Whose Traits Are Your Traits?

You have your dad’s nose, or your mom’s eyes, or your uncle’s chin. You have your grandmother’s stubbornness or your grandfather’s love for the outdoors.

As you grow up, it seems paramount to the adults around you to pinpoint who exactly gave you which trait. I am not so sure that’s a very good idea.

For instance, my Eldest looks very much like my DH and has DH’s mild temperament and kind nature (or maybe it’s my dad’s laid-back attitude? ), but has the same sense of humor and affinity for idiotic puns as me.

My middle son is the spitting image of my sister and mother (who look very much like each other); he looks more like my sister than he does like me. He also has a lot of my sister’s personality traits. Or maybe they are my brother-in-law’s (DH’s brother’s) traits?

While I am OK with saying who got whose nose, because you have very little control over the shape of your nose (barring injury or surgery, of course), I am not so sure about any personality traits. Because let’s face it, that’s bullshit. It’s harmful and it pigeonholes the kids.

I have been thinking recently about all the information I received growing up. I am considered a daddy’s girl: I have a lot of my father’s characteristics, which really did not help my relationship with my mother because she spent a lot of time not liking him very much, and “You’re just like your father” was often used as an insult from mother to me.  My dad remains one of the most intelligent people I have ever met. I got my dad’s brains, sort of, his ability to do advanced math and physics, but also I got his skills for drawing and a much milder version of his ability to write. I also got his inability to sing and got his mother’s looks, which are much inferior to my mother’s family’s looks (that was communicated loudly and clearly). My father, however, was never particularly ambitious. So I must have gotten my ambition from my mother, who, granted, is a giant pain in the butt. You think I am intense? My mother is a freakin’ typhoon.

Anyway, at some point I realized that what this insistence has left me with is feeling that I have no good traits that are mine, just largely faint copies of my father’s; he, of course, was the original.  I know I am smart, but not as smart as dad (he was one of the early programmers in COBOL in the 70’s); I can sort of write, but not as well as dad, who is a published  writer in our native language; I can sort of draw, but not as well as dad, who I think had some cartoons published at some point in some satirical magazine. I think the only trait that I believe is mine is courage in the face of new experiences, because  neither my mother nor my father ever had the guts to emigrate when they could, as neither was able to cut the cord with extended family.

Nearly every other trait my father had first, and had it better.

Of course, this is all crap. I am objectively more successful than him in every way, professionally, personally, financially. But it is very hard to internalize that my personality traits are my own, not just some genetic hand-me-downs, in bulk, from their one true owner.

Maybe my middle boy has my sister’s nose, but he does NOT have her personality. His personality is his own.


  1. I got most of my annoying personality traits from my mother, as well as many of my positive traits. But my mother, lacking any self-awareness, thinks that my worst traits have nothing to do with her. And she thinks that her worst fault is being too much of a sensitive soul. (Trust me, she isn’t.). So when she is mad she will accuse me of being like my father, because she and I both agree that that is the worst thing in the world.

    The only trait I have that I didn’t get from her is an excess of self-awareness.

  2. Oh, I dunno, I think we’re all amazing products of our genes and our environment. Nature and nurture and random chance. If my son takes after the quiet responsibility of the men in my husband’s family (and my mom’s, for that matter) and my daughter has the ambition and strength of the women in mine (and the women in DH’s), that’s fine. The men in my husband’s family are still all their own people, even if quiet and responsible and married to strong women, and the women in mine are still theirs, even if they share the traits of getting things done and digging in their heels and pushing at obstruction.

    And if we cement those traits by accepting and praising them, so be it, they’re not terrible traits.

  3. I think it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can be cool to see “family” traits, whether it’s a trait from a parent seen in a child, or the fact that many people in a family line may all share the same interests, talents and career options. On the other hand it can feel like a “sentence” to be like our family. For example, in my maternal family, nearly everyone is a pastor or a teacher – but I’m not. Of course, we’re all a unique blend of predispositions from both sides of our family that are influence by environment. But identifying family commonalities can give a sense of belonging that we don’t miss until we can’t have them.

    My son is adopted from foster care at age 10. We didn’t give him his genes, and we weren’t part of shaping his environment for the first 10 years. He’s creative and athletic in ways our genetic children would never have been. He’s also experienced early trauma, and has mental health issues and intellectual disabilities. He longs to see how he’s like his first-mother and his siblings and how he’s like us. He struggles so hard to belong, without “being like” anyone around him. We try hard to talk about traits he shares with his deceased first mom, or his half-siblings. But we also didn’t know his mom and only have contact with one of his siblings and no other extended family.

    I always hated being compared to my parents and my grandparents. Apparently I look just like a paternal aunt did at my age. I have “Smith” big feet and “Rushman” clumsiness. My work ethic comes from both sides, but my intelligence and anxiety from the paternal side? But it did ground me in a sense of lineage and family that I see my son missing. I didn’t realize how much we can dismiss it when it’s always there.

  4. Don’t be silly – of course your personality traits are encoded in your genes. They are still your own – just like you could make two very different dishes from an almost identical list of main ingredients, it depends on what you do with it. And you are not an exact copy – it looks like someone added some cayenne pepper to your father’s writing, drawing and math abilities, so you could also choose to think of you as a new and improved conduit for the traits of your genetic line (he got it from someone, too)! We certainly enjoy those traits on your blog!

    Personally, it never bothered me to be compared to family members, but that might be because I perceived the comparisons as positive (I look just like my pretty aunt? – Oh, well, thank you!; I am stubborn like my mother? – I kind of admire that about her!; etc). One of my kids tends to worry about being somehow inadequate (Too tall? Too short? Too sensitive? Too loud? Too quiet? Too silly? It’s exhausting!), and it helps her when I put some of these traits in context by pointing them out in family members that she loves. Instead of pigeonholing, it helps her to be comfortable with herself, rather than constantly worrying that she should be feeling or doing something differently. My other kid seems to have bottomless self-confidence (inherited straight from me) and it would never occur to her that she is not perfect, so such comparisons are just amusement to her (and I bet she perceives them as positive, whether they are meant that way or not). She is the only one in the whole extended family with different hair color, and she seems to be very proud of it – she owns it! You can’t escape your genetic make-up, but you can own it, and do what you want with it.

  5. Of course, I know the underpinnings of personality are genetic. I guess my point is that one shouldn’t assume that frequent comparisons with family members are necessarily a positive thing or that they are even welcome. In my eyes, insisting that some traits were present in this or that ancestor, so that’s why you got them, gives these traits an air of inevitability; not great if you don’t want to be shackled to that particular trait or that particular ancestor.

  6. I can’t decide if I find it is cool or disconcerting that all these traits have been passed on from generation to generation with minor modifications ever since life began millions and millions of years ago… I sometimes wonder which of my long-ago relatives were most like me, and it is kind of sad that I will never know. Those traits aren’t really your dad’s either, I suppose, but they are your lineage’s.

    Sorry about your mom. It is a particular kind of mean to use a similarity to your dad as an insult. I think our mothers are peas in a pod. With any luck, neither of us inherited THAT.

  7. Other than genes and the environment, it also has something to do with hormones…remember pregnancy? I had to take steroids once and I turned into a seriously mean bitch for a whole week. It was quite unsettling. So much for my grandpa’s kindness gene.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s