Yikes, there is the question for every parent who lives in America. There is no way to answer it yet, science has not quite achieved all of that.
But philosophically, can we answer the question? Does it matter what the answer is? I mean will you change your parenting style based on what the answer is to the nurture vs nature question? Will you parent differently if you know that your child will only ever have an even temperament? Will you parent differently if you know that your child is incredibly possessive of you and that possessiveness creates jealousy?
If you decide that categorically nurturing is the answer, that all outcomes depend on you as the parent; will you then resist the child’s interest in outside play, because you are an inside person who does not like dirt? Will you insist that your child’s character fit your own character? How many characterizations are there to describe and define the phenomena of being human? Is 1,000 too high a number or too low? If you decide that nature determines all things within the child, do you then give up and let nature take its course?
Science tells us that if you are a parent who is an addict your child is more likely to be an addict based on the science of genes and DNA. Does this mean that your child can never have a drink, that your child is in dire danger if s/he experiements with marijuana? What if, characteristically, your child is hard wired for independence as well as addiction, any resistance you have to any action the child makes then creates a desire in the child to repeat the action. The genetic characteristic of independence can outweigh the genetic pre-disposition to addiction.
Personally, I always thought role modeling was the single most important determinant in predicting a child’s behavior. I also though that MY parenting was the most important single factor. I do not believe either of these things anymore. If these things were true, MTV would never have been successful with motivating my high schoolers to wear $100.00 tennis shoes; this just would not have happened if my kids were following my role model and my parenting was the most important feature of their own development. My kids wanted, no insisted, cried and begged and pleaded for $100.00 tennis shoes. I have one son who is SO committed to $100.00 tennis shoes that now, 16 years after graduating from high school, he insists that I wear them also and will even go through the expense of buying them for me so that I do not embarass him with $9.99 “sneakers”.
So what happened between my good intentions when I cradled that soft infant to my breast and breathed my wishes and desires into him – and now? What happened? What happened is what I often describe as the “spider web” theory of development. Its so complex, you cannot trace a single line and come up with a single answer. There is nature and that is a fact. Any parent who has more than one child can attest to the power of nature. Children are born with a temperament. Your first child may come howling into the world, while your second peacefully and solemnly makes her way into your arms from the uterus.
What is as interesting, is the conversation that a parent and child have at the other end of child hood. That is the interpretation that an adult child has of life events of childhood. The very same event will be recalled completely differently from the same set of siblings. It’s not just perspective that will make the recall so different. There is the interpretation of what my parent did during this event. Based on this interpretation the action of the parent is seen as either good or bad.
This interpretation then pervades the next interaction with the parent. A child’s internal story gets built from a series of interpretations.
Where did the interpretation come from? How does the child decide “my mom is way too protective”, or “my dad over- reacts”?
And so it goes. I recall with the birth of my first child feeling that I was honored to have this small soul entrusted to me. I also thought that metaphorically speaking he was a blackboard (blank slate) and that I would write all good things on the black board. How naive I was! I was honored yes, yet he brought his own strong will into this world. He brought his own strength, his own interpretation of the universe with him.
Often, my son and I discuss parenting as he traverses his own parenting path with a daughter and a stepson. We talk about how we started out parenting by trying to avoid the mistakes of our own parents. I have admitted to him how I failed at avoiding my mother’s and father’s errors. I changed their parenting, yes, but while I was looking in their direction some other failure came out of “left field” to whack at us. Thus, mistakes were repeated, just in a new way. I also misinterpreted what my child needed, seeing them through my own childhood, my own value system.
Therein lies the third component of human development that cannot be explained by nature vs. nurture. It is the God component. For some reason God challenges us by giving us at least one child that is so different from our selves that this little human being forces us to re-examine everything about ourselves and our universe repeatedly. I am not speaking about the change that comes from being a new parent. I am speaking about the temperament and personality difference that comes forth from our own offspring that is so different from our own we must look around and say “what happened here”?
That is why I describe childhood development as a spider web. It is complex, yet also planned. There is a divine presence at work that sees a grand design that I cannot see. I am responsible for every action that I take with my child, but there is so much more to my child’s human development than me. There is an entire universe that my child lives in that I cannot control. I have influence, yet it is not infinite. I promise you that as a parent, you do not control the outcome of your child’s childhood. The adult presences herself, and in the end you are happy if she is happy. Now happiness, that’s a whole other essay…