This week is National Adoption week. To mark it, on the radio station where I work I interviewed 3 ladies for the women’s programme. They were; a retired clinical geneticist, a former family lawyer who now works for a well-known family charity – Care for the family – and a post-adoption team social worker. All are also mothers. We were tackling the age-old debate of Nature Verses Nurture in the light of adoption. When we have children, or adopt, we hope and believe environmental forces i.e. parenting, above all else excels a greater force on our children than nature. That their personality will be shaped by love and discipline. But is it really?
I love a good debate and this is one I’ve revisited time and again particularly since I became a parent and especially since I became a ‘single’ parent. The radio discussion was fascinating: The geneticist, understandably, argued that there is a limit to what good parenting can do as genes do affect behaviour characteristics. However, she added we are never programmed fully by our genes. Ironically, the social worker had done a thesis on nature V nurture years ago and concluded that nurture was the prevailing factor. However, after years of social work she admitted her view has changed somewhat and now believes a lot is down to nature. The ex-family lawyer and charity worker felt, like the other two ladies, that in the early years there is a key opportunity – in particular the first year and continuing until age 5 – when good parenting and a lot of love can have a profound effect.
My problem with this debate is there are very strong arguments on both sides. There is no doubt certain traits and characteristics are passed down through our genealogy and we only need do a case study of our own familes to see it. But, I also believe our environment and circumstances (in this case love and good parenting) can go a long way in shaping the people our children will become. Our genes do affect who we are but the bit I’m interested in is, are we a slave to them or can bad genes be overcome with good parenting for example? How much of children’s behaviour is due to parenting and how much is due to their innate character?
Lionel Shriver addresses this beautifully, if not darkly, in the brilliant ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ book. (By the way don’t read it if you’re pregnant with your first child). The book doesn’t really provide clear answers but wonderfully explores whether a child can be ‘evil’. Furthermore, if this is possible, is it an innate evil that cannot be overcome or a result of experience and circumstance? It’s just been made into a film starring Tilda Swinton if you can’t be botehred to read the book!
Studies suggest that many temperamental and behavioural tendencies are ultimately 30 to 50 per cent genetic and five major personality traits are identified which show the strongest influence called the Big 5: Extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism, conscientiousness and openness to experience. Others with a significant genetic legacy include altruism, shyness, accident-proneness and even self-esteem.
I guess we could all frantically go through this list and analyse our children trying to see if they have that same ‘look’ in their eye that mad uncle George had and end up paranoid and fearful. However, it was in fact the geneticist who pointed out in the interview that although good parenting goes a very long way indeed it is helpful to acknowledge that genes play a part because despite our best efforts sometimes our children do go off the rails and parents are the first to feel guilty and ask the question ‘Where did I go wrong?’
As it is National Adoption Week, I have to also mention that I was astounded to learn that despite numerous research concluding that early years are the key time to provide, love, consistency and lay firm foundations for children, there are 3600 children in care under the age of 1 and only 60 babies were adopted last year! I find this disturbing and quite frankly disgusting. Apparently on average children have to wait 2 years and 7 months for a new home by which time a considerable amount of damage will already have been done. It angers me that red tape is getting in the way of these babies having the love and stability they deserve especially when there are adoptive parents put there waiting to provide it.
To end on a more positive note, the family charity worker gave some great tips for making sure your child not only knows they are loved but feels it too. She said we can tell when our child’s ‘love tank’ is empty when they start acting up (at this point I did think Bearcub must be running on empty a lot of the time lately!) but she then went on to quote a fantastic book, which I’ve read called The Five Love Languages by Dr. Gary Chapman. Chapman explains that it is imperative that we learn our child’s (or partner’s or friend’s) ‘love language’ and communicate to them using it to ensure the message gets across. The Five Love Languages are – Time, Touch, Words, Gifts and Actions. It’s about learning how an individual wants/needs to be loved. I for one found this quite a helpful tip for making sure that BearCub’s Love-tank is regularly and fully topped up!