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Nature or Nurture?

I was recently asked about the book The Nurture Assumption, and the argument that peers, and not parents, are most responsible for who children become.

I'll start with an excerpt from a wonderful article on the origins of teenage rebellion, "The Relationship Between Feelings and Behavior" by Dr. Sidney Craig:

"If we want our children to spend time with us, to like us, to confide in us, to value some of the things we value, and to try to make us happy (for example, by refraining from the use of dangerous drugs), we must behave toward them in ways that create feelings of love toward us rather than feelings of dislike or anger. We cannot reasonably expect to receive 'good' behavior from our children unless we create 'good' feelings in them."

Because it is so painful, often too painful, for an adult to recognize and remember the pain of betrayal in infancy and early childhood, he/she can easily fool themselves into self-deception. They'll blame anything outside themselves rather than face the painful truth. In her landmark article "Childhood Trauma", Alice Miller explains:

"...information about the cruelty suffered during childhood remains stored in the brain in the form of unconscious memories. For a child, conscious experience of such treatment is impossible. If children are not to break down completely under the pain and the fear, they must repress that knowledge. But the unconscious memories of the child who has been neglected and maltreated, even before he has learned to speak, drive the adult to reproduce those repressed scenes over and over again in the attempt to liberate himself from the fears that cruelty has left with him."

Early childhood is the starting point for all love and for all cruelty in later years. To the degree that an infant/child has been given compassion, they will pass it on to others in the future. There's a Swedish saying, "man far den respekt man ger": "one gets the respect one gives". Unfortunately the converse is also true, when we give disrespect (including all forms of punishment) to a child, we breed disrespect, anger, and retaliatory impulses within that child that will be passed on to others later.

Here is an analogy: compassionate early parenting is like a well-built boat, protecting the child from the sea of all subsequent disappointments, temptations, frustrations, and sorrows. Blaming teenage crime on peer pressure (or video games, movies, music, clothing, the Internet, the media, or anything else in current culture), is like blaming a storm for overturning a child's poorly-built boat. We know that there will always be storms in our children's lives. There will always be temptations, disappointments, sorrows, even tragedies. Their ability to cope with these events is what really matters. Do they have a strong enough boat, or do they have a boat with holes? Do they have any boat at all, or have they been put to sea without any protection? And when they drown, do we blame the wind and the rain, the wake of passing motorboats, and the clutching hands of their boatless peers, or do we start building better boats for all of our children?

Let me use my son Jason as an example. Because he has been treated with love, compassion, and trust from birth, he is riding over the sea of life in a very sturdy boat. I find it difficult to imagine any circumstance or experience that would lead him to an inhumane action, because he would simply withstand any such attempts. I will go even further and say that he would not only withstand them, he would put every effort into helping his peers to have their relevant emotional needs met in a more sane and healthy way. I've seen him do this.

Because of the pain of recognizing the hurt and disappointment in our own childhood, we'll blame anything else to avoid feeling that sorrow. But the truth is as simple as a bumper sticker I once saw: "A happy childhood lasts forever."

Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.