Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Nature vs. Nurture

There's an age-old argument regarding how children are raised, and whether the paths they take in life are determined by their own genetic dispositions or the quality of attention and love given by their parents.

Wikipedia defines it:

Nature vs Nurture is a shorthand expression for debates about the relative importance of an individual's innate qualities ("nature") versus personal experiences ("nurture") in determining or causing individual differences in physical and behavioral traits. With the development of human genetics, many important human traits have proved to be partially or mostly genetic.
Three recent media events I've witnessed brought the concept to mind and got me to thinking. I'll be as brief on their descriptions as I can.

First was the movie "Matilda" I watched with my daughter, Tink, on ABC Family last week. It's a 1996 movie based on the 1998 novel by Roald Dahl (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach). The story is about a little girl who develops extraordinary powers controlled by extraordinary sweetness, while being raised by parents who are extraordinarily obnoxious. The first line in the movie says:
Everyone is born, but not everyone is born the same. Some will grow to be butchers, or bakers, or candlestick makers. Some will only be really good at making Jell-O salad. One way or another, though, every human being is unique, for better or for worse.
Somehow Matilda develops a fantastic intelligence, a love for books, a desire for learning, life skills, maturity and - oh yes - telekenetic powers, while growing up from birth to about age 7 in a house where her parents almost completly ignore her and are rude, obnoxious, self-centered boors. How is such a thing possible? How can a child develop his or her own sense of independence and maturity in an environment where such things are violently discouraged? Interesting question.

Next is a story few people are unfamiliar with, Harry Potter. Since being protected by his mother from evil Lord Voldemort, infant Harry was raised by his aunt and uncle, the Dursleys, who had their own pampered son. We've seen in the movies and in the books how the Dursleys didn't tell Harry of his powers and kept him basically as an indentured servant in their own home, housing him in a small room under the stairs and rarely speaking to him with any kindness whatsoever. (In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if J.K. Rowling didn't dip into Roald Dahl's bag of tricks for this living arrangement, as it's eerily similar to Matilda's family.) Somehow Harry develops an innate sense of kindness and generosity, once again independent of his aunt and uncle's personalities. Their own son Dudley is a complete doddering, doted on mess but Harry is so completely out of place he might as well not even be related.

It's interesting to note that both Harry and Matilda have supernatural abilities, which may explain part of their ability to resist the influence of their respective households. Yet I don't think even in the literary world the possession of magic powers specifically endows a character with innate "goodness". Two cases in point.

The last media example I noticed is the American TV series "24". Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland) is the knight in not-so-shining armor who has saved America time and time again from nefarious bad guys, evil-doers, terrorists, ex-lovers, former bosses and wandering daughters. This season we meet Jack's brother, Graem and his father, Philip. Both men are high up in a multi-national corporation that has brokered nuclear weapons and nerve gas to terrorists, assassinated ex-presidents and controlled a sitting president. I believe it's safe to say these are not nice men. So how can ultimate good guy Jack grow up in a house where his father and brother were so mustache-twirlingly evil and not see what's going on, much less stay good himself?

The Bauer story is a much grayer area (no pun intended) than the two previous tales, because we've seen Jack use methods that would make even the worst "good guys" turn pale. Decapitation, shock torture, cold-blooded killing - none of these tactics would be considered "good guy" tactics, yet since Jack's motives seem to be (mostly) pure and done when they had to be done, he is forgiven. Only brother Graem, under Jack's torture in this past week's episode, reminds Jack that they are the same - two men fighting for what they believe to the best of their ability. They just happen to be on two different sides - neither good or evil. Just grey. This may be what Graem thinks, but Jack's loyalty to President Palmer I and his devotion to his friends, wife and others speaks volumes for the character Graem lacks.

Speculation abounds that Jack's deceased mother must have been a saint to counterbalance the influence of his father. That remains to be seen... There is no evidence at this point to suggest Jack's early home life was anything but ideal - perhaps later this season more details will emerge, in fact it's very likely we'll learn a lot more about Jack's history with his father and brother. I doubt, however, his home life was anything like Matilda's or Harry's - if Jack had been kept under the stairs, he would have broken out years before. Yet, Graem's assertions aside, there's no doubt Jack Bauer is a fundamentally very different person than his father and brother.

So there are three fictional examples of people brought up in homes where the families are horrid yet the children turn out to be moral and upright citizens. How is this possible? How do these children actually learn what it means to be loyal, to be kind, to be fair and understanding and patient and studious when nothing of the sort is taught to them? In fact, the opposite is taught. Matilda's parents hate reading, love TV, are crooks and can't believe she's a prodigy. Harry's aunt and uncle fear his his witchcraft heritage, ignore him, insult him and try to keep him from learning who he is. Jack's past, as I say, is a bit murkier but it's safe to say his father and brother were completely business and money-oriented, and while there's obviously a strong connection between Jack and Philip (witnessed by "The Look" Philip gives Jack during the torture, in which Jack backs down guiltily), it can't be a connection with a lot of love and mutual respect.

It's easy to explain these away as fictions - in fiction you can do whatever you want. 24 frequently plays fast and loose with logic (from Central to Southern California in 5 minutes???) and if Roald Dahl or J.K. Rowling wanted their creations to sprout third arms, know all the verses to "Rocky Top" or have a small colony of gnomes living under their bed that wear purple stockings and recite bedtime stories, that's all within their power. Do the family, "nature vs. nurture" assertions translate to real life, though?

Here's the real question: If one is to accept as an axiom the possibility a "good" child can grow up in a "bad" family, is it equally possible that a "bad" child can grow up in a "good" family? Is a child's innate, genetic nature independent of whatever influence a parent might have on them? Or do they have any actual choice in how they turn out?

I consider ours a "good" family. My wife and I love each other and don't fight too much :) We have two smart kids that are kind to others and mostly kind to each other. Laura and I are educated, teach right and wrong and Tink and BrainyBoy generally respond positively to discipline and instruction like most kids do. They're smart, creative, talented... they're not exposed to cruelty or ridicule except on an abstract evening-news scale. I have no real fears either will turn out to be anything different than well-adjusted, happy members of society.

But I've seen too many instances where families may also think they're "good families." They provide for their kids monetary needs. They give them opportunities for education, sports, extra-curricular activities, amusement - anything a kid might want. But is the emotional connection there? One but has to turn a jaded eye to deep West Knox County and the million-dollar homes with the business-obsessed dads and the status-obsessed moms (and vice versa). Witness the debate over relieving overcrowding at Farragut High School by rezoning Farragut kids to the new high school being built nearby - the outcry from Farragut parents that our kids might have to leave the safe halls of FSH and mix with their kids (the heathens at Karns and Bearden also being rezoned to alleviate overcrowding) was too much for the status-conscious to take. That kind of attitude reflects a greater desire for status and superiority than truly looking to create the best possible school environment for their children.

It's those kinds of things - nurturing aspects that on the surface seem commendable but when you dig deeper turn out to be selfish on the part of the parents, and don't care for the kids at all - that present a danger when raising kids. I go through the same thing at times, wondering time after time if my playing in a band or music directing plays takes precious time away from my kids to satisfy my own creative needs. While it brings in extra money and keeps me sane, does it always justify the time away? It requires constant attention and vigilance to ensure one's kids are being raised the best way possible, with enough love and caring and attention to who they are, not who you are.

I am concerned about all the kids whose parents don't provide the right environment for them in the home. Whose own situation in life is more important to them than their kids'... Maybe it's possible for a Matilda or Harry or Jack to come out of a home where the parents are neglectful, uncaring or cruel. I certainly hope so.

But it could equally be just a fiction. I'd love to think that some kids in bad homes will turn out good. It's up to us, though, to make positive childhoods a reality.


  1. I love this article. Stumbled on to this while looking for a topic to address the nature versus nurture question in my child and adolescent psych class.

    1. Thanks! Glad you found it interesting. Let me know if you write anything that references the post - I'd love to read it.