At family gatherings, in the pub, chatting with friends – sooner or later it’ll come up: are we the product of nature of nurture?

Image courtesy of ©123rf/pixelbliss (adapted)

Image courtesy of ©123rf/pixelbliss (adapted)

We all have a tendency towards one or the other. But do we really have to choose?

How to re-balance the nature/nurture equation…

The current interest in child development is very high. How do I know? My blog post last week! Lots of you shared, emailed and commented on it.
As a result, I got to wondering why this was and had to conclude that we’re re-assessing how we understand the troubled child. We’re asking questions we weren’t asking before.
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Either, or…?

The nature/nurture debate has been around for a long time. For at least as long as I can remember and probably for centuries before that!
So why is this?

  • Understanding – I guess we want to know the origins of our problems and successes. Why do things go wrong for some families, for some children? Conversely, what went right for those where problems didn’t emerge and things turned out OK? Good question. Understandable question.
  • Prevention – If we could solve this puzzle, we could put things in place to help prevent the onset of problems. We’d know what to do in order make sure things didn’t go wrong in the first place. That would save on all sorts of things: time, resources and, most importantly, heartache.
  • Intervention – It would also enable us to do something about those situations – families and kids – where things have already gone wrong. We’d know what to do about them; how to bring things back on track. We’d know where to focus our efforts to help. Is it too late or can something be done to sort things out?

When you think of it in these terms, this debate is crucial. We need to resolve it.


This point is undeniable: we all have inbuilt traits that are nothing to do with how we were parented.

I was speaking to my 9 year old daughter on my mobile phone the other day. We had one of those terrible echoes where you can hear yourself repeating what you just said. I thought my Dad had hacked the call and was joining in! It was spooky. No matter how much I may want to deny it to myself, I sound just like him.

  • That’s nature – nothing I can do about it.
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This point is also true: we all have traits we’ve picked up from those around us, particularly our parents/carers.

One of the scariest things about sounding like my Dad is that I used some of the same phrases he uses. My intonation is similar too. This all adds to and enhances the likeness. But if I’d grown up somewhere else and never heard him speak, these things wouldn’t be present. But they are present.

  • That’s nurture – a result of my upbringing.

[callout]”By sorting disorders into dichotomous categories, we were comforted by the illusion that we were moving closer to an understanding of the human condition. Fortunately, we have come a long way in the last few decades.” (Cozolino, 2006:81)[/callout]

Both, and…

Of course, as we’ve known all along (!) both nature and nurture have a part to play. We really can have our cake and eat it on this one!
Children are born with innate abilities and limitations, and they go on to either thrive or struggle in different ways.

Image courtesy of ©123rf/iqoncept

Image courtesy of ©123rf/iqoncept

The deciding factors are numerous and complex. But, simply put, the traits they are born with, as well as the care they receive and the experiences they are exposed to – all add up to sculpt the person they become.
And, as time passes and children becomes more independent, their own decision-making influences their ongoing circumstances and experiences.

Why does this matter?…

Because the troubled young people we work with and care for need us to understand the implications for practice.

  • Information matters – we need to know as much as we can about the kids we’re helping. About their parents, early life and circumstances, whether or not they were loved. We need to know if the birth was normal, whether Mum had post-natal depression, etc..

Why? Because these are the kinds of things that effect early development and the forming of attachment relationships. These things (nurture) impact on the in-born traits (nature) to form the child in front of us. If we don’t know this stuff, there’s a danger we’ll blame the child for being how they are – with all the associated problems and injustices that this brings.

  • Assessment matters – our involvement with young people is usually subject to some process of finding out, followed quickly by a plan of intervention. We need to hold both domains in tension: the stuff that’s likely a result of inbuilt bias and the stuff that was sculpted and formed through care-giving and experiences.

Why? Because when we know all this, we can be sure we’ve got the best balance possible when it comes to how we intervene. What we do to help can only be as good as what we know about the person we’re dealing with.

  •  Intervention matters – getting the nature/nurture equation as clear as we can will help us arrive at optimum interventions. For example if a young person is cognitively mature, we can employ help to reframe their thinking or deal with intrusive negative thoughts. If they’re not ready for that, we need to “hold them” and employ interventions that encourage stability, consistency and safety.

[callout]”We now know that nature and nurture work together to shape our brains, abilities, and disabilities…Nature and nurture become one during development…” (Cozolino, 2006:81)[/callout]

Final word…

We can’t ever know everything about a child or their family. Neither can we put a neat divide between what is nature and what is nurture. But holding the balance between what may be trait factors and what may be induced by poor care, is key.
It’s key because it will help us to avoid the pitfalls of child-blaming or parent-blaming and keep us looking at people’s lives as thoroughly and as objectively as we can.
Therein lies safe and equitable practice. Doesn’t every troubled kid deserve that?…
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 What do you think?…

  • Please let me know your thoughts about trauma and your work with young people…   Leave a comment below or click here.

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© Jonny Matthew 2015

© Jonny Matthew 2015

Disclosure of material connection: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means that if you click the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.

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