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Nature and Nurture in Child Development

By Joannie DeBrito, Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT
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Cheerful girls and boys against vibrant background.
The nature vs. nurture child development debate
What’s interesting about nature and nurture in child development is that they are both significantly impacted by the way God made us.

When it comes to figuring out the personality traits of our children, we parents have a front-row seat to the ongoing nature and nurture child development debate. We find numerous examples to support both sides of the argument.

Nature and Nurture in Child Development

For instance, did you notice that your biological children’s personality traits were different from one another when they were born? Or, was your biological daughter’s disposition different from either parent’s from her first day of life? When you see these differences in your children from birth, this seems to indicate that personality traits are innate. That’s because you can’t explain the differences as related to exposure to social or cultural influences.

On the contrary, you might have noticed personality traits in your children that you can relate to their life experiences. Did you see your previously unruly child become disciplined and dedicated to learning to ride a horse? Do you think that’s because he attended camp and connected with the instructor in charge of the equestrian program? Or, was your shy daughter able to come out of her shell when her grandmother helped her make friends? Maybe your eternally optimistic, laid back teenager became extremely anxious, fearful and jumpy after being the victim of a crime.

Neuroplasticity

What’s interesting about nature and nurture in child development is that both are significantly impacted by the way God made our bodies. While the anatomy and physiology of the brain and our genetic make‐up determines the personality we’re born with, the brain also has the ability to form new neural connections to compensate for problems caused by injury and disease or adjust to new changes in the environment. This is called neuroplasticity.

Furthermore, dopamine and serotonin, two important neurotransmitters and hormones associated with feelings of calm and happiness, have the ability to significantly affect our moods. Intentional focus on certain behaviors such as expressing gratitude can stimulate the release of dopamine and serotonin and thus improve mood.

Stress and Trauma

Unfortunately, stress and trauma can impact how we react to the world, as well. But as parents, if we practice intentional parenting, we can help our children use their positive personality traits to recover from negative events in their lives. And, by adopting certain styles and practices, we can teach our children attitudes and behaviors that may keep them strong, healthy and resilient. This is where we can see the benefits of addressing both nature and nurture in child development.

Nature and Nurture in Child Development: Parenting Styles

To begin with, decades of research studies have found that the best parenting style is authoritative. Children raised by authoritative parents tend to be independent, self-sufficient, have good social skills and be well adjusted. Parents can draw on positive inborn personality traits or use authoritative parenting techniques with their children to develop these strengths. This style emphasizes setting reasonable boundaries and limits regarding behavior, being loving and nurturing and showing respect for children.

Authoritarian and permissive styles of parenting tend to have rigid rules or a lack of boundaries, respectively. In his new book, Seven Traits of Effective Parenting, Daniel Huerta, Vice President of Parenting and Youth at Focus on the Family, discusses the personality traits that align with the authoritative parenting style: love, respect, boundaries, intentionality, gratitude, grace and forgiveness and adaptability. When parents are conscientious about developing these traits, whether they are inborn or need to be taught, kids are more likely to be well adjusted and able to cope with the unexpected problems and crises that may come their way.

Danny Huerta talks with Jim Daly and John Fuller about his new book 7 Traits of Effective Parenting

40 Developmental Assets

Additionally, the Search Institute’s 40 Developmental Assets support an authoritative style of parenting. The assets focus on external assets that provide support to children and internal assets that, if developed, build a foundation for a healthy, caring and responsible child.

The institute’s Developmental Assets Profile has been translated into 30 languages and used in the United States and more than 30 countries. After surveying over 6 million young people around the world who had completed training in development of the assets, a quarter-century of research has shown correlations between the assets and lower high-risk behaviors as well as higher measures of good health. 

Jesus Was Authoritative

Finally, we see through the ministry of Jesus Christ that an authoritative style is preferable. As Jesus moved among his people and came face to face with their human failures, struggles and pain, He always responded to them first with grace and then with truth.

In other words, he began with being nurturing and loving and ended by setting limits that directed them to respect the authority of God. So, there is ample evidence that authoritative parenting is the best option for parents who want to help their kids be healthy and resilient.

Navigate family life with grace and love!

Daniel P. Huerta, Focus on the Family's Vice President of Parenting, presents a collection of seven powerful character traits designed to help parents grow and thrive while raising Godly children.

What About Me?

But how are you supposed to focus on developing seven traits and 40 developmental assets? You’ve got a job, home and kids’ activities to keep track of. And you’ve just about “had it up to here”, trying to get your three-year-old’s temper under control. Then you’re trying to convince your timid, shy and anxious pre-teen that she won’t die if she enters the halls of the local middle school.

You might be able to focus on helping your kids in one or two areas but not 47! How do you intentionally interact with your children so they develop personality traits that are more likely to set them up for success in life, rather than failure? How do you have time to focus on nature and nurture in child development? Well, certain parenting practices and adjustments to attitudes are fairly easy to implement and extremely impactful to the health of your children. 

Parenting Practices: Positively Based Discipline vs. Punitive Discipline

All kids need boundaries and limits in order to explore the world while staying safe and secure. How parents impose limits can lead kids toward self-discipline and wise decision making. It can also lead them toward shame and guilt. All this depends on whether parents intend to encourage or control children when they impose those limits.

Positively Based Discipline

The intent behind positively based discipline is to teach principles for healthy living, encourage kids to explore and discover their strengths and weaknesses, be responsible for themselves and kind to others. This is accomplished via-

  • setting reasonable limits and communicating them to children with love
  • coming up with consequences that are respectful and intended to help children see how crossing boundaries will negatively impact their lives
  • showing grace and forgiveness when following through on consequences and
  • establishing rewards that reinforce good behavior

Punitive Discipline

On the contrary, the intent behind punitive discipline is to control children and make them follow rules. Threats of punishment are used as the tools to motivate adherence to boundaries and the result is that kids end up feeling ashamed of their behavior and guilty for having disappointed mom and dad.

Parenting Practices: Strengths Focused vs. Problems Focused Parenting

There’s a really simple principle that all parents need to know. It’s the idea that behavior is most easily modified when parents reinforce good behavior. Good personality traits are more likely to be developed when they are reinforced and bad personality traits are more likely to go away when they aren’t. So, once again, parents can focus on nature and nurture in child development. They can encourage positive, innate personality traits or discourage negative ones. And, they can also expose children to experiences that help them develop personality traits that keep them become healthy and resilient.

Strengths Focused

When parents switch their focus to seeking, finding and developing their kids’ strengths, rather than focusing on their problems, their kids are more likely to grow and thrive.

To become more strengths focused, parents may want to do the following:

  1. Identify the strengths of each child related to good behavior and positive personality traits
  2. Express gratitude for those behaviors and traits
  3. Provide meaningful rewards for behaving well and using good traits to benefit others
  4. Be intentional about helping children to use their strengths, continue to behave well and develop positive personality traits
  5. Be intentional about redirecting poor behavior and showing kids how their negative nature vs. nurture personality traits are affecting them negatively.

Problems Focused

In the midst of the stress of parenting, however, it’s easy to ignore kids when they are behaving well, and respond only when they are misbehaving. Unfortunately, by doing so, parents unintentionally reinforce poor behavior because attention is a powerful reinforcement. Parents also have a tendency to focus on trying to change or get rid of their kids’ less desirable traits and to forget to develop their best traits. However, the opposite needs to happen.

Attitudes: Optimism vs. pessimism

Most of us are familiar with Winnie the Pooh and his friends in the 100 Acre Wood. Two of Pooh’s buddies illustrate attitudes of optimism and pessimism well.

Tigger is the eternal optimist, bouncing around and experiencing the world as “fun, fun, fun, fun, fun!” He’s always there to make the best out of every situation and encourage his friends to do the same. On the other hand, Eeyore drags around, complaining about the state of his life. He never seems to lift his head high enough to see the sunshine.

Children’s Personality Traits

Sometimes parents notice these tendencies in their infants and toddlers. Some children appear to be on the go, laughing, chortling and responding playfully to their loved ones most of the time. As they try to learn a new skill, no amount of failure will keep them from continuing to make attempts until they master it. 

Still, others are timid, shy and become frustrated very easily. They give up after one or two attempts to learn to sit up or take a few steps. While this may have something to do with a child’s innate personality, pessimism can be shaped into optimism with some intentional interaction with the timid child.

Develop an Attitude of Optimism

But why is it important for children to develop an attitude of optimism?

The benefits of optimism, presented by Elizabeth Scott (2020), are summarized below:                                                                                                                                                                                                                             

  • Superior Health- Optimists are more likely to maintain better physical health than pessimists. 
  • Greater Achievement- More optimistic sports teams have been found to have better synergy and performance than pessimistic sports teams.
  • Persistence- Optimists are more likely to achieve success than pessimists because they persevere when trying something new.
  • Emotional Health- For people struggling with depression, focused training in optimism has been shown to provide increased ability to cope with future setbacks.               

So, given these benefits of optimism, it’s really helpful when parents take the time to be intentional about helping their children develop an attitude of optimism.

Failure is Not a Reason to Feel Defeated

One of the first ways to do that is to teach kids that failure is a part of life. It’s not a reason to feel defeated. Rather, it’s an opportunity to figure out how to do things differently in order to eventually find success. Or, if success is unlikely, failure can be used to encourage a child to develop adaptability by coming up with an option to the activity or event that is likely to end in failure.

This teaches kids not to be defeated by failure and become pessimistic. Rather, they learn to be optimistic via beginning to look forward to future success. With each victory over failure, they develop an attitude of optimism. Also, parents need to abandon the old adage “you can be anything you want to be.” It’s simply not true.

Different Gifts

As expressed in Romans 12:4-6: “For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them…”

It’s entirely possible that a child’s desires do not line up with his or her God-given gifts. Sometimes it takes much more than pure will to succeed in some areas of life. A child may simply not have the ability to succeed at a certain skill for a variety of reasons.

We have all heard of people who have overcome remarkable odds to succeed in some sport, intellectual skill or in financial matters. Yet, all human beings have limitations that may make success in certain areas of life impossible. If we don’t help our children acknowledge those limitations, they are likely to develop pessimism. This can happen as they experience one failure after another that can’t be easily overcome by trying harder.

Model Optimism

Another way to encourage optimism in children is to model it. Children copy what they see and hear in front of them. So, if parents are frequently complaining, forecasting doom and gloom, or responding to kids’ accidents, mistakes or difficult days with negative comments, children tend to learn that there is much to be pessimistic about in life. Can you see how much better life can be for kids who learn, instead, to look for the good in the world around them?

Intentional focus on gratitude also helps children move from noticing what they have to be grateful for to expressing thankfulness. This develops optimism about their life and environment.

Parenting a Pessimistic Child

It may be that you are a truly optimistic parent who has a very pessimistic child. This may relate to his or her innate personality. It might also relate to the influence of peers who spend a lot of time focusing on the negative parts of life and on negative feelings. You can help your child flip this tendency by asking a question whenever he or she says something negative. The question is “could it be that there is something good about this situation or an opportunity to learn something new here?”

I’m not suggesting that this will turn a pessimist into an optimist overnight. However, I have seen that repeated questioning tends to result in kids thinking in new ways. They also start to consider more than a negative outlook on life. Over time, kids will begin to see their lives through the perspective of optimism rather than pessimism.

Others Focused vs. Me Focused

It’s pretty normal for infants and very young children to focus only on their needs. They’re fairly helpless and need a lot of assistance. They must rely on older kids and adults to make it safely through each day. However, as children become more independent, it’s in their best interest to help them focus more on helping others than satisfying all of their needs.

That’s because none of us are able to tolerate selfishness for very long. We all need other people to help us through life. If we demand that our needs always be met before others’ needs, we’ll find ourselves excluded from a lot of groups and activities.

Mine, Mine, Mine

Many years ago, a single mother came to see me to get help dealing with her three-year-old twin boys. Three preschools had kicked them out. Their primary mantra was “mine, mine, mine” and their tactic of knocking other kids over to get to whatever they wanted was not going over so well with their teachers and other preschoolers.

After meeting with this mom and her children, I suspected that the cause of the “me focus” in the twins was due to them having to fight with one another for every toy, cookie or minute of mom’s attention. So, we worked on two things together. First, I suggested a reward for each boy when he did something for the other one. Second, we came up with activities that required them to work together to achieve success. So, if little Robby and Todd wanted to go to the park, they had to help each other clean up the playroom first. Both boys had to participate and help one another.

Help Children Develop Altruism

It’s easy to understand, really. Kids will continue to do whatever they receive rewards for. So, if they receive a positive benefit from helping others, they’ll naturally become more “others focused”.

However, if they get whatever they want when they are me focused, they will continue to be very self-centered. Others focused children develop altruism. This trait is encouraged throughout the Bible. God calls us to serve one another and to make sacrifices for our friends. He also calls us to give what we have for others in need.

In Seven Traits of Effective Parenting, Daniel Huerta discusses the need for kids to develop altruism in order to thrive in life. He refers to this as a “contributor” vs. “consumer” mindset. Contributors are intentional about serving others while consumers take from others in order to receive benefits for themselves.

“From the beginning God wanted us to be contributors within his kingdom story and not consumers. The moment Adam and Eve chose to consume the fruit out of a lack of trust, we became consumers in a garden needing contributors. As we contribute to our kids through our parenting, we guide our kids toward becoming contributors to others and to the overall functioning of the family and society, thus fulfilling their role in God’s kingdom story.”

pg. 2, 7 Traits of effective parenting, daniel huerta
Danny Huerta talks with Jim Daly and John Fuller about his new book 7 Traits of Effective Parenting

Intentional Parenting Is the Key

Children come into this world with personality strengths and weaknesses. Some they can change, others, they can’t. With intentional parenting and focus on nature and nurture in child development, moms and dads can help their kids capitalize on their strengths, improve on their weaknesses and find ways to adapt successfully to the challenges in their lives.

© 2020 by Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. 

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Understand How to Respect and Love your Son Well

Why doesn’t my son listen to me? Have you ever asked that question? The truth is, how you see your son and talk to him has a significant effect on how he thinks and acts. That’s why we want to help you. In fact, we’ve created a free five-part video series called “Recognizing Your Son’s Need for Respect” that will help you understand how showing respect, rather than shaming and badgering, will serve to motivate and guide your son.
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About the Author

Joannie DeBrito, Ph.D., LCSW, LMFT

As the current Director of Parenting and Youth at Focus on the Family, Joannie DeBrito draws from over 30 years of diverse experience as a parent educator, family life educator, school social worker, administrator and licensed mental health professional.

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