Do I really have any influence over how my kids turn out? I’ve heard the idea that people are just products of genetics — that nothing parents do can guide or affect their children. But I’ve also heard the opposite — that babies are born as blank slates and are shaped entirely by their environment. I want to be a good parent, but I don’t want to knock myself out if it doesn’t matter. So which is it: nature or nurture?
Would you be too surprised if we said it’s both?
You’ve landed on a common reaction that most of us have to questions at one time or another: We tend to see issues as black and white, either this or this. That thought process is called binary thinking.
Binary thinking can work in fields like biology and engineering. But it doesn’t work for all of life. If we look at everything in an either/or way, we can miss the truth — because truth is often found in middle ground, where both this and this have a place.
That’s why we need to reframe the question of nature versus nurture. We need to get rid of that one sided versus. Parents do have influence over how their kids turn out. But parenting doesn’t come down to either/or; it’s both/and. Children are influenced by both genetics and their environment.
Nature: The baseline
The complexity of our humanity is beyond compare. Each of us is wonderfully, uniquely made — every single cell designed by God. We all enter the world with our own personalities, physical characteristics, and sinful tendencies.
Nature plays an undeniable part in how our kids turn out. It’s the factual baseline for our bodies, minds, and spirits — for things we can’t change, like eye colour and height. Even the strengths and challenges we each have are rooted in our genetics.
So in one way it’s true that parents can’t affect their children. However, that doesn’t mean genetics alone determine a child’s future.
Take the example of an athlete or musician or mathematician: Innate giftedness can take someone only so far. Natural predisposition doesn’t become skilled ability without structured nurturing.
Nurture: The shaping
We don’t have control over our child’s genetic makeup, but we do have influence over their character. Our child’s nature can and should be shaped by the nurture of loving parents.
God tells us in the Bible, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6, ESV). And He says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4, ESV).
It’s clear we’re supposed to be actively involved in parenting our children. Still, that doesn’t mean things always turn out like we hope.
We live in a broken world. We’re sinful people who have free will, and we do life with sinful people who have free will. We can’t control our children (who also have free will and often freely express it!), but we do have a responsibility to teach them. Dr. John Townsend points out that parenting can be summed up in one principle: Equip children to meet the demands of reality.
Left to their own devices (the idea that nature trumps nurture), kids would never be ready for the world. They’re limited in how much they can regulate themselves, and their developing minds need direction to learn critical thinking and moral reasoning skills.
Parents must nurture their children with appropriate boundaries and freedoms so that kids strengthen their wise decision-making muscles.
Finding the balance
We are stewards of our kids. We’re responsible for their whole selves while they’re in our care and for guiding them to become healthy adults. We model, motivate, and correct. And we’ll have the greatest influence (and the most fun!) when we see our role as a coach instead of a dictator. How?
Keep the Five Ws in mind. Do you remember learning the who, what, when, where, and why questions of good writing? We can use that same framework to help us keep nature and nurture in perspective: Who and what point to genetics, the inherent, unique natures of our kids. When, where, and why remind us that we have a high calling to nurture our children to make the best use of their unique natures. It takes all five points to paint an accurate picture of who our kids are and what they need.
Become a student of your child. Pay attention to how they’re wired. Then consider the best ways to nurture their talents and interests so you can help them fully become who God created them to be. Be willing to get out of your comfort zone. Maybe you’re raising a budding architect but aren’t confident in your math skills or eye for design. Find trusted adults who can mentor your child in those areas. (Bonus: Admitting that you don’t know everything sets a great example! Parenting means setting aside our ego for the well-being of our kids.)
Don’t fight nature. Have a strong-willed child? You know better than anyone the temptation to force change. And you also know better than anyone that method doesn’t work. Whether it’s our child’s personality or some other part of their nature, our job is to shape, not control. Again, we’re helping them live a life that honours God and who He made them to be and to become — not what we want.
Let go of control. Find joy in the mystery of how God lovingly created your child. And give yourself grace to parent without knowing all the answers. That might feel impossible, especially if you have a child with special needs or are facing other challenging circumstances. No matter your situation, the Lord stands ready to encourage you. He’ll help you celebrate the life in your care and give you wisdom to meet your child’s needs.
Nature and nurture are two sides of the same coin: We need to pay attention to the individuality of our children and use those observations to actively parent. As we learn to be intentional and, at the same time, hold things loosely, we can find a satisfying rhythm in the journey of raising well-rounded kids — souls confident of our love and of their unique part in God’s larger story.