The nature-nurture debate

Genes are emerging as ever less significant in the great nature-nurture debate. But even if that were not so, there is powerful evidence that it’s best for children if parents assume that their traits are not genetically imposed destinies.

The perception of children as wilfully, intentionally bad is associated with abusive parenting and adverse outcomes. Unchangeable genetic causality for the badness is usually presumed.

Two studies show that parents with a low perception of control of their babies (that is, seeing the baby as all powerful) are more likely to blame their children for negative interactions or behaviour. This leads to greater harshness and more likelihood of physical abuse, as well as correlating with higher rates of depression in the mothers.

They believe they can do little to prevent negative outcomes, whereas, somehow, the baby can. In these studies, when the baby was independently measured as being born with a relatively difficult temperament (such as fussy or irritable), abuse was more likely.

However, the way the parent perceived the baby was not to do with what the baby was like: The extent of perceived control was measured before the birth and did not change after it—a fixed preconception overrode reality.

In another study 634 parents were given a hypothetical story to read about a child who displayed many of the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Half were given a version of the story in which the child was a boy; half were given one with a girl.

The parents with a boy as the character were much more likely to label his problem ADHD, reflecting a widely held assumption that male genes increase the likelihood of this condition.

The telling finding was that the parents were more likely to assume the boy’s ADHD expressed his intentions and was wilful, advocating harsh responses to it. As in the other studies attributing in-built wilfulness increases authoritarianism. This may feed into the child’s behaviour.

A study of mentally retarded children found that when mothers viewed problematic behaviour as the child’s fault, it was more likely to seem angry and frustrated to them. Their care was more aggressive or harsh in turn.

Another study investigated maternal preconceptions of mothering before birth and the baby’s temperament at six months. Mothers with prenatal negative preconceptions were more likely to report a difficult temperament in their six-month-old.

Sensitivity to the child at ages one and two was subsequently measured. Such mothers were less sensitive to their toddlers at age one and had less inquisitive children at age two.

Conversely, mothers who were sensitive at baby’s first birthday had more inquisitive children at the later age. This body of evidence provides strong grounds for parents to be wary of assuming their child has genetically caused traits that cannot be changed.

Further, it suggests it is best not to assume that your baby or toddler is deliberately trying to wind you up, if you want to avoid harsh, aggressive and even abusive parenting behaviour. As countless studies have shown, it is that kind of parenting (not genes) that causes children to become aggressive, hostile, violent and to have attention deficits.

Overall, studies show that most parents are liable to take credit for the good and blame genes for the bad. Hence, we are more likely to attribute positive characteristics, such as doing well on educational tests, to their nurture rather than nature.

But if you can cope with it, just by believing nurture causes the unwanted behaviour as well as the desirable stuff, you will benefit your child: It will make you less prone to harsh, authoritarian or abusive reactions.—



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