nature vs. nurture and adoption

I stumbled across the very interesting story of Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, identical twins separated at birth for the (secret) purpose of studying nature vs. nurture. Their book, Identical Strangers, is full of study results, expert opinions, facts, and figures about what research has revealed about nature vs. nurture through the study of twins. As an adoptive mom, I found this fascinating because I want to know how different my daughter might be being raised in my home compared to what she might have become being raised by biological family. I think that is a question she is very likely to ask someday.

At first, I was disappointed to find that the evidence for nurture winning out over nature is overwhelming. Separated identical twins, one in a stable supportive home, one raised by a depressed, critical, unsupportive mother, reported the same psychological and mood problems despite the vastly different upbringing. Both twins had the same learning difficulties and the same insecurities. This is just one example.* With such overwhelming evidence that genetics play the hugest role in how well you do and feel in life, why bother trying to be “best” parent? Why bother building up children’s self-esteem, putting them in a variety of enriching activities or experiences?

I mean, growing up in her family of origin it is unlikely that she would have a stable, non-dramatic home life. She would likely be around many substance-users, and no doubtedly be exposed to poor eating habits and frequent smoking and drinking. Her environment would be chaotic and somewhat unsanitary. Schooling would not be encouraged past high school, if even enforced in high school. She would almost certainly not be read to every day or be encouraged to read instead of watch cartoons. She would not be taken to weekly swimming lessons or frequent trips to hands-on science museums or other play areas that promote self-directed and pretend play. She would probably not be gifted as many puzzles, probably not have play food that is “healthy” (bananas, salads, apples, baked chicken vs. hot dogs,  cupcakes, and pop). She would not be in an early learning center twice a week for exposure to following directions and socialization. And on and on and on…

So I thought all of this meant something, meant I was doing the “right things” for my child. I’ve made an effort to parent consciously, to expose her to the right types of input, the right type of lifestyle, while still encouraging her to form meaningful relationships with family members who don’t share that lifestyle. But if none of this is going to affect her mood, self esteem, psychological traits, or overall well being, what exactly is the point of doing anything right?

On the other hand, I started to feel a bit relieved on her behalf. She won’t have to wonder who she was “meant to be” when she was born. She IS and WILL ALWAYS be herself! No matter what type of parents she’s raised by. She will be herself no matter how different our lifestyle is from her biological family members’! She will always be herself whether or not she was adopted! What a relief that will someday be. To know that she was born M, and she is the same M she was born to be, just with different experiences.

Despite the evidence that nature outweighs nurture, I’m still hopeful that my influence will be a guiding light to my daughter. I hope that my level of education will inspire her and motivate her, that she will see women in highly educated and successful professions as the norm. That she will think eating fruit and vegetables at every meal is normal. That she will know how to appropriately cope with the feelings and problems she is bound to have because of who she is in her DNA. That I can show her where to find the resources, within and without, to accept the ups and downs of life with as much grace as possible. Mostly, I hope that my largest influence is that this becomes an ingrained part of her psyche: You are loved, you are accepted, you are wanted. You know this because your mother will always be there for you and love you, no matter what.

*I am not citing references, this is a blog entry not an article. Please check out Identical Strangers by Paula Bernstein and Elyse Schein for a complete reference list of twin studies.

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Categories: adoption, parenting

5 Comments »

  1. I’ve heard a lot of anecdotes from adoptive parents whose children are grown, that it’s about 80% nature and 20% nurture. Which sounds discouraging, but really, all that might mean is that the 80% is things like personality, preferences, physical attributes, interests. And the 20% might be things like lifestyle, personal relationships, work/education aspirations. Not a big deal, right? It doesn’t mean their genetics will give them their parents’ poor lifestyle choices.

    I have a dozen close adult relatives who came from worst case scenario foster care situations and were adopted into stable homes in my family. Guess what? They are all MUCH more functional than their birth parents were. They all hold jobs, have many friends, normal marriages, and raise their own kids well. Some have excelled in advanced education. All of them say they felt loved by their adoptive families and feel a sense of belonging in their family. Yes, they are their genes physically, and personality quirks, and hobbies, and I can see a predisposition towards some addiction, but it mainly stays in the caffeine area, and some tendencies to binge drink, but it’s kept under control. Anyway, those are folks who were not even adopted at birth but who experienced neglect and abuse in childhood, and they turned out ok. Just keep your expectations reasonable and remember that growing up in a loving, stable home makes all the difference in life. And if M were to develop genetic mood disorders, she’ll be all the better prepared to cope with it!

  2. I haven’t done any research, but because I get to watch Evelyn and Henry grow up very closely to one another, it has become abundantly clearly to me that children are born who they are. They come with distinct personalities right from the get-go.

    I am a little surprised to hear it’s mostly nature vs. nurture, though! I look at my two girls (Noa and Dahlia) who aren’t raised by me, and they seem so VERY much like the parents who are raising them.

  3. I found it comforting actually, that nature tends to dictate personality. I feel like it gives me a little grace in my parenting, when I mess up I’m probably not damaging them permanently, and it’s an opportunity for me to model humility and admit my mistake and apologize to them, something that never happened in my home as a child.

    I think just among my friends and I there is ample evidence that the 20% nurture brings can be *the* difference in the lifestyle choices a person makes. I think your last paragraph hits it on the head – you are showing her options she would not even have been aware of in every area of her life and normalizing them for her. And growing up knowing her first family will salt expose her to the consequences of making less informed choices, just as it will give her a connection to her history on a personal and broader ethnic level. I think it’s entirely likely that what you’re giving her I’d the best of both worlds.

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