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How understanding your child’s unique nature can make you a more effective parent

VCU professor Danielle Dick’s new book, ‘The Child Code,’ helps parents adapt their parenting strategies to fit how their child is wired.
the cartoon d. n. a. strand from the cover of Danielle Dick's

Genetics influence every aspect of human behavior. But that biological fact is often ignored when it comes to parenting advice, which tends to perpetuate the myth that parenting techniques alone determine a child’s behavior and future.

In “The Child Code: Understanding Your Child's Unique Nature for Happier, More Effective Parenting,” Danielle Dick, Ph.D., the Distinguished Commonwealth Professor of Psychology and Human and Molecular Genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University and an internationally recognized expert on genetic and environmental influences on human behavior, explains how each child is uniquely coded with predispositions that affect their fearfulness, impulsivity, happiness, propensity for throwing tantrums and all other aspects of their personality.

Drawing on her research in developmental behavior genetics, as well as her experience as a parent, Dick, a professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and the Department Human and Molecular Genetics in the School of Medicine at VCU, shows parents how they can recognize their child’s genetic predispositions and then provides practical, individualized strategies to help navigate the child’s challenges and nurture their strengths.

“The Child Code,” published by Avery, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, will be released Sept. 14. Dick discussed the forthcoming book in an interview with VCU News.

Danielle Dick
Danielle Dick, Ph.D.

The book talks about how each child is uniquely coded with predispositions that influence their behavior and personalities. What are some ways the book explains how parents can apply that knowledge?

Parents put so much pressure on themselves, especially in our culture right now. Never in human history have we spent so much time and effort parenting our children. And that creates a lot of stress on parents when kids are struggling or not being perfect little human beings. So, one of the messages that I really hope parents will take away is that they can take some of the pressure off! Our kids already contain their own instruction manuals, the so-called building blocks of life, that shape their development and behavior. We can help our kids grow and nudge them in particular directions, but it’s not all on us. So that’s one thing that I hope parents will find comforting.

The other big takeaway is that by understanding the way your child is wired, you can tailor your parenting strategies to what will work best for your child. The second half of the book covers three big temperamental dimensions that kids differ on. I call them the three E’s: extraversion, emotionality and effortful control. By understanding where your child falls on those dimensions, you can help them accentuate their strengths and overcome (or avoid!) potential challenges.

For example, kids that are high in extraversion versus kids that are low in extraversion have different environmental needs. As parents, we sometimes unwittingly put our kids in environments that are a mismatch with their nature — for example by putting kids who are low on extraversion in very active, busy, social settings, which can be overwhelming or distressing for them. And that can be a cause of temper tantrums and stress in the family, but very often we don’t even recognize the underlying cause.

Similarly, some kids are just more highly emotional than others. They are just more naturally predisposed to be easily frustrated or fearful. A lot of parents who have kids like that wonder, “What am I doing wrong?” Or “What’s wrong with my child?” They’re trying reward charts and consequences, and it’s not helping the behavior. There are actually different parenting strategies that can work better for these highly emotional kids.

So those are a couple different examples of how understanding where your child falls across different aspects of their nature can help you in figuring out the parenting strategies that are likely to be most important and most effective for each of your unique kiddos.

the cover of Dick's book,
“The Child Code: Understanding Your Child's Unique Nature for Happier, More Effective Parenting”

There are many books on parenting. What sets this book apart?

There are a lot of great parenting books out there, [offering] evidence-based strategies for how to handle particular issues in kids, like temper tantrums or sleep training. But the piece that is really not talked about in parenting books is how much of our kids’ behavior is influenced by their genes.

Many parenting books basically say: “Here is a strategy that you should use.” But when we try it and it doesn’t work with our child, it makes us think, “Am I doing something wrong? Or is there something wrong with my child?”

So the piece that’s different about this book is that it’s all about how our kids are wired differently, and how there is no one-size-fits-all parenting. We’re actually hurting ourselves — by making parenting harder than it has to be, and we’re hurting our kids — by potentially pressuring them to be a way they’re not, when we fail to recognize how important their genes are in influencing their behavior.

Part of the reason I think this information hasn’t made it into mainstream parenting is because the way the message has been presented in the past has been: “If genes matter, parents don’t matter.” No parent wants to hear that! Parents are like, “I’m in the trenches on a day-to-day basis and I’m dealing with these things. So don’t tell me I don’t matter.” I think it’s really sad that’s how the message from my field has been interpreted and, therefore, it’s no surprise that it has been ignored. But understanding that kids’ behavior is influenced by their genes doesn’t mean that parents don’t matter. It just means that genes matter. Your kids’ genes matter. And that’s a really important thing for parents to know because it means that we don’t need to put so much pressure on ourselves. And by recognizing how each of our kids is wired, we can try different parenting strategies that are likely to work best for our child. So it’s a more individualized approach to understanding and parenting kids.

What inspired you to write “The Child Code”?

So … ironically, I had the challenging child that I study in my research! Highly emotional, highly impulsive. I found that my research background was so helpful in parenting my child because I wasn’t riddled with guilt over, “Oh my gosh, why does my child throw these huge temper tantrums?” I knew, “OK, this is how he’s wired — toward really big feelings. And here are the strategies that I can work with him on.” So understanding the research was hugely helpful in my own parenting.

But in the trenches with my other parent friends, I realized that the things that are well known and established in my field — the idea that kids’ genes influence and play a profound role in their behavior, that we’re not fully responsible for shaping it — weren’t widely recognized among parents.

So that was the impetus behind writing this book: to get this research into the hands of more parents who could use it.

“Our kids already contain their own instruction manuals … that shape their development and behavior. We can help our kids grow and nudge them in particular directions, but it’s not all on us.”

-Danielle Dick, Ph.D.

Are there drawbacks that can occur if parents don’t consider the genetic component raising their kids?

Yes. The primary one is that it causes a lot of distress on the part of parents that is unnecessary. It can cause guilt and feelings that they’re doing something wrong. It can also cause a lot of concern about their child. Parents wonder, “What am I doing wrong? What’s going on with my child? What’s wrong here?” But the reality is that all behavior falls on a bell curve. So there are kids at the high end and at the low end of any behavioral dimension — whether it’s getting really upset, whether it’s impulsivity, whether it’s extraversion. It’s normal for kids to be all the way across that spectrum. When parents don’t have this information, it leads them to unnecessarily worry.

Another piece is that it can hurt your child in the sense that if we ignore the fact that our kids have inherent wiring, and we think that it’s all on us to shape them, we can find ourselves pressuring our children into being people that they are not naturally wired to be. And that can be hard on children in making them feel like they aren’t enough. That’s obviously not what we want for our kids.

How does the book guide parents through the process of understanding their children’s genetic predispositions?

The first part of the book explains the basics of how genes influence child behavior. I even say: “If you don’t care at all about the science and you’re willing to take my word for it, you can skip this chapter.”

In the second part of the book, which is really the majority of the book, I have short quizzes for parents to fill out about their child. They’re based on the surveys we use in our research. They help parents figure out where their kids fall on each of the big three dimensions. That helps them identify what their child’s needs are likely to be, and then I walk through what parenting strategies are likely to be most effective for their particular child.

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