Nurture – what a perfect topic for this month’s compassion post. After all, I’m female and apparently we were born with an innate nurturing ability. And I’m a parent, and nurturing is what we do. With those stellar qualifications, I should be set. Perhaps…
When I was rummaging through Anne’s Frank’s diary to find a good quote for the 70th anniversary of her death, I came upon this one – which may more closely reflect my own views on parenting:
“How true Daddy’s words were when he said: all children must look after their own upbringing. Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.”
I am about as un-helicopter a parent as you will find – or at least among the ranks of reasonably responsible parents. My daughters are both very good self-regulators. It’s possible that things may have been different if they weren’t. It’s also possible that they wouldn’t be had their father and I been more controlling. But they are also two distinctly different people – and neither is quite like either their father or me. Nature? Nurture? Both?
Well, of course it’s both. The questions that remain in that debate are ones of degree – which holds the greater sway, if either, and the more thorny question of how much can nurture overcome nature when it comes to human behavior. The behavioral psychology views on ‘nature v nurture’ run along a spectrum as varied as the behaviorist views favored by Rousseau, and his ‘tabla rosa’ theory, and the extreme behaviorist views of B.F. Skinner, to the other end of the spectrum with Francis Galton, and his belief in inherited intelligence (which disturbingly helped fuel the eugenics movement, and the ‘superior race’ notions of the Nazi Party), and J. Bowlby’s belief that infant-mother attachment is an innate survival mechanism for the infant.
Few people subscribe to any theories on the extreme ends of the ranges, anymore – which is a good thing. Certainly there is much to be said for the notion that infant-mother bonding is necessary for the infant’s survival, and few would argue against the notion that children model the behaviors of the adults around them. The idea that there is a criminal behavior gene has been largely debunked, but every advance in the human genome mapping leads to more questions about how much behavior can – or should – be ascribed to nature. It’s long been understood that there is an ‘addictive personality’, and that some people are simply more prone to psychological addictions – gambling, food, even exercise – but the discovery of a genetic predisposition to alcoholism had both a positive side – by leading alcoholism to be treated as a medical condition – and a negative side – if my father was an alcoholic, am I destined to become one also? If I pay for the genetic testing and have the marker – what does it mean? Do we end up with a new variation on the eugenics theme by placing too much focus on genetic predispositions toward things? My husband an I both have some mental illness in our family trees – schizophrenia in his, and both depression and bipolar disorders in mine. Fully understanding that psychiatric disorders are chemical, but knowing that the inheritability possibilities are very muddy, led us to think more than twice before starting a family. And, just as we had learned to watch ourselves, it sometimes led us to watch the idiosyncratic behavior of our children when they were very young with concern, and on occasion to question whether it might be necessary to consult with a psychologist. But we didn’t. Instead we redirected the girls behaviors where we thought we needed to, and as they got older, we occasionally gently pointed out that perhaps there was an alternate way of looking at things (or sometimes we teased bit, I confess). In the end, they developed into mostly normal beings, with the ability to function independently – and I think that is what our jobs as parents are.
In nurturing my children I am, hopefully, supporting, not smothering. And certainly not controlling. I worry, when I look around at some of the adult ‘children’ I know, and work with, I wonder when their parents will begin to let go. It is a sad reality that the future belongs to our children. When I see twenty-or-thirty-somethings with little apparent sense of responsibility, I worry about that future. When may love them, feed them, clothe them, guide them, but in the end we are responsible for making sure that they are able to function as independent, compassionate, reasonably happy, adults. One of the only certainties in life, is that we are mortal. Our biological imperative towards parenthood is for perpetuation of the species – and raising our children to be functioning adults is necessary for them, and the species, to survive.
And no, false nostalgia fans, the problem is neither a lack of religion nor a lack of corporal punishment. I think the lack of free play is a factor, and I actually agree that schools have far too many zero tolerance policies – kids need to play, they need to develop social skills by being permitted to deal with other people. Certainly intervention is sometimes needed, but not always. And it seems that sometimes it is often not provided when it should be. We live in a semi-rural area, so it was necessary most times to drive our children to play dates, and any activities that they chose to participate in. Choice was important – we did not want our children to do things simply because it is expected that they do things. We wanted to raise children in this environment, but geography, in some respects, hindered their freedom in ways that their suburban-raised parents from a different time didn’t foresee. But they adapted, and we adapted.
Do I have all the answers? No, obviously not. Am I a perfect parent? Very far from it, and in fact, there have also been times when our children were less than enthusiastic about how close a relationship their parents have – nurturing yourselves, and your marriage, can’t get lost in the child-rearing equation. We have to be reasonably good humans in order to be good parents. And if we do it right, I think that being good parents make us better humans but helping to take ourselves out of our bubbles.
Nurture may not always be able to trump nature in the face of psychiatric disorders, but I do think that somehow managing to get the parenting thing mostly right can go a long way to mitigating less severe problems, and perhaps even overcoming the idiosyncratic ones.