"I'm allergic to a simplistic view of parenting"

How much can you really influence your child in your role as a parent? Henrik Larsson, a researcher at Karolinska Institutet and Örebro University, explains how inheritance and the environment affect our behaviour.

Henrik Larsson. Foto: Gunnar Ask

You want to highlight the complexity of the parental role. Please, tell us about it! 

“It is like this: A long time has passed since we abandoned the idea that if the parent simply behaves in a particular way, this will automatically have a given effect on the child. This is not the entire picture. We now know that the family is a system of reactions in both directions – the parents affect the children, but the children are active in the process and influence the treatment they receive.  

If parents are an environmental factor in the lives of their children, how heavily does that environmental factor weigh against genes? 

"Research has shown that parents are an important environmental factor in the lives of their children, but I would like to highlight three processes that include the importance of inheritance. The first relates to what I have just said, namely that the disposition of the child can influence the treatment it receives. For example, a child who is aggressive will trigger certain reactions in its surroundings, thus affecting its environment. But the child's disposition is partly controlled by genetic factors.”  

“So this is a complex situation. The second process is about the fact that at the environment that parents pass on to their children has partially been influenced by their own genes. Underlying genetics for aggressiveness and impulsivity in parents affect their parenting. The third example is about the fact that the older the child is, the more likely it is that it will be attracted to environments that suit the child's basic nature and disposition, which is thus partly genetic. 

So really, how important are parents?  

"Parenthood is an important component that affects the child and the child's development. But I am a somewhat allergic to a simplistic perspective that I sometimes encounter – parenthood is just one of several important components affecting the child. For example, there is no support in research that parenthood causes ADHD in the child, but parenting can affect the path a child with ADHD takes through life. The same mindset can be applied to disposition and personality traits – generally, there are always multifactorial causes that explain human behaviour and the way you are.” 

Text: Annika Lund, first published in Swedish in the magazine Medicinsk Vetenskap no 2/2021.