Are we the sum of our biology or are we the sum of our experiences? This is an excellent quandary for friends who've reached that "it's 2:00 a.m. and I'm wondering if we should open another bottle of wine" part of the evening. As a parent, however, it's something else. Nature versus nurture takes on another dimension when the answer has a profound impact on the most important challenge of your life. If you're like me, you might even obsess about it a bit, turning the question over in your head again and again. Can we really mold and shape our kids into the compassionate, successful, kind, creative, human beings we desperately want them to be? Or are they just who they are for better and worse?
Before my own kids came along, I was pretty firmly in the nurture camp. Yes, of course, we're all dealt a certain biological cocktail and that's going to dictate bits and pieces of the person we are in the world. But, all things being equal, I imagined a child to be a rough stone waiting to be chiseled into the right kind of person. It was an empowering and absurdly naive thought.
Like most assumptions about raising children, my certainty disintegrated once I had children of my own. (And, let's be honest, having an opinion about raising kids when you don't actually have kids is like thinking you can drive NASCAR because you saw Talladega Nights.) Once you're handed a squirming, giggling, crying, ball of baby, the rough stone metaphor goes out the window and you start wondering what you can do as a parent that will require the least therapy 20 years down the road.
Still, fully embracing the nature point of view has always seemed like a cop-out. After all, if your kid comes into the world already the person they are meant to be, then what's the point of really trying to raise them in a particular way? And what about childhood trauma or peer pressure -- surely those influences are ample evidence that our environment shapes us in a way our biology simply can't. Right?
And yet, as the years have passed, it's become obvious that there are personality traits in both my kids that have been there since they were barely a week old. Stashed away on a hard drive somewhere are ultrasound snapshots of my son fiddling with the base of his umbilical cord while still in the womb. To this day, fiddling with his belly button is an unconscious comfort mechanism for him and the kind of thing that reminds me that the core of his personality was being forged long before the we went to war over green beans.
What's more, our two kids, raised by the same parents in the same house with the same rules, are wildly different people. Pebbles is carefree, a relentless performer, quick to smile and laugh. Z is rambunctious, a deep thinker, a rule follower, competitive and prone to worry. This is who they are and, from what I can tell, it's who they've been since day one.
From time to time, this realization has plagued me and made me question my role in the whole child-rearing endeavor. Sure, we can nag the kids to say please and thank you, we can give them chores and piano lessons. But what can their mom and I really do to make them happier, better human beings?
The answer is a work in progress but what I've come to believe is that we have to nurture their nature. In addition to the predictable dad duties, my job is part detective, part biographer, and part coach. Young kids are a pile of tendencies, impulses and inclinations -- both good and bad. Thus, the process isn't about dictating who they should be but, rather, figuring out who they already are or -- perhaps more accurately -- who they are prone to being. My daughter's love of the spotlight has the potential to make her an engaging and charismatic spirit, but it could also make her an exhausting narcissist. With Pebbles it's either joyful creativity or melodrama; which one we get is largely up to us. Z's contemplative musings can lead to empathy and insight beyond his years, but they can also lead to anxiety, frustration, and even fear. When we know that, we can start to teach them to play to their strengths and minimizes the negative consequences of their short comings.
The hard work is really about being able to see both the promise and peril of their respective natures and then give them the individual tools they need to thrive.