I usually fall on the nurture side of things. If pushed into a corner, I would be a proponent of tabula rasa in totality: we are born without any preconceived ideas, proclivities or personalities. This idea feels comforting to me, as it helps me to believe that if I create a properly safe, loving, moral environment, I can raise my daughter to be a healthy and well-adjusted individual.
But that belief is false.
How many kids do you know who were raised in a good Christian home who still turned out “bad”? I can think of a few. I suppose I could argue that I didn’t see every minute, private detail of their homes. There are always less than perfect aspects of every family, and what appears to be a “good Christian” home may actually be a seething cauldron of bitter dysfunction. Then again, I’ve seen kids come from some of the most obviously toxic families and turn into wonderful, beautiful people. So there are always counterexamples to the obvious equations of good home = good children.
Take me, for instance. I can claim without equivocation that I came from a good, solid, loving, supportive, Christian home. And I can do that clear-eyed, without hedging or fudging or covering over. And yet, there are personality traits I carry that are less than desirable. And what’s more, I can see how they came out of my family environment. First of all, just because I had a wonderful home doesn’t mean there weren’t dysfunctions. There were and are, as there are in every single family in the universe. Somewhere on a planet billions of miles from Earth, an alien family is struggling on a faraway world to live the perfect image of their culture’s expectations and are falling short. That’s not an equivocation of my statement that I came from a good home; it’s an acknowledgement that no home is perfect. So sure, I can trace some of my undesirable character traits to my family dysfunctions.
But here’s the catch: I can also trace some of my undesirable character traits to my family’s strengths. I don’t intend to unpack all of my family’s dirty laundry, but you do deserve an example. I had parents who consistently communicated to me the message that I was capable and competent and that I could do things for myself. This was not given to me in a shameful or negative manner; it was encouraging and supportive and affirming. So I did learn to do things on my own, to take responsibility for myself and my actions. Unfortunately, I also have a hard time asking other people for help, and feel inadequate and incompetent when faced with a task I cannot complete on my own. This is a message I’ve internalized over three decades of life, and I can trace them back to the very positive messages of independence and competence I received at home.
I could also unpack how this initially positive message may have been distorted by influences outside of my family: a goal-oriented school system, a hyper-competitive culture of masculine achievement, the Puritan work ethic that infuses the very fabric of the American ethos. Which is why I have to abandon the belief that a good family can do everything necessary to raise a good child. My spouse and I had a conversation during her pregnancy about how to raise our child with healthy eating habits. But, I lamented, try as we might, at some point in her young life, some friend is going to eventually take her to McDonald’s, where she will eat french fries and discover that fatty foods deep fried in cooking oil after being processed, frozen, and shipped thousands of miles are actually delicious. There’s no avoiding it.
Our beautiful little girl is thirteen months old now, and is at an age where her personality is shining through like a radiant inner light (and I mean that image to describe the obviousness of her personality traits and not necessarily the traits themselves). Her personality development is fully under way, and even at such a young and impressionable age, whatever nature or nurture has to do with it, she’s becoming her own person. The way she babbles, explores our house, refuses certain foods or activities, pitches a fit when she’s mad – all these things are evident and becoming a part of who she is. It’s fascinating to watch and I want to be able to claim credit for the sweet sides of her and blame the world for the annoying sides, but I know it’s far more complex than that. But it’s so tempting to try to decipher what aspects of the outer world I should censor and what aspects of my own personality I should enhance. For instance, I’ve really curtailed my cursing around her, but I’ve just replaced profane words with less profane words. My own personality hasn’t changed, and I’m not sure it’s much different that I shout “Stupid piece of junk!” when my computer locks up instead of shouting “Stupid piece of shit!” Likewise, keeping the TV turned off won’t protect her from the flashy all-consuming sensory overload of our culture when there are TVs pretty much everywhere else in the world that she may go.
There was a sketch on the defunct HBO comedy series Mr. Show With Bob and David where a series of parenting guides instructs parents in the exact moment to abuse their children depending on what kind of genius they want their child to grow up to be. “We’re teaching Mr. Weathers to deprive his daughter of just the right things. That way his daughter can grow up to be a doctor, an astronaut, even president of the United States.” Twisted as the idea is, there is a peculiar truth to the strange mix of affirmations and hardships necessary to shape each of us. Clearly, I wouldn’t ever purposefully deprive or abuse my daughter, but the absurdity of extreme parenting styles (see: “tiger mothers”) is not so far from popular cultural mindsets.
So what’s a mindful parent to do? Hell if I know. I guess I’ve come to just accept that I’m going to wound my daughter at some point regardless of how much I avoid it. And avoiding it completely would be its own wound. And no matter how much I do provide, the world will take some of it away. But the world may also give her things I can’t.
So again, you just let go and enjoy the ride. I have no idea what has conspired to make my little girl act like such a drama queen when we won’t let her play in the toilet. I mean, come on! It’s a toilet! Where on earth did she get the idea that playing in the toilet would be fun? And I know she didn’t learn from her parents to throw herself on the floor and kick and scream when she doesn’t get what she wants, and that behavior certainly isn’t working for her. But who knows – the richness of human development is made more so by its mystery. I just live into the joy of letting go and watching it all unfold, baffling as it may be. It does my little girl no good at thirteen months to examine the minutiae of why she is who she is. It perhaps may do her good for me to examine why I am who I am, but I think what’s most important is that I love and support her as she grows.
Nature or nurture – I don’t have the answer. But what I do have is this beautiful little girl.