The Child – Nature vs Nurture an Epic Struggle for Supremacy

Cute babies boy and girl in a chair reading

The debate about nature vs. nurture is often in the news. Do people in the main react more to ways they are taught or according to genetic predisposition? What is the importance of conditioning and thought on human development and how does it affect gender roles?

The debate is not new. It has been raging for centuries.

Today we would probably agree nature is about what a child brings into the world with them, their physical appearance and genetically engineered character traits, while nurture is how the environment a child is exposed to shapes its genetic tendencies.

Kids ReadingThe route through childhood is shaped by many forces, and it differs for each of us. Our biological inheritance, the temperament with which we are born, the care we receive, our family relationships, the place where we grow up, the schools we attend, the culture in which we participate and the historical period in which we live – all of these affect the paths we take through childhood and condition the remainder of our lives*

Child 1950Then there is heredity vs. environment and morality vs. immorality. We do know that young people learn through their physical, social and cultural environments. It is not a case of one or the other, but all.

Subject a child to cruelty or abuse either physically or emotionally, or both, and you might expect that eventually it will end up committing horrendous crimes and in prison. Seems to be the ‘profile’ for serial crime offenders, at least on T.V.

However that has not always been found to be the case. Humans do seem to have an extra quality, or defining ability, one that allows us to adapt and change unpredictably.

This undefined element is the one which ensures that eventually some people do overcome nature and nurture, heredity and environment to become something else entirely?

So what is this inner strength of will that enables one child more than another to suffer and struggle, often silently through terrible times and in maturity overcome adversity and go on to lead what many would consider a ‘normal’ life? And, what is normal?

To advance historically, creatively and culturally since way back in the distant ancient past humankind has always needed to achieve far beyond what might be otherwise constitute normality.

Education School Children Les MizWhere would the world be now without some of those larger than life people in history, who not only changed its course but also impacted on what would happen in the future?

Today we see some of them through very rose-coloured glasses, overlooking their flaws, because that is how it is with memories of those who have passed on that in time, it is only their goodness we remember.

In endeavouring to understand the epic struggle for supremacy we can always turn to popular culture as a place to start with Hollywood producer and director George Lucas’s six episode ground breaking epic, Star Wars.

Darth-Vader-DescentGeorge Lucas made six movies in which we experience the enigmatic Anniken Skywalker’s ascent from being a child, who was insightful, clever, good and even wise (wisdom has nothing to do with age), to an early manhood full of promise for benefiting the greater good.

From where he begins he then has a rapid descent into the darker side of his nature, to eventually become the dark evil Lord Darth Vader. Anniken fell foul to temptation, casting aside his wife, refusing her love and deserting his only children to pursue power, which once attained becomes inwardly, the loneliest place in the galaxy.

However his son Luke doesn’t give up on him. He demonstrates a singular strength of will to resist the same persuasion methods metered out by the evil Emperor. In overriding both nature and nurture he redeems and forgives his father so that he can become part of the all life giving force after death.

We are left to ponder was it conditioning, a failure of genetics or a conscious educated choice that his father made? Was he simply immoral, understanding the difference while doing wrong anyway?

Or was he confused because he was emotionally and physically scarred from being a slave as a child.

Whatever the answer the moral of the Star Wars series remains, that by living a life through forgiveness, so much more is possible for human society.

In ancient Roman times life was very hard and so very different to society today. A father was considered a child’s ‘owner’ whether it was a natural or adopted child.

Roman citizens taught their children to read and write and the boys to use weapons. They could also deny them, cast them out and send newborn children to be killed or sold.

Deformed and unwanted children were placed on a hillside to die.

From the third century children were given an education until they were twelve, with boys only taken into a situation of higher learning.

During the Middle Ages (5th – 15th centuries) children were either working class of dressed by their affluent merchant or aristocratic parents as miniature adults whether they were boys or girls.

By the time they were nine they had to be able to converse with adults and take on responsibilities. They were also regularly flogged for every kind of offense including bad manners and untidiness.

Most parents agreed it was a necessary corrective and they were sent away as their forbears had been into service in other households or to schools where cruelty seemed to thrive. Only occasionally they were brought to see their parents to say grace for them or to read a passage of scripture.

Renaissance-child-readingOne of the founding principles of humanism in the fifteenth century in Italy was an emphasis on virtuous action as an aim of learning. Architect and leading thinker Leone Battista Albertini (Alberti) 1404-1472 wrote “Della Famiglia” (Of the family) about marital problems, father and son conflicts, bringing up children, love and friendship and much more.

AlbertiHe sincerely believed the natural place for education was in the home, not a scholastic institution. His own brief period in a boarding school at Padua when he was 10 or 11, more than likely informed this view.

He wrote his influential treatise about the family for a broad based urban public, one that was not skilled in Latin because he was endeavouring to reach out and raise standards of literacy across the wider community. His own youth was all about achievement.

The positive attitude that he was raised in affected his whole life’s journey. His accomplishments reveal he was able to strike a unique balance between theory and practice, which are often poles apart.

Francois Boucher’s elegant eighteenth century child nurturing scene

By the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe social attitudes toward children were changing significantly again, especially in the circles of the aristocracy and upper middle and merchant classes.

Essays expounding the nature and nurturing of children were being taken very seriously. For working class children however the situation didn’t change and between the ages of ten and sixteen they still lived an adult existence as they had throughout the Middle Ages.

They were apprenticed early, obliged to help their parents with routine chores and knew the rhythms, constraints and rigors of a hard working life. Although not yet independent they belonged as much to the neighbourhood as to their parents serving as a link by delivering messages in the area where they lived.

In this way neighbours, artisans, merchants, curates, policemen all kept an eye on youngster’s growing up.

Raising children became a community concern and this attitude continued well into the 1950’s in Australia, well at least at Coogee Beach in Sydney where I grew up.

Neighbourhood kids would spend the whole day out of doors in a group, going to one parent’s place for morning tea, another for lunch, and yet another for afternoon tea, only going home when the street lights came on.

On the way you would talk to the local priest, the rector on his rounds or the baker when you stopped to pat his horse.

The painting entitled Le Petite Dejeneur c1739 by French painter Francois Boucher (Musee de Louvre, Paris) captures perfectly the spirit of the eighteenth century intellectual enlightenment. The scene is delightfully intimate. The family are sharing a morning meal together in a small room, whose furnishings while tasteful are not really luxurious by our standards today.

The tea table was a fashionable piece more than likely purchased from a marchand-mercier, who was a dealer in elegant furnishing accessories and trifles. However, it is the look of care and concern on the faces of the parents, who are gazing at their little daughter, playing with her horse and doll that is quite moving and a scene of graceful informality pleasing to behold.

Wonderful Wendy telling stories to the lost boys

Traditionally since that time children have learned within their family and community groups and within this social context they have gained a wealth of knowledge, diversity of experiences and identities, which only served to enhance the learning process.

During the nineteenth century as books became more accessible, the adult-child shared book reading experience became recognized by many early childhood organizations, and other regulatory bodies, as essential interaction for young children and very definitely associated with various developmental outcomes.

Sharing stories together became a bridge between speaking and reading that began in infancy and continued throughout childhood. It was important to foster a child’s emerging literacy as it also strengthened the bond between the adult and child.

J.M. Barrie’s famous novel Peter Pan encouraged parents everywhere to read to their children. They were hoping that he, Wendy, Tinker Bell and the Lost Boys might come to listen. Reading aloud to children boosts their literacy, learning and listening skills as well as their self-esteem.

The warmth of the stories, the care and focus of an older child or adult reader with the establishment of a reading routine can help to expand a child’s horizons. It is a joyous experience providing parents, families and friends with opportunities for communicating in a happy environment.

Boy-ReadingTeaming knowledge with imagination assists the child to discover the world around them and inspires their interest and attitude in what the world has to offer.

Today the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declares that literacy is a human right, a tool of personal empowerment and a means for cultural development. It has drafted the following definition:

“Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.  Literacy involves a continuum of learning to enable an individual to achieve his or her goals, to develop his or her knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in the wider society.”

Literacy is language in use – speaking, listening, reading, viewing, writing and drawing. An educator of over twenty-five years experience Australian children’s author Mem Fox says children who are read aloud to associate books with feelings of safety and happiness.

Drawing to Music at the Big City Draw at Brisbane courtesy B150 Brisbane City Council

Listening to stories from the first months of life helps children understand the stories we hear and read through books are filled with facts, fun, fantasy and food for thought.

For children less than five; reading aloud prepares them towards success at school.  They have a great capacity for absorbing information at this period in their lives and the greater the opportunities to learn the greater their options will be.

For children over five reading aloud assists to expand their experiences and enjoy being positive about themselves and others. It’s easy to agree because as a child I was an avid reader, especially of Enid Blyton books and I read and re-read her stories.

Her series of four novels entitled The Faraway Tree was entirely captivating, because it put forward the idea anything is possible if only you dare reach for it. I have fully lived my life’s adventures inspired by that notion.

You need to have the right attitude a half full, positive optimistic approach rather than the half empty, negative attitude.

While a little fear is necessary to stop us falling of a cliff, or some such other silliness, I always endeavoured to instill confidence into my three sons without damping down their spirits.

Parents often need to suppress their own fears so that their children are able to grow and to reach for something more.

An example: when my sons were between the ages of 3 – 8 we went with a friend, who had two sons 4 and 7, to have a picnic in a park.

Mine ran off to play. In the process the two eldest climbed a large Moreton Bay Fig tree and scrambled out onto a wide accommodating branch where they sat down to admire the view, both were laughing and giggling out loud.

My youngest stayed behind playing in the dirt where her four year old joined him.

While feeling scared for them both I was prepared to remain silent while they climbed and then negotiated themselves down again because I knew it was good for their motor skills and for building confidence.

Her eldest had lagged behind and as he reached the tree and began climbing up to the branch (about 6 feet high) to join them she screamed at him not to fall.

Because her voice was so panicked and her power of suggestion was so strong, yes you guessed it, he promptly fell. He had believed he could climb the tree until that all important defining moment when her fears caused him to doubt.

Reading BestNeurologists, psychologists, educators, minders and mentors remain acutely aware of the significant role that nature and nurture continues to play in the evolution of any culture and its society.

Amazingly the least funding by governments being directed to children’s care and education at the moment is in the years before they turn five. This is puzzling especially when it has been proven over and over again that this is a child’s most crucial time for learning.

The gender issue, based on sexuality, is another debate that science still seems unable to shed much light on. But like all else it is only a matter of time as medical science, more than any other has rapidly gone forward in the last fifty years aided by the age of technology.

Statistics available from various State Government Departments of Child Safety and organizations such as Early Childhood Australia or the Talaris Institute in the USA document the expansion and strain on regulatory bodies, organizations and people as the world changes rapidly for children, families and the professionals who work with them.

Children with family and friends, drawing to the sound of music in Queen Street Mall, Brisbane, 2009 – Big City Draw initiative, Brisbane City Council 150th Anniversary Celebrations

It is known that the quality, quantity and nature of the interactions we have with our children, contribute to their future learning success.

Scientists believe that intellectual growth is not the only benefit, but healthy social and emotional development also occurs. So in this area the important role that parents, carers and families play in helping a child to develop is acknowledged as a major determinant in the success of their future learning.

How we deal with children, especially in their early years, needs to be placed within the broader context of social development and gender equity if we want to improve the quality of life for everyone worldwide.

Carolyn McDowall The Culture Concept Circle, 2011, 2012 – 2016

*Robert H Wozniak

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