Nature vs nurture – where did my kid’s behavior come from?

If you’re the kind of person who wants to skip to the end and get the answer (and possibly even believe it), let me stop you right here and just tell you, I don’t know. And no one does. Any suggestion otherwise is a theory, no matter how much science or anecdotal evidence supports it. But just because the answer isn’t clear doesn’t mean the question isn’t important.

1385858_10151738218458133_1242872592_n[1]Before I was a parent I believed that my babies would be really “easy” in that they wouldn’t cry much, they’d be good sleepers and eat well. I believed that they’d be smart. I believed this because I believed that “nature” was a primary contributor to temperament and demeanor and because I am Asian, and highly objective (I’m sure) reports suggest that I was the penultimate “good baby” the odds were stacked in my favor, even if I did marry a white guy, because I decided the Asian traits were the dominant ones. These special types of assessments have a name – cultural context — topic for another post.
I didn’t entirely make this up on my own. Some time ago I read into sociology textbook that Asian babies tend to cry less than Caucasian babies. (Let’s not quibble about what textbook his was in, by the way, was I was in college or even high school at the time). When I think back to the moment when I read this, I recognize now that I had an emotional response of… relief… maybe even a little condescension. I carried this with me for decades, even into my pregnancy, declaring to my husband that we would not likely have a colicky baby due to my generic contribution. I suggested he thank me. He did not. And even when I read in one of my pregnancy books that colic has presents at a relatively consistent ratio across ethnicities, I frankly rejected that. Because in high school I had read otherwise. Also I had a lot of anecdotal evidence supporting what I wanted to be true. Still, my husband didn’t thank me. Hmm

Neither of my children had much colic. Some, but not the horror stories I had come to fear so desperately. On the other hand, my daughter was… pardon me, my daughter IS a very spirited little girl. Sassy, emotional, dramatic, persistent (emotionally) and often inflexible. She was a terrible napper and struggled desperately when overtired. And her eating habits are deplorable. I notice that she has a certain satisfaction with mediocrity and I worry about her continued struggles to discern right and left, swapping of b’s and d’s and her rejection of vowels makes her spelling atrocious. (As an aside, she is also incredibly articulate and has the kindest soul of anyone I know, making socialists seem unusually heartless). My son is a terrible sleeper, struggled with anemia, allergies, and often seems to lack a conscience (not really – he just likes to challenge rules). My kids are pretty good proof that that Asian gene wasn’t going to make parenting easy.

Still, I wasn’t quick to let go of my nature argument. I thoughtfully blamed my husband’s generally non descript white guy genes for a time. And my father’s since I’m only half Asian and I thought that those recessive genes mixed with Chris’s and kaplooey. Truly, I invested a significant amount of mindshare to this before I eventually broke down to the previously unpalatable possibility that the influence wasn’t nature, but nurture, and that this was all my fault. Having rejected the semi-standard “tiger-mom” style of Asian parenting, I resigned myself to the belief that I brought this all on myself. (You’ll notice I didn’t blame my husband for not knowing how to parent properly – dads aren’t “supposed to” know, moms “should” have a maternal instinct that kicks in and tells us how to construct the perfect Montessori style nursery… or whatever). I was clearly too permissive. Or I missed the window on practicing attachment parenting. Or I introduced fruit too soon. Or I didn’t push breastfeeding long enough.  Or I breastfed too long. My list of perceived failures goes on and on, ranging from the mildly disheartening to the absolutely absurd.

I didn’t make these stories up all by myself either. I had help.  Well meaning (and sometimes not) mothers had a way of telling me that my daughter has tantrums because I allowed them. “My daughter tried that once. And only once.” I was told by a woman openly taking full credit for properly parenting the spirit out of her child, which, I took as an insult for not doing the same. I’d been told that I poisoned my daughter with jarred non-organic baby food. I’ve been scolded for my use of sarcasm. Even on my best days I respond with a hint of a defensiveness, “it’s a wonder they are so perfectly awesome anyway.” I say that with no residual sarcasm at all, incidentally.

Because here’s the thing – nature, or nurture, or both… It’s all just a story we create that serves us somehow. When resorting to the assessment that nature is the primary driver, I got to release control and responsibility and let the universe take its course. But when that no longer seemed to work and I started to adopt nurture as the answer, I went straight to blame, guilt, and victimization. In the very same way, the judgmental parents I mentioned earlier had stories that allowed them to feel powerful and in control, proud and confident.

When I realized these were stories, I realized neither nature nor nurture as a single culprit was serving me. Considering anything as an either or proposition seldom does. What did serve me is the idea that they may both be at play, often outside of my span of control.  All I can really control is me, my reactions, my attitudes and behaviors. In adopting this as my truth I get to claim my power, confidence, and control.  So today, I practice this:

  • I show up every day in the best way I can and in doing so I make a difference in their lives.
  • Some days I will screw up and how I react to my errors will be significant in their lives.
  • Sometimes it’s nature. Sometimes it’s nurture. Most times I don’t know.  Curiosity serves me more than answers.
  • There will be mysteries. There will be surprises. Some I will love. Some I will not.
  • And finally, every day is a new opportunity to learn, grow, and be better than the last.

Enjoy the ride.

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