For our monthly newsletter to our parents, we interviewed Dr. Danielle Dick, author of the new book, The Child Code, which provides a science-based approach to parenting centered on a child’s unique genetic “code.”
Dr. Dick, a tenured professor of psychology and human and molecular genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University, has spent years researching how genetic and environmental factors influences behavior. In The Child Code, she focuses on how genetic factors play into children’s behavior and how parents can use that knowledge to implement better parenting techniques
The book is a fascinating exploration of how genetics influence behavior and learning in children, which is an overlooked topic in parenting literature. Part of the reason for that is that genetics are sometimes seen as a constraining factor in childhood development. But Dr. Dick shows that having a better understanding of how genetics influence behavior can be freeing because it allows us to find better techniques more easily.
Here are some of the key takeaways from the interview:
Ignoring a child’s genetic factors can make parenting more difficult because we’re not in tune with the child’s nature: “Kids thrive when there’s a good match between their temperaments and their environment.”
To help determine a child’s temperament, Dr. Dick says there are three major factors, which she describes as the “Three E’s:” extraversion, emotionality, and effortful control. These are explained further in the Q and A.
Having a better understanding of how genes influence behavior isn’t about “super-parenting” or creating the perfect environment. In fact, Dr. Dick says dispelling the super-parent myth was a motivating factor to write The Child Code. Rather, this knowledge helps parents gain a more nuanced understanding of what can or should work, which could help ease the burden on both parent and child.
Endeavor Schools: What is the main idea you want parents to take away from your book?
Dr. Danielle Dick: Most of the parenting advice out there ignores a fundamental biological fact: the huge role our kids’ genes play in shaping their behavior. By understanding our children’s unique genetic wiring, it can help us figure out what our kids need, and what parenting strategies will work best for each of our unique kiddos. That’s what The Child Code helps parents do – understand the ways that our children’s genes shape their growth and development, identify each of their children’s unique temperaments, and learn about what strategies will work best for kids with different dispositions.
In your book, you talk about the “Three E’s,” which are: extraversion, emotionality and effortful control. Why are these qualities so important in understanding a child’s needs?
The Three E’s are three big genetically influenced dimensions that all children differ on, that have shown up consistently in studies around the world.
Extraversion refers to the fact that from a very early age children show differences in how much they enjoy being around new people, going new places, or trying new things. Some children are naturally more open and exploratory, others are slower to warm up to new people and prefer quieter, more familiar activities and places. Just like the idea of spending Friday nights making small talk with strangers at a work party may feel like torture to an introverted adult, 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 between their temperaments and their environment. The Child Code explains the needs of kids who vary in extraversion and what kind of activities will help more extraverted and more introverted children thrive.
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. My book helps parents identify strategies that will work for more anxious, easily frustrated, or emotional children.
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. The 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.
When talking about children’s behavior, the popular parenting guides and literature tend to focus on environmentalism and leave out genetic influences. What are we missing by ignoring genetic impact?
By ignoring the important role that our children’s genes play in their behavior, we are making it harder on ourselves! It leads us to put way too much pressure on all our day-to-day parenting decisions. The good news: it’s not all on our shoulders to shape our kids from scratch. They have a lot of what they need to grow and develop already in place in their genes.
Perhaps even more importantly, the fact that our children are all wired differently based on their unique genetic codes also means that there is no one “right” way to parent. One-size-fits-all parenting doesn’t work and makes parenting harder than it needs to be. By recognizing who our children are by genetic design, we can tailor our parenting to what each of our children needs.
What are some ways parents can learn more about their child’s genetic code and use that information to help their child? Would these methods also work for single parents and parents of adopted children?
The Child Code has quizzes to help parents figure out their child’s natural disposition. Any important adult who knows the child well can fill out the quizzes; they work equally well if you are a single or adoptive parent, a grandparent, or another important adult in the child’s life.
Figuring out your child’s natural tendencies – how their brain is wired to make them the unique person they are – requires you to be a loving detective. You want to look for behavior patterns that are consistent across time and situations. So, for example, all children get upset sometimes, especially when they are tired or hungry, but if you have a child that consistently seems to get disproportionately upset over seemingly minor things – and it happens at home, at school, running errands — then your child is predisposed toward higher emotionality.
Are there any potential downsides by trying to cater too much to the way a child is “coded”? In other words, some children might benefit from being outside of their natural comfort zone to a certain extent. How do we toe this line, if there is a line?
Understanding your child’s nature doesn’t mean you have to rearrange your world to cater to your child. Instead, once you understand your child’s temperament, you know what areas you need to focus on to help them grow – and how to do that in ways that will reduce some of the friction in your family.
As an example, if your child is lower on extraversion, it may be too much to plan playdates with big groups of people in unfamiliar settings when they are little. It can be overwhelming for your child and result in temper tantrums and family stress (I know, I made this mistake when my son was little!). It’s the equivalent of throwing someone who can’t swim into the deep end. Once you realize the root of the problem, then you can plan activities with a smaller number of close friends, and help your child gain the skills they need to gradually feel more comfortable in larger group settings. By understanding how their temperament is connected to their behavior, you are able to focus on helping them in the areas they need to grow and reduce the daily battles along the way!
How has your background as a professor of human and molecular genetics influenced your own parenting?
It was when I became a parent that I first realized how much the parenting messages we get from the world don’t match the science. Our society has perpetuated the “parenting myth” – the idea that if we just read enough and do enough, we can parent our children into the dreamy human beings we imagined. But science doesn’t at all support that. In fact, our efforts to super-parent our children can backfire, leading them to feel greater pressure, have higher rates of anxiety and have less ability to navigate the world on their own.
I found my knowledge of the research – understanding how our children’s genes play a role in their development and behavior – to be tremendously helpful in my own parenting. But I saw so many of my accomplished, amazing friends doubting themselves, wondering what they were doing wrong, or whether there was something wrong with their child, when their child wasn’t always being the perfectly behaved child they imagined they would raise. I found myself talking with my friends about the research so frequently that finally I decided to write a book – so other parents could have the knowledge to help them in their parenting too. And that’s what ultimately led me to write The Child Code.