Differences from Birth
As a clinical psychologist I have often been asked questions about the nature-nurture issue, that is, "Are our personalities determined primarily by inborn, biological factors or by environmental factors?" Most people now recognize that both biology and environment are very influential forces in shaping who we are, how we think, and how we behave. However, when we interact with others we sometimes are guided by assumptions that fail to consider how each of these forces has an impact. For example, I can think of many instances in which parents and teachers have said to me that they know children are different from each other at birth, but a few minutes after making this statement they noted, "I treat each of my children (or students) the same. That's the fairest thing to do." Yet, if children are different from infancy, then is it fair to have the same expectations for all of them? On the other side of the coin, at least one popular book in the past year has minimized the impact that parents have on their children's development, placing the dominant influence first on innate factors and later on peers.
One of the main questions I am asked pertaining to nature vs. nurture is the ways in which children are different from birth. The question has been posed so frequently that I have included it as a theme in all of my parenting workshops. There are various inborn qualities that distinguish infants from each other. I have selected one quality to discuss in this and my next column, namely, temperament, since I believe that many stresses in parent-child or teacher-child or even husband-wife relationships are based on expectations that we have for the other person that given her or his unique temperament she or he is not able to meet. In article I will describe some of the important research about temperament.
It may be helpful if I provided a short history of the changes that have occurred in my knowledge and perspective about innate differences in children. When I first entered the field of clinical psychology in the mid-1960’s, I was taught, and as a young psychologist believed, that all infants were the same at birth. This belief unintentionally created within me a rather negative, accusatory view of the role of parents in causing problems in their children. I am embarrassed to admit that in the early stages of my career when I consulted with parents who had a child with emotional or behavioral problems my initial thought was, "You really screwed up. Since all children are the same at birth and you have a child with problems, you must have done something wrong to cause these problems." Fortunately, I was wise enough not to utter this sentiment although most likely it was conveyed nonverbally to many of the parents with whom I was doing parenting counseling ("parent blaming" might be a better description of what I was doing). Actually, I was not alone in my accusations towards parents. It was a time when mental health professionals readily blamed parents for almost every emotional problem their child manifested including schizophrenia, autism, depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Permission to reprint granted by Dr. Robert Brooks. All rights reserved.
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