Does parenting make a difference?

Like Parent, Like Child

Parents pass along their dietary habits to their children.
Parents pass along their dietary habits to their children.
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Babies and children acquire new skills and behaviors by imitation, which isn't always a good thing. Research has established troubling links between parents' alcoholism, drug use, and verbal or physical abuse and the same destructive behavior cropping up in their children [source: Stephens]. Same goes for cigarettes. A 2005 study out of the University of Washington's Seattle Social Development Project found that 12-year-olds are twice as likely to pick up a tobacco habit if their parents regularly light up [source: Schwartz].

With a majority of American adults overweight or obese, clinicians also have started paying closer attention to whether poor diets and lack of exercise run in the family [source: Bachman]. Spoiler alert: They do. Even if moms and dads aren't around at mealtime, young children with nutritionally lackluster diets at home will opt for junk foods, a 2008 Dartmouth University study found. The facilitators simulated a grocery store game and asked a group of 2- to 6-year-olds to pretend shop. In addition to the junk food trend, kids with smoker parents were more likely to toss a pack in their baskets, and those whose folks drank on occasion also added beer and wine to their make-believe grocery lists [source: Sutherland et al].

On a brighter note, research also has compiled interesting data on how parents can steer sons' and daughters' career paths. A 2009 study from the University of Maryland examined how fathers bestow "job specific human capital," or work skills, on their kids; out of 63,000 people, between 20 and 30 percent followed in their dads' footsteps professionally [source: Parker-Pope]. On the flip side, how well adult children fare also bears psychological repercussions for aging parents. A psychologist at the University of Wisconsin determined that kids' mental health and educational achievements in particular were closely associated with how parents judged their own personal success or failure over the long haul [source: Ryff].

In that way, while kids may adopt many behaviors and traits from their parents, maturing into iterations of their caregivers, parents similarly perceive their children as self-reflective mirrors. That's why, perhaps, quirky sons and daughters who seem to have been born with personalities and aspirations from an alien family are idiomatically labeled "black sheep" and "red-headed stepchildren." Because whether or not science fully supports the possibility that parents wield long-term power over their offsprings' outcomes, many moms and dads unwittingly expect to raise "chips off the old block" instead of kids who -- despite toddler tantrums and teenaged protestations -- will grow up into versions of themselves, only better.