When I took developmental psychology a few years ago, we learned that scientists currently think our personalities are about equally shaped by genes and environment. The nature/nurture split is about 50/50. I would disagree. Personality seems much more governed by genes, while potential is probably much more governed by how and where you are raised.
This New York Times piece offers some fascinating insight. It’s about identical twins who were mixed up shortly after birth. Each set of parents raised what they thought were fraternal twins, not realizing that two of the brothers had been swapped. The boys were raised in dramatically different circumstances, and when they found each other as adults, the identical twins had much more in common than the boys who had grown up together.
When Eleanor was born, Greg and I both thought that we would raise a tomboy. We would give her a mix of toys, both trucks and dolls, and sign her up for sports. We were ready for a soccer-loving kid who was into science. What we got was a ballerina who loves reading. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of parenting is understanding what you can control. Greg and I are doing our best to be good parents to a bookworm ballerina.
Eleanor barely tolerates running, sweating, and physical contact of any kind. She began a ballet class last week, and when the teacher took attendance, she asked each student if they preferred to be called by a nickname. Many of the girls did. At Eleanor’s turn, she told the teacher that her nickname is Elsa. The mothers in the waiting room looked around curiously. Who would claim this child with the Disney princess name? I meekly raised my hand.
Over the weekend, Eleanor became furious with Henry’s meddling in her toys. Typically, these interactions end with her crying and stomping off to her room. This time, when Greg and I tried to calm her, she launched into an operatic performance. She began to sing at the top of her lungs about how hard her life was and how wrong her parents were. She strode from one side of the room to the other, flourishing her arms. She took dramatic pauses. Greg and I watched, transfixed. When she finished, I wasn’t sure whether to send her to her room or toss roses at her. Where did this child come from? I’m not so sure about the science thing. But “Elsa” might be on Broadway someday.
Meanwhile, Henry learned over the weekend that the television develops interesting splotches of color if he bangs the screen with his little toy hammer. Greg commented that this isn’t what he would have chosen. We have a son who is super busy and constantly putting himself in dangerous situations. We have a daughter who is sensitive and dramatic. We are raising stereotypes. Yet, Eleanor does love Legos. And science museums. Henry, despite his boisterousness, always shows concern when someone is hurt. He loves to snuggle up and listen to a book. So I don’t think our effort at gender neutrality is a loss.
Nature gave us these particular kids. And now we’re doing the nurture part. Turns out that our job is not to tell them what they love. They already know. Our job is to help them find those things.