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Nature and Nurture

February 23, 2009

nature and nurtureNature versus nurture.  The debate has gone on for years but I think most people, myself included, believe it’s a combination. There are many books which bring to light current research on gender and development – far more than I can do justice to in any one blog.  I was reminded of some of that research and some of my favorite reads on gender and development as I watched children this week.

As a young parent, I proudly described my daughter as “not a girl-ly girl.” Some folks believed me, but my friends with boys got a chuckle, knowing I had more to learn once I had (and did) have a boy.   Fast forward a couple years, when my 18 month old son picked up a train car in each hand and smashed them together, followed by the appropriate sound effects and laughter.  It was a this moment that I realized my efforts to limit media, expose him to the same creative, right-brain type activities his sister enjoyed, and well-intended nurturing  would be trumped at times by nature.  It was the first of many “ah-ha” moments as a parent of both a boy and a girl.

In the years since then, I’ve made reading and employing research on brain and gender development one of my primary goals as a parent and a teacher.  One of the most important messages I’ve taken from all this is just what I recognized that afternoon at the train table — there are simply some genetic predispositions you can’t shake no matter what your parenting style, philosophy or practice.  However, as caregivers, we have the remarkable responsibility to model and expect behaviors which will help our children grow to become strong, compassionate and responsible human beings no matter what their gender.  This is a tough task, but there are some insightful books and websites which give parents the research and strategies to help.

The development of medical technology has allowed the field of brain research to explode in recent years.  Functional MRIs can be used to research everything from ADHD, gender differences and the rapid brain development in teens.  Not all of us can, nor would want, a fMRI on our child, but the research is there for us to learn vicariously.  JoAnn Deak, author of Girls will be Girls and How Girls Thrive reveals how a child’s natural strengths show up on those fMRIs with “bushy dendrites” – that is that the neurons which control those behaviors are dense and deeply connected.  Typically, some areas of the brain are more developed in one gender than in the other.  Children will naturally gravitated towards activities which use those parts of the brain, and in turn, those dendrites become even further developed. Teachers and parents know this – kids gravitate towards activities they know best.  The converse is true and to a certain extent, the old adage “use it or lose it” rings true.  To help combat this, caregivers need to be careful observers to see where children do not gravitate  and offer experiences and opportunities to allow them to build up those underused dendrites.  Deak calls this “logging in” – time children spend  in areas which are counter to their neurological grain.   When offered in natural and fun ways, these “early against the grain gender experiences help create a well-balanced  brain that is better equipped to handle tasks and challenges a brain will contend with  all through life.”    It’s the exceptional teacher (and parent) who will help a child take a risk and try something new and then be by the child’s side as she gains the skills (and dendrites) to build her competencies in areas she previously wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

Dr. Meg Meeker talks about strong parenting skills requisite to raising boys.  Things like establishing strong relationships between boys and parents, understanding what boys need (especially a love of outdoors), rules to help them feel grounded, role models for virtue and compassion and answering the big questions in life.   Meeker reminds us that parents are the most important people in a child’s life (and don’t ‘cha forget it!).  Some of the behaviors we see in boys are hard-wired and some can be nurtured and sustained. Ah, nature and  nurture again.

Barbara Strauch offers astounding insights into the teenage brain based on current research as to what makes those puzzling teen-age brains tick.  Research and strategies also explain why just as your child begins to look physically like an adult, they suddenly act like a toddler again.  Strauch offers reassurance that it’s not you nor your teen single-handedly making life insane, but it’s nature and nurture in cahoots as she offers practical tips to deal with a rapidly evolving teen age brain and body.  Are you getting the same pattern I get from these books – to accept what strengths and challenges lie in the soul of your boy or girl and make it your business to affirm their strengths, provide unconditional love,  show them how to engage in tough tasks, wrestle with the hard questions, make smart choices, and respect themselves and others. Raising kids is tough, isn’t it?

One morning last week, we had a brief burst of snow.  My first graders know snow is my soft spot and there were pleas to go outside. We dropped our work and within minutes, were outside trying to catch silver-dollar sized snowflakes on our tongues.  An hour later, it was all rain and we had one of the few indoor recesses of the year.  As I looked around at my class, I was taken aback by what I saw.  Ten boys on the carpet with Legos everywhere. Each boy was constructing or flying a Star Wars-type ship. Several were debating the status of the aircrafts or who would get which special Lego piece.  Seven girls were crammed around a small table drawing.  My spying revealed they were all drawing flowers and making sign up sheets for the “plant club.”  The conversation was mostly about complimenting each other on their work or what to include in the club guidelines – inclusion, affirmation, and care were really what they were talking about.  I popped across the hall to share this with a colleague and chuckled at my own inability to defy nature.   Despite my successful efforts to build a community of learners who are valued for who they are and not pigeon-holed by their gender, nature won during this recess.  My little guys and gals had gravitated towards activities where their dendrites are bushiest, with same-sex peers, doing what they enjoyed.   “Ah-ha,” I thought, they are happy and productive and having a ball on this rainy morning, what else could I ask for? Not much, but it gave me food for thought as I began to formulate my goals for the next few days and I plotted ways to let them be who they are but yet be stretched in ways nature might not necessarily intend.

Here are a few books I keep handy when pondering gender, parenting, and my general sanity (there are others for this last goal, but these are my essentials):

Girls will be Girls, by JoAnn Deak

How Girls Thrive: An Essential Guide for Educators (and Parents), by JoAnn Deak

Nurture the Nature, by Michael Gurian

The Wonder of Boys, by Michael Gurian

The Wonder of Girls, by Michael Gurian

Minds of Boys, by Michael Gurian

All Kinds of Minds, Mel Levine (see also

Boys Should Be Boys: 7 Secrets to Raising Healthy Sons, by Meg Meeker

Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters, by Meg Meeker

The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries About Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids by Barbara Strauch

One Comment leave one →
  1. Karen Morgan permalink
    February 23, 2009 4:12 pm

    Lisa: another great piece of writing with a marvelous list of references. I would also add that Gurian’s website, as well as Mel Levine’s, provide a wealth of information and tremendous resources for reaffirming your underlying theme of nature AND nurture.

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