However, there's almost always a connection between genetics and environment. Musical talent is a classic example. People who have perfect pitch are four times more likely than those with only average singing voices to say that a relative has this natural gift. Yet research has also found that most people with perfect pitch started taking music lessons before age 6, and that only 3 percent of people who started voice lessons after age 9 have perfect pitch -- suggesting that both genetics and training affect one's singing voice. "It's simplistic to say that artistic and intelligence traits are determined by genetics, because even a gifted child needs the right environment to thrive," says Dr. Garber. Average IQ scores have gone up in the past 50 years thanks to changes such as better early-childhood education, experts say, not because we're innately smarter. And intelligence may run in families partly because bright parents tend to provide a richer learning environment -- by having more books, for example. In fact, two recent studies found that the IQ of firstborn children is slightly higher than that of their younger siblings -- possibly because they received more undivided attention.
"Almost all talents need to be practiced," says Dr. Carey. "Even if you're genetically predisposed to be a great basketball player, you still need to shoot a lot of free throws." The environment a child grows up in can also affect other genetic traits. "The impact of genes for height can be modified by the foods you eat," says Dr. Bodurtha. "And environment is enormously important during development and early childhood. For example, your child could have genetic potential for a high IQ, but if you drank alcohol during pregnancy, it may be lower."
Sometimes, our children pick up traits we don't intend to teach -- just by living with us. Nora Flanagan's 1-year-old son, Kevin, was adopted but has definitely taken on some family traits. "My two brothers and I have the same up-to-something smirk, and Kevin's got it down to the last detail," says Flanagan, of Chicago. He also has a boisterous laugh that leaves him out of breath, just like both of his adoptive parents. "We keep in touch with Kevin's birth mother, who is more reserved, and it's been eye-opening to see how he's a combination of all of us," says Flanagan.