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Wednesday
Dec152010

Nature? Nurture? Neither? More? 

After writing my last post, I had a lot of interesting side discussions about the old nature versus nurture debate. Some of those discussions happened in the comments on my last post. Some of them happened on twitter. Some of them happened in person. While I think I have made it fairly clear that I do not believe that everything about a child is a product of good or bad parenting, people have been wondering where I do stand on this issue. After all, if I don't think that parenting is important, why would I write about it? If I don't think that parenting choices are important, why would I write in support of certain parenting practices or speak out against others?

Where did I come from?

I don't believe that any one factor is paramount in determining how our lives will turn out. I think that the person I am, the person you are, the people our children will be, is determined by many different things. I think, however, that those things can be broadly put into three categories.

Genes - Environment - Individual Choices


It is important to recognize that depending on what each of these circles contains, they may or may not be equally shaped. Someone with significant privilege stemming from their genes and environment, for example, may have much more opportunity to influence their life through individual choice than a non-white, disabled person growing up in an environment characterized by poverty, violence and abuse. The contents of the circle, as such, influence its size relative to the other two circles.

Genes

When I talk about the influence of our genes on who we are, I mean the things that we are born with that we have no influence over. This can include:

  • Physical abilities/disabilities

  • Mental abilities/disabilities

  • Gender

  • Sexual orientation

  • Race

  • Physical attributes

  • Some elements of personality

The extent to which these things influence our lives, positively or negatively, does depend to some extent on our environment and our personal choices, which is why the circles are overlapping.  However, the genetic material that we are born with can and does create both barriers and opportunities.

Environment

The second circle refers to the environment that surrounds you. It can be supportive or it can present hardships. The environment includes factors such as:

  • Peers

  • Socioeconomic factors

  • -isms

  • Media

  • Religion and culture

  • Environmental factors (e.g. exposure to chemicals, smog, pollution)

  • Access to necessities, such as food and water, health care, housing, and so on

  • Events or circumstances (e.g. accidents, incidents, natural disasters, wars)

  • Home life

These are not listed in order of importance, however I did place peers at the top and home life at the bottom for a reason. I did so based on reading and research that I have done that indicates the extent to which each of them influences who we will become. Some authors put a positive spin on that (society or "peers"  can undo any harm done in the home) and others put a negative spin on it (that peer orientation is a threat and we need to combat it by fostering a stronger attachment to our children).  Whether they look at it positively or negatively, those who have done research on this topic (versus just spouting opinions like "your kids are your fault"), do point out that peers do have a stronger influence than parents.

Individual choices

The individual choices we all make can influence the direction our lives take. Whether we take advantage of opportunities and overcome challenges has a lot to do with the choices that we make. The factors included in individual choice include:

  • Education (formal and informal)

  • Exercise

  • Nutrition

  • Outlook on life (half full, half empty)

  • Relationships

  • ....and more (there are many more factors here and I couldn't begin to list them all)

Our genes and our environment may limit the choices that are available to us or may make it easier or more difficult to make certain choices. They may also impact our ability to decipher between good choices and bad choices or our interest in making good choices and avoiding bad choices.

Where does parenting fit in?

There are parents and authors who seem to feel that their influence on their child is paramount. Personally, I think that point of view puts too much pressure on parents and also devalues the child as an individual.  When I look at these three circles, I see a place for parenting to influence them. However, I also recognize that parenting plays only a limited role compared to all of the other factors that will impact who an individual becomes.

So where do parents fit in?

  • Genes: This one is fairly obvious. Children get their genes from their biological parents. While parents obviously influence this, they do so indirectly through their choice of a partner and decision to procreate, rather than influencing it directly through their parenting choices. That said, it is still a lottery. You do not know which elements of your vast gene pool will get passed down.

  • Environment: Parents do have some influence over environment and parents with privilege have more influence over environment than others.  For example, some parents can choose to live in a country or neighbourhood that will provide their children with many environmental advantages, but others may not be able to do so. That is where environment starts to overlap with individual choice.  Parents certainly choose the home life that they provide for their children. However, there may also be factors there that are not entirely under their control (e.g. abusive spouse, disintegrating marriage, the parent's own abilities).
  • Individual choice: When children are small, parents make most of the choices for them. As they grow up, they will make fewer choices for them. So while the parent may determine exactly what goes into the mouth of a 3 month old baby, they will not be able to exert the same level of influence or control over a teenager (or even a toddler). I think that is a good thing. As humans grow up, they are given more and more opportunity to make their own choices and they are able to learn how to make good choices along the way. If parents make too many of choices for their children, they will not learn to make good decisions themselves.

I see parents in the role of a facilitator across all three of these areas. Parents can help their children to deal with the genetic cards they have been dealt, they can help their children to navigate the environment that they live in, and they can help guide their children to make good decisions. But, they also need to realize that they are only one of the facilitators in their child's life. Others will be facilitating too, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively.

My perspective

I am not parenting with the aim of achieving a specific set of results. My goals do not focus on having a child who behaves, excels in school and sports, is popular and talented. My goals focus on having a close relationship with my children and providing a supportive and healthy environment for them to grow up.  If that contributes to their success in life, then great. If it doesn't, I'm okay with that too because the relationship is my goal.

I think that making their future success my parenting goal is not only unrealistic, but also stupid.  For better and for worse, there are many other things that will influence who they become and tying my own sense of self-worth to their success wouldn't be much smarter than depending on a lottery win to meet my financial goals.

Parenting is important to me. Parenting choices are important to me. But I am realistic about how much influence I have, which I think gives my children room to develop on their own and also keeps me from beating myself up over my parenting mistakes or my children's faults.

In my next post, I talk about some of the books that have influenced my thoughts on this topic and introduce you to the research and opinions of some of the authors who have influenced me as a parent and as a parenting writer.

« Ready for Christmas? | Main | The Bible of Parent Blame: "Your Kids Are Your Own Fault" by Larry Winget »

Reader Comments (33)

I remember reading somewhere that children have value in and of themselves, as children. Their potential as contributing members of society is not the sum of their worth. This really resonated with me. You do things with and for your children not only because it is good for them in the long run, but also because it is good for them right here and now.
I liked this one, Annie.

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca Keenan

Absolutely. There are so many factors that make up who we become, putting it all on our parents is like blaming a flat tire on your mechanic while ignoring the potholes and your own driving.

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSummer

"If that contributes to their success in life, then great. If it doesn’t, I’m okay with that too because the relationship is my goal."

That really does help put things into perspective - Thank you! I don't think I've ever parented with their future success as a big goal... but, I do feel a lot of pressure to somehow prove myself to others who are constantly questioning and openly defying my parenting choices. But what you said really helps to take the pressure off.

Either way, to be honest, I really believe that parents always get blamed for something regardless of our parenting style. At least if we maintain a relationship, my kids will (hopefully) be able to openly discuss with me just how I screwed things up ;)

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterNadia

I think you've summed it up well. But what's most interesting to me (and most scary as a parent) is the impact of peers. I've seen it over and over again with siblings (raised in the same home, by the same parents, in consistent circumstances) where one sibling is "successful", stays out of trouble etc and one sibling who starts skipping school, abusing drugs/alcohol etc. It almost always can be attributed to the difference in their friends.

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterkrin

I thank you for acknowledging each of my children as individuals.

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTrexxd

When I look at my siblings and me I see many differences, but I also see some things we all have in common, such as:
*very high self-confidence
*ability to form and maintain healthy friendships and romantic relationships
*positive outlook on life
*desire to contribute to society (albeit in very different ways)
I do think we got those things from the way our parents raised us. And I hope to raise children who have those qualities too.

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterChanna

"...tying my own sense of self-worth to their success wouldn’t be much smarter ..."

This is what resonates with me. I am an autonomous individual and my child(red) will be as well. My self-worth is no more tied to the successes or failures of my child then there's is to mine. For instance, no body would say that a successful (whatever that means) person who had parents universally what is considered bad (abusive, neglectful, etc) somehow makes those parents good thru his/her own successes.

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

I agree that our kids are their own people, and they'll make their own decisions and choose their own paths. But I do think that parenting is more than just having a good relationship. I see our job as teaching them some fundamental lessons and a value structure. Making a framework for them to take the best possible path to get to wherever they choose to go.

I also don't see parents and peers as necessarily competing for influence. Your parents teach you the things your peers never can. And more importantly - we get to teach BEFORE the peers. When I'm with my friends I might act the way they act. But when I go to a job interview or a business lunch, or if I ever have dinner with, say, the Queen, I'll act the way my parents taught me. Because ultimately the lessons from my parents are the ones I learned first, so (for better or worse) they're my default blueprint of behaviour. Sometimes I choose to do things differently, but in those moments when I'm not thinking, or in new situations, I start out with that blueprint and go from there.

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterKrista

Krista:

I agree that parents teach you things that your peers don't. For example, research has shown that things like politics, musical interest (in playing instrument), religion and so on are things that people generally get from their parents and not from their peers. This is because those are things they generally wouldn't talk to their peers about and that their peers wouldn't really be interested in.

However, when it comes to things like job interviews, business lunches, and so on, I would say that I got my cues on how to act in those situations from my mentors, peers and teachers. I never got to observe my parents in a job interview situation and rarely in a business lunch, however I did learn by observing as I was put into those situations in my studies and early in my career.

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Excellent points.
A little over a year ago I met a younger half-sister I never knew I had. It's been fascinating to see how similar we are.

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSally

Why aren't you taking responsibility for the genes you passed on? ;o)

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRashel

I've never understood parents with goals focused upon having a child who excels in school or sports or business, or who is popular and talented. Your goal to have a close relationship providing a supportive, healthy environment makes sense. My goal, is to do my best to create an environment in which my child can learn to be happy more often than not, and hopefully healthy (as I see that connected). If winning a race or becoming a doctor makes her happy, fine, but she's the one who'll need to figure that out... given the freedom by her parents to do so. Good blog.

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterA Daddy Blog

Isn't it something that we need to remind ourselves of the LACK of control we have over our children? Why do I still feel as though a mistake by my son equals a mistake of my mothering? In my head, I know that's ridiculous, but in my vulnerable, trembling heart.....sigh.

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterShannon Drury

I agree with you and disagree with you at the same time based on what I have read and seen- you are absolutely right in your choice to focus on your relationship with your children instead of focusing on certain results (behavior, good grades, etc). But I think that has far more impact on how a child grows up than you imply. I do think that parents play a huge role in how children turn out in very meaningful areas like confidence, morality, ability to make and maintain meaningful connections with other people later in life, etc. I don't think that little things that parents do make a huge difference (is that what you're saying?). But choosing to have a close relationship with your children will strongly affect how your children turn out, as it would if you chose to raise them in an authoritarian manner.

But I get what you're getting at. Parents shouldn't obsess over every little aspect of their parenting or think that if they don't buy the right kind of toy or sign them up for the right program they're screwing up their whole life. I agree with that 100%. One (one other than me) could argue that blogs like yours and mine simply contribute to the guilt problem. I, of course, disagree, because I like information and it doesn't tend to make me feel guilty.

December 16, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBrandis

"I think that making their future success my parenting goal is not only unrealistic, but also stupid. "

Indeed. As our children's ideas of success may vary vastly from our own idea of success.

Because, truly, what IS success? Owning a business that operates in the black? And is it a business the size of Zappos.com or a business the size of Joe's Shoes on Main Street in Anytown? Is success getting good grades so you can get into college or perhaps ignoring your grades in favor of focusing on your artistic talent such that you are accepted as an intern with a famous sculptor who teaches you his trade & doesn't care one whit how you did in High School Algebra?

My goal as a parent is to encourage independent thought in my children, such that when they leave our short time living with us, I know they'll be ready to take on life on their own.

I allow them the opportunities to safely explore their environment, to choose the things which interest them & give them the ability to persue those things as much as they would like. I try to teach what I'd like to see mostly through the example of my own behavior, though I don't expect mirror images... more like charcoal sketches. And I'd like to take credit for my genes, where we are/what we do, and the choices we make for my children as a mother, but I don't fool myself into believing I'm that all-important either. Why? Because I myself had a less-than-stellar upbringing, and I turned out pretty-darned-well-if-I-may-say-so. I have to take some personal credit for that.

I believe my children will make of their lives what they need and want to... I'm ju