by Dr. Fred Henrichs
About the only thing that a group of psychologists will agree upon is that there is very little that they will agree upon. One old argument is that of nature (what we are born with) versus nurture (how our environment shapes us). One school of thought believes that all of our important characteristics are determined by our genetic makeup. Another school believes that we come into the world as a “tabula rosa” (a blank slate) and all of our important characteristics are formed by our interactions with our environment.
Most middle of the road psychologists agree with the findings of studies that followed the lives of genetically identical twins who were separated at birth and raised in different environments. These studies have generally found that some characteristics such as physical attributes, intelligence, predispositions to some forms of mental illnesses, chemical abuse/dependencies, and others are largely determined by genetic makeup. Other characteristics such as values, attitudes, motivation, self-confidence and others are primarily due to environmental factors.
So what does this mean to us as parents and educators? Do we throw up our hands and say, “That’s just the way he is!” or “She was born that way!” (have we heard ourselves saying these kinds of things from time to time?). Well, we really don’t have much control over our child’s height or hair color (at least natural hair color) or some other attributes. But these aren’t the really important characteristics we want to influence. As caring parents and educators, we’re much more concerned with our child’s personality, his motivation, her self image, his values, her belief system. And these are some of our child’s characteristics that we can influence to some degree by carefully structuring the components of our child’s environment over which we have some control.
The next time you observe in your child’s classroom, be particularly aware, for example, of the emotional environment our teachers and assistants have created for your children. We would like your children to be respectful so they are treated with the utmost respect. We would like your children to become responsible so they are allowed to accept the consequences of their behavior and decisions. We would like your children to become independent so they are given a great deal of independence. We would like your children to develop positive self images so they are never criticized or belittled. We would like your children to become loving human beings so they are given unconditional love.
But we can only accomplish so much at school. In the primary years, the family/home environment is by far the most influential in a child’s development. Our challenge and responsibility as parents is to create an environment in which our children can grow and flourish. We cannot directly control our children’s behavior nor can we make them become the kind of person we would like them to be. What we can control is ourselves (at least to some degree), the emotional environment of our home, and the way in which we respond to our children’s behavior. By making careful and thoughtful changes in these areas, we can maximize our influence over our child’s development and personality.