Revisiting the Nature vs. Nurture Debate


Little Boy In Green Shirt And Shorts Having Temper Tantrum

As a Clinical Psychologist, I have spent considerable time studying the well-known nature versus nurture debate.  Common and educated knowledge suggest that some things are innate and biologically driven while others are the result of interactions with the environment, particularly the family.  But, as Dr. Richard Friedman pointed out in his article “Accepting That Good Parents May Plant Bad Seeds,” parenting can be less powerful than we like to believe.  Let me
explain why this matters so much to me:


My son is 6½.  He’s a good kid, but he’s really tough to parent.  On the one hand, he’s smart and learns new information remarkably quickly.  He’s also athletic, holding his own on the basketball court and soccer field with kids 2 and 3 years his senior.  Math is his forte and playing with others, especially Joelle’s younger son, is a favorite pastime.  However, he’s also super sensitive to how things feel (tags in shirts, material, socks, etc.) and becomes agitated and emotionally “stuck” unpredictably.  When he’s agitated, he’s known to throw temper tantrums more typical of a 2 year old.  He cannot stay in a classroom all day without becoming overwhelmed and frustrated, needing to take a walk by himself, read a book, or run laps around the school to sooth his agitated body and mind.  To make matters more frustrating for everyone, things that help him feel and act better one time may have no impact or worsen his agitation at other times.

Why do I believe this to be nature and not nurture?  Well, 1st, my other children do not behave this way.  2nd, I’d like to believe that as a parent, I am not driving him that crazy.  3rd, the behaviors occur across settings, so it’s not just me.  And 4th, and most important, my husband reports that he behaved exactly the same way!

We always chalked up my husband’s childhood behavior to his tumultuous early childhood.  There was plenty of reason for him to throw tantrums.  And yet…our son does the same thing.  I’m well versed in behavioral therapy and interventions and utilize reward charts and systems constantly to make our life with him manageable, but it doesn’t “fix” whatever makes life so uncomfortable for him.  He knows that he’s safe, loved, and well cared for, and frequent, small rewards help keep him on track, but he still really struggles.  I’ve come to believe that parenting skills and supportive services can help build skills and improve circumstances, but we’re simply smoothing out the edges while responding to developmental changes and learning.  Nature trumps nurture from my point of view. 

What do you think?  Do you see yourself in your kids despite differences in parenting?