The Surprising Personality Traits That Most Mothers Want For Their Children

Illustration: Anna Sudit
Nagging your kids to do their homework and read books – rather than Instagram captions – in their spare time seems to be one of the key elements of parenting. Parents want their babies to become the next Einstein or Malala, right? Why else do so many people (apparently) insist on playing Mozart to their foetus?
Well, intelligence might not be as highly prized among parents as we may have thought, according to a recent study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences. Researchers from Goldsmiths, University of London, asked mothers which personality traits they'd most wish for their children – and intelligence was nowhere near the most desired.
In the first study of its kind, according to researchers Dr Rachel Latham and Dr Sophie von Stumm, 142 British mothers with a baby aged 0 to 12 months were told of the Big Five personality traits (Extraversion, Conscientiousness, Neuroticism, Agreeableness, Openness to Experience) and asked to say which one they'd most like their child to have.
Surprisingly, more than half (51%) picked extraversion as the most desired trait, compared with just 10% who rated intelligence as the most important characteristic. Who'd have thought mothers would prefer their child to be the life and soul of the party than an A* student? 20% plumped for agreeableness as the most important, 10% for openness and 9% for conscientiousness. No one rated neuroticism as the most desired trait.
“Given that higher levels of intelligence and conscientiousness are both linked to positive life outcomes such as success at school, at work, and in relationships, it’s surprising that only 1 in 10 mothers valued them as the most important characteristics for their child," said Dr von Stumm.
“While extraversion can have many benefits it is also associated with negative behaviours in adulthood, such as higher alcohol consumption and illegal drug use. Understanding how mothers view personality is vital as their values influence their parenting and, through this, how their child’s personality traits develop.”
The study has its limitations, though. At 142, the sample size was small and the way the Big Five traits were presented could have affected the mothers' decisions. As the British Psychological Society's Research Digest pointed out, four of the traits were presented positively, while "neuroticism" has negative connotations. If the researchers had called it "emotional stability" instead, perhaps the results would have been different.
The mothers also weren't asked why they picked the traits they did, about which the researchers speculated: "It is possible that mothers’ preference for extraversion is the result of a cohort effect, whereby the current zeitgeist, rather than the mothers themselves, values and encourages extraversion."
Nevertheless, the study lends itself to further research that could prove to be even more intriguing. “We focused on the views of mothers, as they typically spend more time with their children than fathers, but it would be useful to examine the personality values of fathers too," said Dr Latham.
"It would also be interesting to examine if mothers’ preference for extraversion changes over time as children grow older and enter formal education." It would indeed.