The age-old debate...

For centuries, experts have debated the relative weight of nature versus nurture (or environment versus genetics) on the development of children, and to this day, no one knows the exact ratio. While environment definitely matters, there are limits to how much parents can manipulate a child’s choices regarding behavior, drive and achievement.  While parents can create a stimulating and affirming home for their child, we cannot directly control the moods or intellectual abilities of our children – but we can influence these things.

We can manipulate the structure of the environment, our part in the relationship with the child, and the quality of our parenting. While this is very powerful, it does not dictate the child’s destiny. Parents often report to me that they just want their child to be happy, successful, or in a manner of speaking, “less odd.” This is when I go back to the idea that parents do not have the power to change the essential being of their child. But parents do have an important role in helping children fulfill their potential by helping them learn self-control and positive self-regard. The goal is for children to learn to become navigators of their own developmental journey. With this in mind, I have outlined some important aspects of parenting that are most impactful.

  • The parent-child relationship is the cornerstone of identity. It is the blueprint for a child’s relationships with others and his or her sense of self. Today our focus on each other has to be deliberate and planned. We are distracted by so many things. Find a way to tune in to your child. Look at ways of reducing over-scheduling, participation in too many sports, and homework. Make dinner together (without TV, cell phones or technology) sacred; make daily playtimes a priority!
  • The two primary goals of positive, effective, discipline are to advance the child’s self-control and self-esteem. Remember our goal as parents is to work ourselves out of the job. If we rely upon punishment to manage our child’s behavior, the child behaves in order to avoid punishment. A better goal is to help our children learn to independently manage their temperament, behavior and choices. If we hover, control, and obsess, the child learns to be dependent on others rather than upon him or herself.
  • Children are like chameleons, the little lizard that changes colors to fit in with his surroundings. So if parents are nervous, impatient, unfocused, or distracted, their children will reflect this in their own behavior. At the neurological level, we know that the process of brain development is partially affected by the climate of the external environment. Structure, routines, consistency, clearly defined rules and boundaries create security in children of all ages.
  • Parental moods and behaviors also have a direct effect on children. Parents who are negative, depressed, anxious, or critical may have children who internalize this. If you want your child to have a positive mindset, model this! If you want your child to develop empathy and a conscience, teach it.

Finally, acceptance of your child is a gift. This does not mean tolerating bad behavior, but we may need to adjust expectations. Learn who your child is and set up the environment to promote her success. Accept that if your kid is quirky, spirited, or gloomy, you may need to embrace it and work with it. Parents do have a role in helping children become themselves– but it is indirect. We can create an experience that helps our children choose to be their best selves.

 

Pat Blackwell, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist in practice at Pelts Kirkhart & Associates. 504.581.3933.

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