-specific. There are so many factors at play. Parenting style definitely has a huge effect, and favoritism, birth order, etc may contribute to such discrepancies. However, even if the parents were perfect (none are), all children have their own personalities and the power to make their own choices. Then you have things like emotional and mental health, and various other things that are often difficult to measure.

So yes, parenting style is extremely important to a child's growth and outcome as an adult, but it is not the only important factor. People can (and do) grow up in a positive, healthy environment and yet never develop the ability to make wise choices. Similarly, people can (and do) grow up in a negative, sometimes even hostile environment, and yet they have an inherent maturity that allows them to shake off their past and work towards a better future.

There is a lot that we as parents can and should do to prepare our children for a successful future, but we must remember that eventually it is their personality and actions that will determine their outcome in life.

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+1 our kids do have their own personality from the moment of birth. We can influence it (or break it) but we can't replace their basic character traits. –  Péter Török Mar 5 '12 at 12:51
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Answering the topic question: How much of an effect does parenting style have on a child? My answer: 100%. That is to say that 100% of parenting style has an effect, not that parenting style determines 100% of personality.

Answering the question at the end of the text: Is there any evidence that the parenting makes a big difference on who the child becomes? My answer: Absolutely.

For proof of these answers, I can only submit my own experience.

I was telling people the last month or so that the best thing my parents did was move from our home town. Most of my family that lives in that city turned out to be shiftless, drug-addled, ambition-free nobodies. I am convinced that growing up nowhere near my dropout older cousins saved my life.

These are people that had no strong male figures in their lives providing either direction or example. Mothers were more of a very sweet housekeeper than mother and fathers were harsh and simply not interactive. This lack of parental direction led them to shortened high school careers and a lifetime of squalor. As directionless as my own upbringing was, had I been local to these people during my hs years (when I was bored with the books and growing responsibility) the temptation to go hang with my cuz and smoke & drink may have been too tempting.

Conversely, as I've said a number of times around here, I can see a measure of success of my method in my reasonably successful 20 yo and it gives me confidence as I deal with my 18, 10, 8, 6 yo's. At 20, he's got more ambition and direction than I had till I was probably 30. They're all different personalities and require different approaches, but that simply comes with the territory.

I don't just give lip service when I say I love my kids. I interact, play, teach, chill, etc etc. I give them focus, family and friendship. I give them roots. And as they get older, I give them wings. I got none of this coming up, and I believe that because I was just generally in a better environment than my cousins (suburbia of a midwest city as opposed to the urban center of a large southern city), once I had the opportunity to make my own choices (mid teens) I didn't make the wrong decisions. I had time to figure things out on my own without anybody pressuring me.

Your experience with the difference between siblings can be explained, in my opinion, by simple parental favoritism. My 2 oldest, when they were kids, felt the other was the favorite. They're both step sons, and i get that it's absolutely normal. The younger set does not have that anxiety as avoiding outward favoritism is a huge part of my method... why? Because I was/am not the favorite and I know how much is sucks. And when a person discovers that fact, it's destructive... whether it's the parental relationship, the persons outlook on life, or whatever.

Preemptive Disclaimer: To anyone that wishes to correct or redirect my statements using actual citations, I'll just say that I'm an adult sharing his experiences. I'm not educated in the finer and more abstract aspects of the nuclear family dynamic. Say what you will, I'm not easily offended.

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If your answer is 100%, then how do you explain the example in the question: Two children by the same parents, yet completely different outcomes? –  Treb Mar 5 '12 at 7:59
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Because you can't do exactly the same for two consecutive children - the first one will be an only child for a while; the second will have to share the parents' attention. –  Rory Alsop Mar 5 '12 at 10:04
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It is somewhere between 0 and 100% (IMHO surely not including either ends). Children have their own personality, specific talent(s) and weakness(es) from the moment of birth. What works with one child may fail with the other. Not all children of sweet moms and harsh dads in small towns grow up to be drug-addicted wrecks. Not all children of "good" parents in big cities grow up to be successful adults. Moreover: level of ambition or (financial) success is not necessarily the best criteria to measure quality of life. –  Péter Török Mar 5 '12 at 13:03
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I clarified my post. There are obviously a multitude of factors that determine personality, some of which were named by Péter. –  monsto Mar 5 '12 at 17:41
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I read this book when it came out

The NURTURE ASSUMPTION: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

It makes the case that the environmental contribution to personality is mostly from peers, not parents (except in pathologically bad cases like abuse).

One simple example is accent -- children tend to have the accents of their peers, not their parents. You'd think that since they learn language from parents initially, that this would not be the case, but there is a strong correlation with peers for accents.

To further @monsto's intuition based on experience, the author offers this advice if you are a parent with a troubled child and want to change behavior -- move them away from peers. She makes the case that the only recourse you'd have is to get them different peers, and that the only way to do that would be to physically move far away (this book was written before Facebook, so who knows if that would still work). Similarly, she offered herself as an example of personality changing behavior from moving.

It cites a variety of studies and gives some evolutionary justification, but there are no original studies in it. It proposes a series of studies that would give more information -- I found it to be a fascinating read.

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Regarding moving away, it might be enough to just change schools, even within the same district because a lot of the social network is based on the immediate contacts you get by going to school X. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Mar 6 '12 at 19:10
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Absolutely parenting style has a lot to do with how a child will ultimately turn out, but other factors certainly influence that child's outcome: birth order is certainly believed to effect a child's personality, genes, the number of children your parents have, etc.

I'm an only child so I have no siblings to compare to, but I've observed some interesting points about my husband and his sisters.

My husband is the third of four children, and the only male. The gap between him and his next oldest sister is seven years. It is very interesting to see how my husband and his younger sister interact with their parents versus how his two older sisters interact with their parents. Now, let me point out that my husband and all of his sisters are successful. They are all married, have college degrees, have children of their own, and are productive citizens...I wouldn't say that my in-laws were unsuccessful parents in the least. However, my older sisters-in-law have very different values regarding career and family than my husband and my younger sister-in-law. Neither set of values is wrong, per se, just different. One of my older sisters-in-law will sometimes refer to my husband and younger SIL as "the golden children", and while she seems to be saying it jokingly, it's apparent that she harbors some sort of resentment.

By the time my husband and his younger sister came along, my in-laws had been through parenting two other children, and they sort of knew what to stress out about and what was only a passing phase. Let's be honest, with your first child, you're utterly clueless about pretty much everything. So, my husband and his younger sister did have a different experience being raised than their older sisters did even though they had the same parents, attended the same elementary/middle schools, church, etc. Part of it is probably personality, there is certainly some sibling rivalry at play even today when the oldest is 41 and the youngest isn't quite 30 yet.

The hardest part of being a parent (especially if you're an involved parent) is accepting that eventually you have to let your child(ren) go and make his/her own decisions. They are going to make poor decisions--it's a part of growing up, but the best you can hope is that you've taught them well enough to mitigate the damage, learn from the experience, and continue on to be successful, productive adults.

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Interesting link on the birth order. I saw a study of how people voted on an important decision during the French Revolution (to which I cannot find a reference at the moment, unfortunately). It supported that the people who were willing to vote for the more radical proposition were typically younger siblings. The theory was that the elder sibling emulated the parent in order to gain attention ('maintain the Status Quo'), but that did not work for later siblings, who had to almost 'be the opposite' in order to gain attention. It seems the two effects might actually play against each other. –  Andrew Thompson Mar 5 '12 at 23:36
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Interesting theory about older siblings. I've often wondered if it wasn't more because the elder sibling had more responsibility sort of thrust upon them at an earlier age than their younger sibling(s). My oldest SIL fits the model of alpha personality oldest child to a T--it's kind of scary. –  Meg Coates Mar 6 '12 at 0:46
    
Yes that could be a factor as well. Sounds plausible. My family is complex, but in my father's 1st marriage, I was the youngest of 5. Myself & the eldest are both technically minded people with a lot of other similarities, yet we would both fall into the 'model' you might expect from all 3 effects - the theory you linked to, the 'eldest expected to be responsible', and the youngest being as different & radical as they could manage (which turns out to be 'not that much - short of a revolution happening'). It is kind of scary. ;) –  Andrew Thompson Mar 6 '12 at 0:58
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I've just read in a german modern psychology bestseller on the "self" (it's about understanding up-to-date psychology and I really can recommend it especially to parents): About 50% of one's self / character are regarded as coming from the genes, about 30% from the first experiences with parents / parenting and the rest from something else (later experiences, strong events). It sounds like common-sense to me. The book I'm referring to is yet only available in german, I believe: http://www.amazon.de/Gestatten-ICH-Die-Entdeckung-Selbstbewusstseins/dp/357906763X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1296253415&sr=1-1

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First of all, for the "snark" .. parenting style is irrelevant. What is relevant is is parenting actions and parenting behaviors.

This is indeed the classic "nature versus nurture" dilemma. The real answer is that it is not nature versus nurture, it is nature and nurture interacting. Each of us has inborn tendencies and traits and the parents have a huge impact on how the child turns out.

In my opinion, this is particularly true if the parents stress in their parenting that actions are choices, and the children have to make choices about how they live their lives.

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