Nature vs Nurture: Are Our Children Already Who They Will Be Before They're Born?

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Is your child the way he is because of your parenting or just because? The nature vs. nurture debate apparently is still raging on. Not too long ago, a horrible, horrible misconception was floating around that mothers were actually responsible for their child’s autism! I don’t believe in the death penalty, but people who make those kinds of vicious and cruel assertions may just sway me the other way.

In the battle of nature vs. nurture, everybody seems to have an opinion. And everyone has some form of a factual basis to prove their belief. I’m not an exception to the rule, just the opposite. And I too have some factual basis for mine. But since unlike others, I do not claim to know it all, I hereby present my views on the topic as just another input for you to consider, on your way to making up your own mind.

WHAT IS THE BEHAVIORAL TAKE ON THIS?

Before I tell you my personal point of view, let me preface it by giving you a brief summary of where the behavioral psychology community -- to which I technically belong -- stands on the issue. You’d think that given our focus on the human behavior, we actually are big nurture proponents, but that’s not entirely true. According to the behavioral psychology viewpoint, the reason we are the way we are is because of our:

  • genetic endowment, which influences how rapidly and skillfully we learn to do or say different things;
  • opportunities and traumas, whereby the environment in which we live provides us with resources to promote, or throw roadblocks at, our healthy development;
  • and prior learning, which controls to a certain extent our ability to change, because when key elements in our learning history are missing, progress is stymied, and vice versa.

Of course, ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) which I’m quoting is mostly concerned with behavior and therefore answers questions typically from the viewpoint of change in behavior (or lack thereof). I guess this technically answers the question “why do we do the things we do?” rather than “why are we who we are?” but you get the gist of it. Interestingly enough, the behavioral community’s take is not that nurture is king, but that people are molded by the sum of their genetic makeup, past experiences, and current contingencies. In other words, people’s patterns of performance are a function of the equipment with which they were born, their histories, and their present circumstances: nature and nurture combine to make a whole person. So where do I stand, personally?

BEFORE EMILY (B.E.) vs. AFTER EMILY (A.E.)

When I think of my life in terms of my views and certitudes, it tends to break into two camps: before the birth of my daughter Emily and everything that came afterwards. Having had the privilege of being her mother has changed my life (and my views on life) in immeasurable ways, as I suspect becoming a parent did to you. I am reluctant to admit this, but I was a rather selfish person as a young adult, occupied solely by my career and many interests. Empathy is something I comprehended fully only after I became a mother.

B.E.: I cursed silently at the crying child in the airplane and felt completely justified in my discontent. Nowadays I think of the child’s earache in the pressurized cabin, about the discomfort of sitting in a parent’s lap for hours (both for him and his contrite parent), not the crying per se, and my heart goes out to the both of them. I no longer am bothered by crying children, except to worry about their well-being. Also, I have become quite adept at tuning out distracting noises, something as a parent I just had to learn for my own sanity.

pregnant

A.E: Ahh, the glory days of having my own crying child on a consistent basis and at the most inconvenient times! But one sweet morning when she wasn’t shrieking with her usual vigor, an infant What?-I-changed-you-fed-you-burped-you-and-carried-you-since-4-am-what-more-do-you-want-from-me!!! Emily was lying on top of me smelling the sweetest baby smell. She moved in her semi-sleep as she always does (this girl is ALL movement, ALL THE TIME) and my whole body reacted to the familiarity of the way she was moving. It was EXACTLY like she was doing, non-stop, just a few weeks before, but inside my pregnant tummy.

The shocking realization that she was the same person, had the very same personality, mannerisms, behavior, down to the way she naturally moved her body before and after she was born, catapulted me right there and then over to the nature side. I understood then that my baby was who she was and that it had not much to do with me! There is really no other way to explain this to someone who has not carried a child to term… I hope it made sense.

MY VERDICT?

The logical, behavioral scientist in me firmly believes that a big part (two-thirds of a 3-element formula) of who we are comes from the way we were raised, from learning, and from being exposed to a lot of experiences. But the mother in me just knows that every child is different and that she is that way before she’s even born! So as far as I’m concerned, nature and nurture go hand in hand. But if there is ever a battle that only one could win, nature will win it hands down.

What about you? Who do you think is winning, nature or nurture?

Pregnancy photo via shutterstock. Other photos via author.

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