I took an advanced placement course in developmental psychology, during my senior year of high school. Although, at the time, I was a long way from having children of my own, I was fascinated with how the human psyche is shaped over time. We studied various views on personality and behavior, including the long-standing debate of nature versus nurture.
Reading the works of the likes of John Locke, I was convinced that our behavior and character was almost exclusively shaped by our environment and that we are truly “blank slates” when we first enter the world. This view made me regard every future child I encountered with a certain level of judgement for their parents. If their kid was awful, it had to be because of something they were doing wrong.
Then, I had my own kids. Two boys, being raised in similar circumstances, but who could not be more different. And, this difference was apparent from the moment my second son was born.
My eldest child clung to me from the moment he was born, nursing non-stop and needing constant attention. Sleep was only possible with him lying on top of me. He resisted being held by other family members and seemed to need me and only me for much of his early life. Conversely, his younger brother seemed to embrace the embraces of anyone willing to give them, but only on his terms. My go-to move of snuggling and rocking my eldest to help him settle down often failed on my youngest, who had little interest in being restrained.
I quickly learned that these were two very different boys who would need the adults in their life to respond to their individual personalities. They were not “blank slates” as I longed believed, but humans with emotions, desires and behaviors as unique as any adult. Traits, which are often unrecognizable in myself or my husband, but were seen in generations past.
For example, my husband and I are far from the neatest or most organized people in the planet. I for one, misplace things constantly, and even limit what I get of value because of how often I lose things. My eldest, however, is particular about his treasured items, and keeps tabs on them at all times. He also actually enjoys cleaning, and jumps at the chance to help when I finally get around to doing it. So where did this come from? My guess is he got it from his paternal grandfather, my dad and his paternal grandma, all of whom thrive on a certain level of orderliness. Then there is my youngest with his care free spirit and desire to do things on his on terms. These are all traits I have witnessed or heard existed almost exclusively on my mother’s side, as well as in my father-in-law.
With the exception of my parents and my mother-in-law, my children have never met the aforementioned family members. They have never spent time observing their behaviors or learning any skills from them. Yet, somehow the personalities of those passed come through. On a visit during the Passover holiday last year, my mother, sister and I watched in amazement as my eldest dutifully polished silverware. His meticulous attention and care not seen since my Bubbe was alive.
Our understanding of what makes us who we are grows bigger over time. We have abilities to study developing brains, which simply did not exist when the “blank slate” theory was first proposed. We now know that such conditions as Autism, Attention Deficit Disorder and Depression are largely functions of the brain, and occur across all racial, economic and cultural boundaries.
So what does this mean for parents?
For starters, it means cutting ourselves some slack. It means accepting that our stubborn, or daring, or easygoing children are largely that way because of who they have been from the day they were born. It means not blaming ourselves if our child is moody and defiant, or thinking we are genius parents if they are pleasant and dutiful. It means taking a breath before judging others with kids, and recognizing so much about behavior is beyond our control.
But, let me be clear, I do not think we as parents should merely throw our hands up in the air and forgo all efforts to raise decent humans. We still have to fulfill our responsibilities as guides and caretakers. We just need to understand the type of kids we have and work with what we got. In the same family this can mean very different approaches. My more regimented eldest son responds well to rules and order, once he understands that something is wrong or dangerous, he won’t do it. My youngest is a bit more defiant and isn’t intimidated by the idea of something not being safe. I learned my approach with my eldest would not work with him and I had to adjust.
The nature versus nurture debate will go on until robots take over the Earth. Until then, I will accept the inherent attributes of my children and do my best work with what I got.