When I was in college I remember having long conversations with my friends who were all psychology majors (I was the lone poli sci major in our group). We talked about all sorts of things, from our favorite Beatle to the meaning of life and everything in between. We discussed whether nature or nurture was more important. This was back in late ‘70s when it was still commonly thought that homosexuality was caused by overprotective mothering and autism was due to mothers who were cold and withheld affection. Fortunately we have come a long way in our understanding of those issues (at least most of us have).
We spent many a night in our dorm rooms puzzling over how we came to be who we were. I am still puzzling over that question, though, hopefully in a more informed way. At that time, I subscribed to the nurture side of the equation. I thought family life and surroundings were much more determinative of personality and the path that a person’s life took. I was preoccupied with how my parents shaped me. I saw myself as an uneasy combination of my mother and father – with less emphasis on the genetic aspect of that and more on their personalities and behaviors. Today I see them, genetics and behavior, as inextricably linked.
While we have a more nuanced view of the question of nurture vs. nature, I still think it is relevant to consider it. As a parent and as a society making policy choices, what we believe about this is important.
Data shows that if you are born into poverty, it is much more likely that you will remain there. So many factors play into that, but I certainly can’t accept that it is a genetic predisposition. Therefore, it behooves us to make public policy choices that can help change that cycle. If we look at a person’s health, nature may hold sway. After all obesity, addiction and all sorts of chronic illnesses have been shown to have a genetic component. Being born female or male also has a huge impact on the path a life takes.
Where does that leave us as parents and as a society?
Years ago when Gary and I were faced with some parenting challenges, we consulted with a child psychologist. He shared his belief that children were born with a certain temperament and that temperament could be thought of as a continuum – from easy going to extremely difficult. Children at either end of the spectrum faced challenges. Parenting strategies could help the child move a bit on the continuum, and help them cope, but we couldn’t change their temperament. I found that comforting (unlike the t-shirt pictured above!). Otherwise, it was scary to think we held so much power; better to understand that there were limits to our influence. While Gary and I provided the genetic material for Leah and Daniel, we certainly couldn’t control which ones! His view was consistent with what I was observing in my two children.
Leah and Daniel came into this world with very distinct preferences and personalities. Many of those characteristics were also consistent with general ideas about gender. Prior to having children, I thought most of what was considered ‘girlish’ or ‘boyish’ was learned. Again, it is nearly impossible to disentangle the various influences, and my children aren’t a representative sample! But, I was amazed how some of their behaviors seemed to be classic sex-linked attributes from the get-go. Of course, from the get-go babies are learning, absorbing their surroundings – the colors on the walls in their rooms, the toys we offer, the tone of voice we use – all of which likely play a part in forming gender identity.
With that said, it seemed to me that Leah and Dan arrived defined to a larger extent than I anticipated. Leah was fascinated by people; Dan by objects. He was absorbed by the mobile over his crib, leaves shaking in the wind, cars and trucks barreling down the street. Leah was much more interested in faces. She craved interaction: singing, storytelling, cuddling. Dan liked to be read to, also, but would rarely sit still for it. Early on we wondered about his hearing because he often didn’t do the typical things that let you know he was attending to what was being said. He would appear distracted or tuned out. Over time we realized that in fact he was taking it all in. There are some amusing stories about that actually. Leah, on the other hand, made eye contact, she wanted you to know she was listening. She needed the feedback – she gave it and wanted it in return.
It is possible, of course, that these behaviors weren’t hard wired. Gary and I may have taught them to behave stereotypically, but it certainly wasn’t conscious on our part.
We didn’t offer toy guns to either Leah or Dan. When one of his uncles gave Dan a large plastic tank as a birthday present, Dan took to it immediately. He knew exactly what to do. He proceeded to use it to rumble around the house and blow things up. Dan also had his beanie babies wrestling! All of these activities were accompanied by the appropriate sound effects. Vroom! POW! In contrast, Leah would take her clothes out of her drawers, take the fabrics and rub them on her face. She loved soft textures against her cheek. Leah’s Bobbe, her paternal grandmother, had a shoebox full of fabric scraps, zippers, thread and other sewing paraphernalia (no pins, needles or scissors) that was a treasure trove to Leah. Dan showed no interest in that assortment of playthings.
We tried to baby-proof the kitchen cabinets (emphasis on the word tried). Gary installed latches that required that you insert your finger to release the mechanism. Leah pulled the door as far open as the latch would allow and studied it. After a while she put her finger in and released it. Dan took a different approach. He kept pulling on the door, harder and harder, with as much force as he could muster, until it popped open. So much for relying on the latch to keep them safe!
This isn’t to say that there weren’t exceptions. Leah and Daniel didn’t conform to all of the stereotypes associated with girls and boys. Leah enjoyed roughhousing. When she played soccer or basketball she didn’t shy away from physical play. Dan, on the other hand, didn’t relish that part of sport. While he loved basketball, he didn’t enjoy mixing it up under the boards.
I have tried to figure out if there is something inherently female or male, aside from the obvious biological traits, mostly to understand myself. How do we put ourselves together harmoniously – the feminine and the masculine? Growing up I sometimes felt I was waging an internal war (as I wrote about in another blog post – here).
Is there utility to the concepts of feminine and masculine? Do we need to categorize ourselves and others in those terms?
I admit to feeling some discomfort with abandoning those ideas. Categories help us understand and make sense of things. It seems to be a human instinct to order things by defining and categorizing them. Can we do that without putting each other or ourselves in boxes? Can we leave room to embrace the exceptions?
When I meet someone I want to understand who they are. But maybe I don’t need the categories we have always fallen back on. Is it important to know if the person is male or female? Black or white? After all when we make assumptions based on what we see, it can create problems. But it’s hard not to do it. I think, too, we are searching for common ground and those categories can help find it.
When Leah and Dan were in elementary school I stopped trying to assign their characteristics to one side of the family or the other. I accepted that they were each a unique constellation of attributes. I wish I understood that about myself all those years ago. While I have moved beyond the nature vs. nurture question, understanding that the two are inextricably linked, I am still left pondering identity and how we form it.