The Shocking Irrelevancy of Parenting

William Riggs


Don’t shoot the messenger, but the data are in, and they are simultaneously conclusive and jaw-dropping. Assuming that there is no neglect or abuse in a given home, parenting has almost no impact on how children turn out. (Don’t accuse me of having an agenda to push; I used to have one, and it’s the exact opposite of what the evidence shows.) I’ve scrutinized the studies over and over again, certain that there must be a mistake somewhere, but even the most generous reading of the data attribute at most 10% of a given individual’s personality, character and behavior to his or her home environment. On the contrary, virtually every study indicates that genes account for about half of our traits, and society and/or peers account for the other half.

Some of the studies compared fraternal twins who were raised together (and thus share half of their genes and all of their home environment) with identical twins who were raised separately (sharing all of their genes and none of their home environment). In every case, the behavior of the identical twins is much more similar than that of the fraternal ones. Other studies contrasted adopted children raised alongside their biological siblings. The adoptees share none of their siblings’ genes, but all of their home life, yet are far more different from their siblings than those siblings are from each other. Still other experiments evaluated multiple adoptees raised in the same home, who came out as dissimilar as though they had been raised in wildly different homes. Fraternal twins raised in different countries are more similar to one another than non-twin siblings raised together.

While it was true that children raised with both parents generally do better than those reared by only one, this difference is accounted for by the lower standard of living that often forces a single parent to move the family into an impoverished and/or high-crime neighborhood. The absence of a father in the home correlates strongly with teen pregnancy and dropping out of school, but only if the father walked out, not if he died. This correlation remains strong whether or not the mother remarries or the biological father stays deeply involved in the lives of his children, even from a distance. This demonstrates that the problem is probably genetic, not environmental. Said another way, the offspring of the type of man who would walk out on his family apparently inherit his undisciplined and impulsive nature. The science establishes a triumvirate of axioms that we may rely on.


Three statements emerge that are so consistently and inarguably affirmed by such a wide spectrum of scientific studies that they may be safely asserted to be certainties:

1) Virtually all human traits can be inherited.

2) Inherited traits account for a far larger percentage of human behavior variation than the home environment does.

3) A large percentage of the variations that exist in various people’s behavior cannot be accounted for either by genes or by the home environment. Thus, the source of those differences lies elsewhere, in the outside-the-home environment.

A half-century ago, to merely suggest that IQ might be even partially (let alone largely) heritable was sufficient cause to get a professor or politician angrily picketed, canceled, expelled and labelled a Nazi. This is exactly what happened to Dr. Thomas Bouchard at the University of Minnesota. He directed the first large-scale study of identical twins raised apart, and reached the now-unassailable conclusion that many human traits, including intelligence, are at least partially inherited. Campus activists distributed flyers labelling him a fascist, demanded that he be fired, and compared his work with the experiments of Joseph Mengele. Today, to suggest that IQ is not reflective of the genes one was blessed (or saddled) with, is laughable.(Those in the hysterical cancel culture almost always turn out to be wrong, yet are rarely held to account for the quite-fascistic style of their tactics.)

Indeed, half – or almost half – of all human traits, whether brilliance/dullness, kindness/meanness, liberal/conservative, happiness/moroseness, extroverted/introverted, etc. can be traced back to heredity. Identical twins come out equally-alike, regardless of whether they were raised together or never met until adulthood! Meanwhile any changes created by the home environment – even an IQ temporarily turbocharged by highly literate and involved parents – always peter out by adulthood, rendering this factor a meaningless footnote over the long term. The other half of human behavior – the part that makes “identical” twins different from one another – is their unique experiences and environment, that is, anything one experienced but the other did not. This might be a disease that one contracted but the other was spared, a teacher that inspired one while the other sat bored under a deadpan instructor, a car wreck that injured one while the other emerged unscathed, a gift that one received but the other didn’t, an encouraging comment made to one that the other never heard, a documentary that one watched but the other skipped, an opportunity extended to one that the other never enjoyed, advice that one took, but the other ignored, etc.


While almost everyone instinctively rebels (just as I did) at the conclusion that parenting style doesn’t matter, we should have seen it coming. After all, anyone with more than one child (assuming they are not twins) can see that they are markedly different even though they share a large portion of their DNA and all of their family environment. Children who move to another country as babies grow up speaking the new language without mimicking their parents’ accent, having adopted the speaking style of their new peers. They soon abandon and forget their parents’ language altogether, indicating that a child’s frame of reference is that of their peer group, not their family. Children rarely love the music their parents do, choosing instead that of their friends. They eschew their parents’ clothing, too, adopting the fashions worn by their schoolmates. A parent’s mores, too, are seen as passé, to be shucked off in favor of the ones advocated by movie, television, or rock stars. No one, of course, can choose the half of their personality that was woven into their DNA at conception, but we all choose the other half, and we almost never choose that of our parents; we choose that of our social group. This is because children learn early-on that they must thrive or shrivel within the society of their peers, for injecting a parent’s values and tastes into this new milieu represents a social kiss of death. That’s how you approached life when you were growing up; that’s what your kids will do, too. And their choices are not your fault. This revolutionary result is unexpected, troubling and… liberating.


At the moment a child is conceived, half of his or her character and behavior have been rendered immutable, and parents have little control over the other half. The implications for mothers and fathers are huge. First, there is no need to feel like a failure for raising a wayward child, assuming that the home environment was healthy and loving. It is similarly unnecessary to play Mozart for your baby, to seek out colorful and stimulating toys, to fill your shelves with books, or to beat yourself up for failing to get home in time to read your child a bedtime story, or to blame yourself for a daughter’s anorexia or a son’s low self-esteem. Your kids are going to turn out fine (or not), regardless. You should be kind to your children because you love them, because you want their childhoods to be happy, because it’s the right thing to do, because making them smile fills you with joy, as well, to make the home a more peaceful place, or simply because you hope they’ll be inclined to return the favor one day when you’re the one needing a diaper-change. So… relax. Let your parenting be a joy, not a burden.

The second implication is of earth-shattering importance to the caring parent. It is this: you can shape the way your kids turn out, but only indirectly. You do this by preselecting their peer group, by making sure that – at least until they’re old enough to drive – the people they hang out with reflect the values you want your child to imbibe. You can screen the television programs and movies they watch, the video games they play, and the websites they view (at least on your home network) in order to hold bad influences behind a dike, as it were, for as long as possible. You can register them in Scouts, take them to church with you, or enroll them in a good school, encourage them to join ROTC, etc., to increase the odds that their peers will be hard-working, good, and honest people.

The third implication is that you can give your kids a leg up in the world by providing them with opportunities and skills. I once spoke at a conference with a world-renowned eye surgeon. We shared a cab back to the airport, during which he explained his theory of child-rearing to me: he identified what each of his kids was best at (or most interested in) and then to provided them with the tools to excel in those pursuits. His daughter loved tennis, so he hired the best coaches he could find, causing her to spurt ahead of her equally-talented peers. Because of her superior training, she excelled and by high school was a champion. He told me, “Once they taste a bit of success in a given field, they then begin to chase it on their own like a rat seeking cheese in a maze.” From that point on the girl sought out her own coaches and opportunities. My wife and I followed that advice with our son, who displayed an aptitude for playing the piano at a young age. We took him out of public school and opted for homeschooling, not because we weren’t happy with his education, but to give him the freedom to focus on the piano. He took lessons from three of the best pianists (all different styles) in the city every week, and was playing in clubs late at night by age 12, something that wouldn’t be possible if he had to attend a conventional school.

A parent that focuses on these two simple principles of choosing their child’s peer group for them and providing opportunities in their fields of talent or interest can now simply chill and enjoy the fulfilling process of lovingly leading his or her children into adulthood.

Billy Riggs is a motivational speaker and leadership trainer living in Austin, Texas.

William Riggs

Leave a Comment about this Article

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *



Video of Billy Performing the World’s Second-Best Card Trick!

Watch as Billy Riggs presents this funny routine for 1500 people in Houston in August of 2023, and does it in every show. BTW, this is the world’s best stage card trick. He’ll be happy to do the absolute world’s best card trick for you in person, but it’s too small to do for more […]

Leadership Made Simple

IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY! The photo above depicts the way many people perceive the leadership process: complicated. But my diagram is much simpler: It’s a mountain. True leaders function from the mountaintop. Mere bosses languish at the bottom. As if that weren’t already simplistic enough, it’s a purely binary arrangement. You’re either […]

Billy Riggs' Leadership Pyramid
Be a Leader, Not Just a Boss

THE BOSS A boss and a leader are not the same things. In fact, they’re almost opposites. A boss is one who employs a series of carrots and sticks, perks and threats, promises and punishments to leverage employees into doing tasks they’d rather not do. The boss must convince staff members that their lives will […]

Request Your Free Report: