Nature versus nurture It’s one of the oldest debates in history. Are we just born with a set personality, intelligence, and tendencies or does our environment around us and the way we are raised shape all of that?
In the Genes?
For example, do we inherit most of our personality, intelligence, and disposition from our parents’ genes? If so, that would mean that we can do little to change who we are for the most part. To some, that is not an appealing idea. Especially when you end up with traits you don’t like.
There are certain things like your type of hair (straight or curly), eye color, nose shape, etc. that are definitely genetic.
According to psychologist David Meyers, “The environment shared by a family’s children has no discernible impact on their personalities.”
At the same time, Meyers states that, “There are few things that are not so strongly tied to genetics. Among those are “attitudes, values, manners, faith, and politics.”
One prime example that may support the nature idea is the Minnesota Twin Study. This study, started in 1983, is conducted by the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities. The purpose of the study was to compile a registry of all twins born in Minnesota from 1936-1955 for psychological observation. Just recently, the registry added the years 1961-1964. One case involved a pair of twins (both named Jim) who were separated at four weeks and then reunited at age 39. It was found that both smoked the same brand of cigarettes, vacationed in the same area, and both named their dogs Toy.
In the Minnesota study, twins reared apart were analyzed to determine how similar they really were. Traits such as health, cognition, personality, happiness, career, politics, religion, and sex were measured. Some of the traits were almost identical such as height, disposition, and traditionalism (beliefs, morals, or political views passed on from generation to genertaion).
Other factors were more controversial, such as intelligence. For example, the intelligence of the twins were almost identical. This flies in the face of those professionals that would say that practice helps determine intelligence more than genes.
Are We Chameleons?
I have some friends that believe that the environment their child grows up in is every bit as influential as nature in determining how their child will turn out.
I believe people are born with natural talents and gifts, but it takes nurture to really develop those talents and gifts to the maximum potential.
My friend Nancy says,
“Nature, for me, is more about personality, giftings, etc…things that God has already ordained for each of us. Nurture is about our relational development based on our environment. Nurturing results in how children perceive the world, themselves, people, and God. And especially when we are infants, our environment is 100% controlled by our parents. I believe that the way I respond to my son Sawyer will greatly affect how he perceives himself, others, and God.
“For example, when Sawyer is crying because he wants attention…do I make an angry face and scold? Do I walk away and let him cry it out and self-sooth? Do I respond to his need and pick him up? The first response will most likely result in him subconsciously perceiving that it is not good to have needs, and that he will be punished if he has needs…a cause of deep shame. The second response can result in him perceiving that relationships are not the solution to pain. Studies have shown that one of the greatest reasons for addictions is because it is an individual’s way of self-soothing…that they are unable to turn to real life people and relationships to meet valid needs. And lastly, the last response is that from which the attachment theory stems…that when children’s needs are validated and responded to in a healthy, unshameful manner, kids grow up to be secure and healthy independent and able to trust people, and ultimately, trust God. Of course, we all respond differently to our kids at different times. But if we respond a certain way hundreds of times, that specific message becomes ingrained in our kids. For me, I feel the weight of responsibility from God to steward this gift of being a parent. It is my responsibility to nurture him, ie. to respond to him in a way that would increase his chances of knowing and trusting God. Nature is his personality, things that trigger or give him joy, his strengths and weaknesses, things that I cannot control.”
My other friend Hogan says that it’s not so much whether its nature or nurture but if we raise our kids to follow God’s commands such as obeying parents, loving others, and serving each other. That way, even if you disagree with your spouse’s parenting style whether it be attachment or not, you at least have the foundation there.
Another friend of mine, Linda, has two boys ages ten and three. She also believes, as Nancy does, that it’s a combination of nature and nurture. Linda also thinks that the environment plays a big part in how her boys, Ethan and Oli, turned out. She seems to think that her sons’ true nature (i.e. personalities) came out as a result of her and her husband’s nurturing. When her oldest boy, Ethan, was growing up, she gave him baby dolls to play with because she heard that it makes kids less violent if they nurture something. Ethan is a very sensitive and gentle boy. Oli, on the other hand, who has not played with dolls, is more aggressive and loud. Linda admits that she still thinks that their personalities come from her and her husband’s genes but that their personalities manifested because of the nurturing home environment that they grew up in.
Sam, a father of a one and a half year old, says,
“My perspective is that it’s both. I believe people are born with natural talents and gifts (i.e. – singing, leadership or athleticism), but it takes nurture to really develop those talents and gifts to the maximum potential. Even on the negative side, I’ve often heard it said people might be born with natural tendencies for anger, alcoholism, etc. but with proper nurture I think a lot of that can be controlled or neutralized. I believe the same about temperament. Biblically, God’s intent was that we would be born with a perfect nature, yet due to Adam and Eve’s original sin (see Genesis 3) we are predisposed to a sinful nature. God’s intent was that we would be nurtured in perfect love, but human nurture, even one from good parents is imperfect because we are all sinners.”
Another friend of mine, Stacy, truly has faith that people can change despite nature. She believes that transformation is possible with the nurturing of the Holy Spirit. Stacy says that she was never a driven, go-getter type until she realized that God had a purpose for her.
She uses her oldest son Jacob as an example. Jacob is naturally competitive, but lacks drive, motivation and discipline. Stacy thinks it is both her and her husband’s job to nurture those traits through discipline.
As far as herself, she is naturally outgoing and performance driven. Although for part of her younger life, she was left to guide herself. She went with the flow instead of being more goal oriented. Not until later, did she discover her identity in Christ and purpose and more of who God is, did she change and become more driven.
Joshua, a father of a four year-old boy and a three year-old girl, believes that nature does play a part in who we ultimately turn out to be. At the same time, things like manners and discipline are part of nurture.
What Does the Bible Say?
One Bible verse that seems to point towards nature is Psalm 139:13. It says, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” This suggests that we are already “made” a certain way before we enter this world. Or is this just our physical bodies?
The Sin Factor
Originally, God created us to be without sin or to be inherently good (Genesis 1:26-31). That changed when Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Since then, all of humankind has fallen short of God’s standards.
If we don’t accept nurture as part of the process of what makes us, then what hope is there for a world of people who are destined to sin?
What about the story of Abraham in Genesis 12? Abraham lies about Sarah being his wife. Later on, his son Isaac does the same thing regarding his wife Rebekah. In both cases, they lied and said that their wives were their sisters. Does this point to a common character flaw in both father and son? Maybe.
The Great Compromise
I think our job as Christians is to keep an open mind about the theory of nurture shaping who we become as much as nature does. If we aren’t, then how can we truly believe in the message that Jesus came to save us and give us another way? If we don’t accept nurture as part of the process of what makes us, then what hope is there for a world of people who are destined to sin?
Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created him; male and female he created them.” We are all made in God’s image. What does this really mean though?
Some could argue that there are different aspects of this. Not just one aspect like physically, mentally, or spiritually.
Mentally we were made to be able to be rational and to be able to make choices. So by creating things ourselves, writing a book, or making mathematical calculations we are demonstrating that we are made in God’s image.
Morally speaking, we were made to be morally perfect and innocent. Whenever we as people uphold the law, write new laws, or encourage those that display good behavior, we also affirm our likeness to God morality.
Socially, God created us to be in relationship with others. He even made woman so man wouldn’t be alone. The next time you make a friend, hug someone, or go to church, you confirm yet another aspect of your likeness to God’s image.
Teach Your Children Well
For example, Deuteronomy 6:4-7 says, “ Hear, O Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the Lord, the God of your fathers, promised you. Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”
Ephesians 6:4 says, “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
A Good Mixture
I think when it comes down to it. We need to admit that it’s both nature and nurture that makes us who we are. It’s like asking, “What makes our country great?” or “What makes a party one to remember?” It’s not just one thing. I like to think of it as a garden analogy. A seed can be planted but unless it is watered and gets good sunlight, it will not be a healthy, thriving tree or plant. Without water and light, it will just be a plant that grew up and then wilted and died.