Go ahead and play those Mozart CDs, teach a toddler to hit a tennis ball or tutor him in advanced algebra.
In the end, you might have listened to some good music or spent some time bonding in the sun or the library. What you probably can’t teach, though, is the drive or motivation to use whatever skills a child has to get to the top of the class or the pro tour. That’s where genetics come in.
While the nature-vs.-nurture debate has been waged for generations, researchers at the University of Iowa published a study earlier this year arguing that the discussion should be tossed out altogether. The researchers said since genes and environment are constantly interacting and changing, it is not an either-or situation.
“The nature-nurture debate has a pervasive influence on our lives, affecting the framework of research in child development, biology, neuroscience, personality and dozens of other fields,” said psychologist John Spencer, the study’s lead author. “People have tried for centuries to shift the debate one way or the other, and it’s just been a pendulum swinging back and forth. We’re taking the radical position that the smarter thing is to just say ‘neither’ — to throw out the debate as it has been historically framed and embrace the alternative perspective provided by developmental systems theory.”
The Iowa researchers say they support evolution — but not the idea that genes are a one-way path to specific traits and behaviors. Instead, they argue that development involves a complex system in which genes and environmental factors constantly interact. Those environmental factors can be everything from proteins and chemicals to the socioeconomic status of a family. These ideas are unified by a perspective called developmental systems theory.
Mr. Spencer’s theory is similar to what psychologist Judith Rich Harris has been saying for years. When her book “The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do,” was published a decade ago, it was somewhat controversial as she made the point that parents mattered less than previously thought. The book was reissued this year with a new introduction, showing that the nature argument has gone mainstream.
“There is greater openness to the idea that genes affect behavior, and more research studies that properly control for the effects of genes,” Ms. Harris wrote in an e-mail. “In many cases, these better studies have not confirmed the researchers’ expectations. It turns out that if you take account of the role of genes, the expected effects of parenting generally aren’t found.”
Ms. Harris uses this example: Emotionally expressive parents tend to have emotionally expressive children. It has long been assumed that this similarity is due to the children following the example set by the parents. Research studies that compare two children reared in the same home, however, have shown that such personality resemblances are due almost entirely to genes the children inherit from their parents.
“If you want to understand how children’s experiences affect their behavior and personality, you have to take genes into account,” Ms. Harris says.
Steven Pinker, author of the book “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature,” agrees. He puts it even more simply: “Parenting is overrated,” he says. The overall environment — the community, schools, peers and culture — have much more influence than most people think.
“Children of immigrants with access to mainstream culture have no trouble becoming competent citizens even if their parents remain greenhorns all their lives,” Mr. Pinker says. “There are few, if any, lasting effects between being raised in day care or by a stay-at-home mom or by a widowed mom.”
Studies of adoption show that when kids are grown they don’t resemble their adoptive siblings or parents at all — though they do resemble their biological relatives, Mr. Pinker points out.
Still, Mr. Pinker says, it isn’t all about the genes. For some, luck and other intangibles must be taken into account. This is the premise of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent best-seller, “Outliers.” Mr. Gladwell looked at championship athletes, business leaders and notable Americans such as Bill Gates to show how a cocktail of experiences, twists of fate and genetic traits need to be taken into account when looking at success.
“It’s incorrect to say that how kids turn out is more nature than nurture,” Mr. Pinker says. “It’s more nature than ‘parenting,’ but there are other aspects of the environment than parents — there’s the peer group and the culture, which are extremely important, but largely out of the hands of parents. Also, there’s sheer chance — how the brain developed in the womb, and various uncontrollable accidents and coincidences.”
Washington neurologist Ann B. Barnet writes in her book “The Youngest Minds: Parenting and Genes in the Development of Intellect and Emotion,” that “the ancient nature-nurture dichotomy is not helpful in describing the development process.”
“Even in an unborn baby, genes and environment interact almost from the moment of conception,” she writes. “Development is a lifelong dialogue between inherited tendencies and our life history. Children’s brains are neither blank slates waiting for the story to be written, nor immutable hard-wired circuits controlled by implacable genes. Whether and how a gene is expressed in an individual depends on the dynamic interaction of genetic inheritance and the person’s experiences.”
No matter what the argument, none of the authors will probably be able to change the parenting culture in this high-stakes era. While scientists and educational theorists have been discussing and debating theories, parents have taken parenting and environmental factors and turned them into an Olympic sport. This is the age of Baby Einstein videos, Your Baby Can Read systems, athletic conditioning for first-graders and coaching for everything from the SATs to the killer instinct.
“It’s just part of our culture, the idea that the harder parents work at child-rearing, the better the outcome will be,” Ms. Harris says. “Parents feel that they’re going to be judged on their results, and if their child doesn’t turn out to be a great success, people will think they hadn’t put in enough time and effort. Yes, it’s time for them to ease up! Family life has become too stressful and too artificial.”
Ease up, but don’t give up, says Ms. Harris. She says genes account for “only about half of the behavioral differences among us.”
“The remainder is attributed to environmental sources,” she says. “But many aspects of the home environment that everyone assumed were important turned out not to be important in the long run. On the other hand, parents have a great deal of power to determine the course of their children’s lives.”