“He’s stubborn, just like you!” your friend says. And you wonder: Is that because of the genes you share with your child? Or did he learn it from you? It’s the old “nature versus nurture” debate.
However, the way neuroscientists think about this issue has changed in recent years. It’s not so much “nature versus nurture” anymore. It’s the “nature-nurture loop.” Let me explain.
Genes matter — a lot
Scientists estimate that heredity accounts for about half of the variation in personality traits, such as emotionality, sociability, and aggressiveness.1 So some of that stubbornness is very likely a consequence of your child’s innate temperament.
However, in recent years scientists have also been discovering more about how nature influences nurture. Take the hot-button issue of gender.
On average, girls and boys — and women and men — are different in important respects. Women are better at deciphering others’ emotions and are more likely to display their own emotions openly. Men, while more reluctant to show emotion, actually display greater physiological effects from emotion, such as heart rate changes. They’re also more likely to display aggression. Notably, the magnitude of these average differences is smaller than typical differences among people of the same sex.2
Socialization matters a lot, too
So are these emotional differences between boys and girls wired into our genes, or are they a consequence of differences in socialization?
As Lise Eliot explains in her book What’s Going On in There, there’s plenty of evidence for the “socialization” argument. Parents do in fact treat boys and girls differently. For example, mothers smile more at baby girls than at boys, while fathers engage sons more than daughters in playful games of roughhousing.3
The kicker: Nature influences nurture
But, as Eliot elaborates, the plot thickens.
Why do parents — even the most “liberated” among us — continue to treat our sons and daughters differently? There’s no doubt that gender stereotyping, plain and simple, is partly responsible; much as we may think we’d accept any kind of emotional traits in our children, we simply expect boys and girls to be different because of our own cultural training — and parental expectations go a long way in child-rearing. But it’s important to realize that parents also treat boys and girls differently for the simple reason that they really are different. For instance, mothers may smile more at daughters because they are more responsive and less fussy, and fathers may wrestle more with their sons because they tend to be physically larger. In other words, nature creates a different kind of nurture for each sex, making it all the more difficult to disentangle their influences.4
This same feedback loop phenomenon is also a factor in children’s intellectual development. If four-year-old Jorge is quick to grasp elementary mathematics, his parents may be more likely to toss him more math problems. If three-year-old Julianna already has an impressive vocabulary, her preschool teacher may be more likely to use more complex vocabulary with her. Once again, nature is influencing nurture.
Pay attention to nature-nurture loops
When you’re aware of the nature-nurture loop, you can use it to your advantage and also to check yourself to make sure you’re not falling into traps you’d rather avoid. For example, it’s great to feed your verbally precocious child more complex words. At the same time, you don’t want to feed her more words than your less verbal child hears. All children need to hear lots of words in order to develop their language capabilities.
It can also be helpful to discuss the nature-nurture loop with parenting partners, friends, and teachers. What kinds of loops can you spot in the lives of your children? How are the adults in your child’s life reinforcing these loops? How might you want to modify your own approach — or influence others to change theirs — to either support or counter the impacts of the nature-nurture loop?
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- Lise Eliot, What’s Going On in There: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life, p. 322.
- Eliot, p. 313-14.
- See Eliot, pages 2–10 for an introduction to the nature-versus-nurture issue and pages 313–16 for a discussion of gender differences in social and emotional development.
- Eliot, p. 314.