It’s Not All Mary Poppins

DNA is [not quite] all

I read an article some while back that was essentially arguing that much of our parenting is for naught, because children’s characters are hard-wired into their DNA. They are who they are, and nothing we do will change that much.

Of course, I rear up in resistance to that idea.

Sort of. In fact, I do think they come with their little characters pretty much intact. They are not ‘blank slates’; rather, they are a mystery which is gradually revealed, a basic form which is refined as the years go by.

I believe, however, that parents have a huge role to play, and that very article provides the key. While just about every character trait — kindness, propensity to anger, stubbornness, generosity, and many, many more — all do seem to be pretty much genetically-dictated, there was one trait that was not. There was one trait that was very strongly influenced by nurture, by family. And that one trait makes all the difference.

The trait is self-discipline.


Now, self-discipline is in some disrepute in this largely adolescent culture of ours. It’s associated with being a boring, dull nay-sayer. Who wants dreary, dull, no-no-no self-discipline?

People who know it’s self-discipline which separates the people who consistenty wonder “why do these things keep happening to meeee?” from those who feel largely in control of their life, that’s who.

We are notoriously poor at teaching self-discipline to our children. We tend to see it as the grinding down of a child’s spirit, the steady encroachment on their personality, the ceaseless winnowing away of who they are into who they should be. It is not.

Self-discipline acknowledges who a child is, all their flaws and their potential. Self-discipline gives the child the tools and abilities to overcome (or work around) their weaknesses and allows them to glory in their strengths.

Self-discipline starts — a parent encourages its development — when you tell your two-year-old, “You may be angry, but you may not hit mama.” And then, when they rear back to take a second swipe, you grab that offending hand and repeat. “You may be angry, but you may NOT hit.” When you tell that same child that if he/she chooses to be awake in the middle of the night, they may NOT keep the rest of the family awake.

Self-discipline grows some more when a parent holds back from helping a child who is experiencing frustration when they can’t tie their shoes. “You can do it. I’m going to the bathroom right now. If you keep trying, I’ll help you when I get back — but I bet you’ll have it all done by the time I’m back!”

In each of these instances, the child will probably be unhappy with you. If your goal as a parent is to keep your child happy, you will be very poor at this. If your goal as a parent is to raise an adult who has the skills and abilities to be confident and competant to manage their own life, you will persevere. Because your vision is on the long-term goal, not the current hiccup. (No matter how loud and outraged that hiccup may be in this moment.)

Self-discipline is evidenced when a tot stomps their feet and says, “I’m MAD at you!!!” but doesn’t scream or hit; when a child decides for themselves to finish a necessary task rather than go out with their friends; when your teen saves her own money for a project of her own design; when your young adult stays sober because he’s chosen to be the designated driver when he goes clubbing with his friends.

We all have to learn to consider others, to rein in our nastier impulses, to persevere in a task in order to succeed — and generally, these are not our natural inclinations. Generally, these skills do not come easily.

Ironically, if you’re willing to let your child suffer unhappiness as a necessary part of learning all these things, if you’re willing to let your child be frustrated and exasperated as a result of their own actions and decisions — you will end up with a child who is, overall, happier than the child who was always protected from the bumps and bruises of life.

Self-discipline is the way to go. Because being a grown-up, a real, full, card-carrying, non-apologetic grown-up, is a good thing. I would rather be an uncool adult, confidently in control of myself and my responses to the happenings of my life, than a perma-adolescent, knowing all the ins and outs of the “right” clothing, music, cars and gadgets, but buffeted, outraged and confused by the world around me.

And that’s what I want for my kids, too.

So, their DNA may present you with the essential outline of the child. DNA predisposes you to a quick temper. Self-discipline holds the anger in check and/or expresses it constructively. Self-discipline fills in the gaps, enriches the strengths, mutes the flaws, finds a way to cope with weaknesses. Creates full, happy, empowered, considerate adults who continually seek to grow and develop into a better, fuller, more complete version of themselves.

It’s a lifelong process, but it’s the only way I’d want to live.

February 29, 2008 - Posted by | behavioural stuff, parenting, peer pressure


  1. I agree that DNA does dictate a bit of our personalities. I also agree that parenting holds an enormous power over who our children become. However I also strongly believe that our individual experiences shape our lives and help mold who we are. I for instance, had an extremely traumatic series of events occur when I was a tween/teenager. Those experiences shaped me and my personality. I was a different person before and after. The skills my parents gave me helped me in my dealings but as difficult as those times were I give a lot of credit to who I am as an adult to those experiences.
    I know this was sort of a tangent from where you were going but it is an idea that I feel fairly strong about.

    It’s not a tangent, it’s an enrichment. In fact, truly traumatic events are probably the only thing that I believe can cause a genuine character shift, as opposed to a refinement of the basics. I am quite willing to believe those events changed you on a fundamental level.

    Comment by Dani | February 29, 2008 | Reply

  2. Well said Mary! One thing that jumped out at me is the irony that it takes a lot of self-discipline on the part of the parent to help a child develop self-discipline of their own… πŸ™‚

    Ha! Too true. Maybe parenting is a stressor that will encourage growth in the parents, too? We can hope!

    Comment by Tali | February 29, 2008 | Reply

  3. Excellent, Mary. I think that personality may be hard-wired, but CHARACTER is something different, and that is about parenting. My son is stubborn, has a temper, etc., but he has learned to control himself because of good parenting. With the occasional exception of someone who’s got a personality disorder (and I’ve seen them at school), good vs. bad behavior is learned.

    Well said. That’s pretty much my point, for I believe that it is self-discipline — diligent, concerted effort over time — that turns personality into character. We don’t differentiate much between these, societally, and we should.

    Comment by McSwain | February 29, 2008 | Reply

  4. Have you heard the NPR article about free play and self-control? I think you’d like it. There’s actually a series of articles there:

    Thank you! I haven’t gone over to the link yet, but I will!

    Comment by Laura D. | February 29, 2008 | Reply

  5. I think what you mean is an overall expansion of the person’s thought process to highlight the until-then blurred alternatives that are certainly more diplomatic/efficient than the default responses of a child.

    While this quality is still an important trait to be taught, it won’t just be self-discipline, more like self-preservation in a cultural, societal, physical and evolutionary sense.

    Don’t hurt elders, aka people bigger than you, [if you know what’s good for you]. – Pick on someone your own size; you may actually win.
    Don’t party with friends if you have a test coming up, you have to pass at least to experience minimal trouble later on.

    I understand what you mena, but self-discipline is a rosy word that makes the underlying agenda look more noble than what it really is.

    You’re talking to the wrong audience, Ian. This blog is read primarily by mothers, who routinely and for years let their own interests take second place to the genuine needs of their children — because it is the right thing to do.

    Comment by Ian Srivatsav | February 29, 2008 | Reply

  6. Hear, hear.

    Self-discipline and understanding delayed gratification.

    You can’t have one without the other!

    Comment by Lady M | March 1, 2008 | Reply

  7. Mary, I think you nailed it, and McSwain summarized beatifully. Personality = innate. Character = built.

    Ironically, I was just reading the portion of What’s Going on in There? last night that talks about nurture/nature, and it seems that study after study splits the importance of genetics and environment at about 50/50.

    Ian, if I lived in that sort of self-serving mode all the time, I’d be constantly depressed. Oh, wait. I was — it was called my early 20s. Believe it or not, some choices really are about doing the right thing, not just what’s right *for me*.

    Thank you. And now I have another book for my to-read list. If I didn’t keep misplacing the damned list, it would be about 400 long by now…

    Comment by Allison | March 1, 2008 | Reply

  8. This is the best post I have read in a long time. I couldn’t agree more.

    Thank you!

    Comment by nomotherearth | March 1, 2008 | Reply

  9. I whole-heartedly agree – though this past couple of weeks, it has been hard to stick to sometimes. Man, she is going through another testing phase, plus I am trying to push her to do a bit more herself. Argh, the combination is brutal.

    Hang in there! It’ll get better. Knowing that doesn’t make the present any less brutal, though, does it? Sigh.

    Comment by kittenpie | March 3, 2008 | Reply

  10. I love to read a post that gets me thinking, this one does! I agree with what you’ve said. Yes, from birth, Laurel has been a bit temperamental, while Ian is very easy going. I love both of them for being who they are, but both are hopefully learning self control and respect toward others.

    I remember as a teacher, my key phrase was, “self control.” The students heard it a lot, especially during messy art times.

    Comment by mamacita tina | March 4, 2008 | Reply

  11. I forgot to tell you the first time I read this how much I love this post. I may print it and tape it to my bathroom mirror I love it so much.


    Comment by carrien | March 11, 2008 | Reply

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