Nature vs. Nurture, is your child a dandelion or an orchid?

boys nature vs. nurtureI recently had a conversation with a colleague about raising children in the suburbs versus the city. Context: said colleague is a professional African-American male and he and his wife are thinking about starting a family. He was raised in a city but went to high-school in a more affluent and homogenous community. When my husband and I left the city to move to the suburbs, it was right after marriage and while we did not have children at the time, raising children was a major factor in our decision to buy a home and settle in a community that had a good school system and that was safe and healthy (i.e., lots of green space, fresh food markets etc.).

Now that we have two children we have more context  for the discussion about where is the best place to raise your children. Now we know what it is like to have our child recognize that he is the only brown face in his classroom. We know what it is like to not have an abundance of cultural experiences at our fingertips (music, museums, good restaurants). We know what it means to have to get in a car and drive to every destination and use the phrase “adventure” every time we set out on the 30-45 minute trek to “the city.”

My husband and I both work in the city, so there is also context for that experience, friends stories of being robbed homes and cars broken into, lack of convenient shopping both groceries and other amenities, public education is sorely lacking so the expense of private schools is a given. There are probably trade-offs on either side of the equation. But the question I struggle with the most is which has more influence over a child’s development, their environment or their individual makeup. While there are some obvious practicalities to consider, safety is a big one.  I wonder…all environmental factors set-aside does it really just come down to what kind of person your child is??

I read an article recently about a study that looks again at that aged old question of nature versus nurture. The article basically explains that based on genetic makeup there are two kinds of people, orchids, people that “wilt under poor conditions but flourish in supportive environments” and dandelions, people that just aren’t affected much by the world around them. The research points to a certain gene that helps regulate dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps people experience rewards and pleasure. The evidence of the research suggests that people who produce less dopamine are orchids, in other words they, “don’t learn as well from negative feedback or in a distracting environment, but do perform well in a warm but strict setting.” Just like orchid plants, these people need very specific and nurturing settings to thrive.

So back to the earlier conversation with my colleague and the question of where to raise kids. The question really is, “is environment that important?” We talked about how we both know kids who grew up in supportive, safe environments, went to all the right schools and still came out, for lack of a less colorful descriptor, “screwed up.” And on the flip side there are those kids that grew up perhaps in a rougher environment, not with the best support network, maybe an average school system and are thriving despite all of that. So again, more evidence (anecdotal as it may be) that environment, including who raises you, might not be as important as who you are inside. As a parent I struggle  with this. What does this mean for me and for my husband as we go about the task of raising our two boys? Should we be spinning our wheels daily about the best approaches for disciplining our kids, which school is better, which community would they thrive in and the list goes on. Or should we spend more time trying to decipher  which of our children is a dandelion and which an orchid and therefore make a concerted effort to make sure our orchids gets plenty of sun, the right measurement of water and is free of fungi or aphids? And conversely just support our little dandelion’s ability to thrive despite harsh conditions, I mean weeds are pretty resilient. I don’t know that I have the answer, I think it lies somewhere in the middle.

I predict that I have one of each, that is an orchid and a dandelion. Somehow just acknowledging that actually helps me think better about what my kids might need and not need… from me as their parent, and from their environment. It also makes me realize that we could live in Timbuktu and regardless of our physical space, we must pay close attention to who are children are as individuals and what they as individuals need to be healthy, thrive and ultimately resilient. You can’t assume a cookie cutter approach with your kids, each one is a different being and needs different things to be their best self. So nurture vs. nature…city vs. suburb…maybe it’s just a good mix of both.


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