nature vs. nurture in adoption

Is it our home environment and parenting style that will determine how our adopted kids turn out or is it their genetics from birth parents?

Before I had kids, I was a nurturist all the way. I believed that the environment I created for my children would determine how they “turned out”.  Oh sure, I would have acknowledged that there might be variations, but I figured these would be variations on the same theme.  Since I was going to be the perfect mother, I would, of course, create the perfect environment for child rearing.

Our home would be an intellectual and artistic haven– stimulating, but not over the top. I would involve my well behaved progeny in carefully selected intellectual, athletic, and artistic endeavors, while leaving plenty of unstructured time for them to ponder the fate of dandelion puffs.  I would fill our house with books, educational toys (made of wood—very expensive wood I might add), and nutritious food.  Oh sure, I’d indulge them occasionally with some cheap, plastic, easily broken, mind rotting toy and a box or two of Fifth Avenue hyped, sugar laden cereal to keep them from feeling deprived when they compared notes with their friends, but since they would only watch the occasional PBS TV show, they would be protected from the dirty touch of advertising and would be more than satisfied by mom-approved toys and cereals.  Yes sir, I was a nurturist all the way because I so wanted to believe that I was in control.

Now that I’m in the uncontrolled midst of parenting four very very different kids, I realize that control is an illusion, and I’m not sure where I stand on the nature vs. nurture debate.  My family is a mix of children by birth and adoption spread out over ten years and raised in the same house by the same parents.  The nurture argument would say my kids would be similar since their environment was similar.  The nature argument would say that my biologically related kids would be more alike than the adopted child.  Neither of these arguments is correct in my family.  I think that may be why I am so fascinated with the nature vs. nurture argument.

An advantage of hosting a radio show is that I get to schedule and talk with the top experts in the subjects I find fascinating, and I’ve loved both of the shows we’ve done on the relative influences of biology and environment.  I’m intrigued by the “famous” twin studies, so on one show (Nature vs. Nurture/ Genetics vs. Environment) our guests were the directors of two of the leading longitudinal twin studies in the US.  The guests on the other show (Is Genetics or the Environment Most Important in Determining Who Our Kids Will Be?) represented two of the leading adoption studies in the US and also were both involved in twin research, as well.  I was like a middle school girl with a crush on both shows.

Research findings on the influence of genetics and environment are fascinating.  Eerie similarities between identical twins reared apart exist, but their research doesn’t support a genetic vice grip on how we turn out.  Some things, such as physical appearance, ADHD, and obesity appear to be highly controlled by genes.  But most other things, such as IQ and personality, have only a moderate genetic connection.  And some things, such as social attitudes (I think this means things like liberal vs. conservative, generosity, etc.), job satisfaction, how readily we fall in love, and our sense of humor, seem to be influenced very little by genetics.

Determining the relative influence of genes and environment is particularly hard in real life, in real families, because each child in a family has a unique environment.  Although my kids have been raised by the same parents in the same home, their environments have differed since their place in the family, life experiences, talents and personality are different.  For example, our eldest was burdened and blessed with three younger siblings throughout most of her life, while our youngest experienced quite different burdens and blessings by having three older siblings.  One son is a gifted student, the other struggles.  They are spaced out by ten years, so arguably they haven’t really had the same parents since we were different parent when our eldest was born than we were ten years later when our youngest arrived.  Also, as one of the experts pointed out, each child changes their environment and our parenting by being who they are.

Four kids and more than a few years later, I’m far less certain of most things in life and all things in parenting.  I quickly figured out that I wasn’t cut out to be a nurturist, since that put way too much pressure on me and drained the fun right out of parenting.  Jumping ship to the naturist side had some appeal since I wouldn’t be held responsible if my children’s fate was predetermined by the arbitrary mixing of DNA.  This was reassuring since I was far from the perfect parent.  (I had an inkling of this my first week of parenthood, when I decided that baths were too traumatic for us both, and since we wiped her bottom and face regularly, they were unnecessary.)  Despite the allure of passing the buck to the genetic whims of nature, however, I couldn’t ignore the similarities in my kids—both by birth and adoption—that seemed to have an environmental connection.

Right now in my parenting journey I have replaced “versus” with “and” in the nature vs. nurture debate.  It seems to me that we are all a product of both our genes and our environment, and that we have a great deal of control over our environment.  I recently read a quote by a psychologist that researched in this field.  When asked if nature or nurture contributed more to a personality, he responded, “Which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its length or its width?”  This is strangely reassuring to me now.

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