Nature vs. Nurture in Adoption

Dawn Davenport


Nature vs. Nurture

Is it our home environment and parenting style that will determine how our adopted kids turn out or is it their genetics from birth parents?

Before I had kids, I was a nurturist all the way. I believed that the environment I created for my children would determine how they “turned out”.  Oh sure, I would have acknowledged that there might be variations, but I figured these would be variations on the same theme.  Since I was going to be the perfect mother, I would, of course, create the perfect environment for child rearing.

Our home would be an intellectual and artistic haven– stimulating, but not over the top. I would involve my well behaved progeny in carefully selected intellectual, athletic, and artistic endeavors, while leaving plenty of unstructured time for them to ponder the fate of dandelion puffs.  I would fill our house with books, educational toys (made of wood—very expensive wood I might add), and nutritious food.  Oh sure, I’d indulge them occasionally with some cheap, plastic, easily broken, mind rotting toy and a box or two of Fifth Avenue hyped, sugar laden cereal to keep them from feeling deprived when they compared notes with their friends, but since they would only watch the occasional PBS TV show, they would be protected from the dirty touch of advertising and would be more than satisfied by mom-approved toys and cereals.  Yes sir, I was a nurturist all the way because I so wanted to believe that I was in control.

Now that I’m in the uncontrolled midst of parenting four very very different kids, I realize that control is an illusion, and I’m not sure where I stand on the nature vs. nurture debate.  My family is a mix of children by birth and adoption spread out over ten years and raised in the same house by the same parents.  The nurture argument would say my kids would be similar since their environment was similar.  The nature argument would say that my biologically related kids would be more alike than the adopted child.  Neither of these arguments is correct in my family.  I think that may be why I am so fascinated with the nature vs. nurture argument.

An advantage of hosting a radio show is that I get to schedule and talk with the top experts in the subjects I find fascinating, and I’ve loved both of the shows we’ve done on the relative influences of biology and environment.  I’m intrigued by the “famous” twin studies, so on one show (Nature, Nurture, Genetics, and Environment) our guests were the directors of two of the leading longitudinal twin studies in the US.  The guests on the other show (Is Genetics or the Environment Most Important in Determining Who Our Kids Will Be?) represented two of the leading adoption studies in the US and also were both involved in twin research, as well.  I was like a middle school girl with a crush on both shows.

Research findings on the influence of genetics and environment are fascinating.  Eerie similarities between identical twins reared apart exist, but their research doesn’t support a genetic vice grip on how we turn out.  Some things, such as physical appearance, ADHD, and obesity appear to be highly controlled by genes.  But most other things, such as IQ and personality, have only a moderate genetic connection.  And some things, such as social attitudes (I think this means things like liberal vs. conservative, generosity, etc.), job satisfaction, how readily we fall in love, and our sense of humor, seem to be influenced very little by genetics.

Determining the relative influence of genes and environment is particularly hard in real life, in real families, because each child in a family has a unique environment.  Although my kids have been raised by the same parents in the same home, their environments have differed since their place in the family, life experiences, talents and personality are different.  For example, our eldest was burdened and blessed with three younger siblings throughout most of her life, while our youngest experienced quite different burdens and blessings by having three older siblings.  One son is a gifted student, the other struggles.  They are spaced out by ten years, so arguably they haven’t really had the same parents since we were different parent when our eldest was born than we were ten years later when our youngest arrived.  Also, as one of the experts pointed out, each child changes their environment and our parenting by being who they are.

Four kids and more than a few years later, I’m far less certain of most things in life and all things in parenting.  I quickly figured out that I wasn’t cut out to be a nurturist, since that put way too much pressure on me and drained the fun right out of parenting.  Jumping ship to the naturist side had some appeal since I wouldn’t be held responsible if my children’s fate was predetermined by the arbitrary mixing of DNA.  This was reassuring since I was far from the perfect parent.  (I had an inkling of this my first week of parenthood, when I decided that baths were too traumatic for us both, and since we wiped her bottom and face regularly, they were unnecessary.)  Despite the allure of passing the buck to the genetic whims of nature, however, I couldn’t ignore the similarities in my kids—both by birth and adoption—that seemed to have an environmental connection.

Right now in my parenting journey I have replaced “versus” with “and” in the nature vs. nurture debate.  It seems to me that we are all a product of both our genes and our environment, and that we have a great deal of control over our environment.  I recently read a quote by a psychologist that researched in this field.  When asked if nature or nurture contributed more to a personality, he responded, “Which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its length or its width?”  This is strangely reassuring to me now.

Image credit: Road Fun

22/12/2009 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 18 Comments

18 Responses to Nature vs. Nurture in Adoption

  1. Avatar Kim H says:

    I think Dawn was reading my journal! Well, minus the radio hosting part… And the quote at the end gives me substantial peace too. Our Creator is amazing!

    • Avatar Dawn says:

      Amen, Kim, amen!

      • Avatar Elly says:

        Can’t wait for the four years of Hillary or Osama we can supposedly live through, and the permanent new national socialized healthcare enmutletent/bireaucracy that will never be rolled back. No entitlement ever gets rolled back, only expanded.

  2. Avatar Erica Burgan says:

    My son, who is adopted, is writing a term paper on nature vs. nurture in adoption and would LOVE to know the name and source of the quote you used at the end about the rectangle. If you could email it to me, that would be tremendously helpful!! Any other sources you might know of would be fantastic, too. He is currently working on the annotated bibliography portion of his pre-writing for this paper. It is for his psychology class – he is studying to become a psychologist counseling teens and families!

    • Erica, I don’t remember off the top of my head, but I know he could find it by googling it. I’d search for the key words in the quote and the “nature vs. nurture”. I could do it, but it would be far better for him to play around and get good at finding things on the internet. As far as other sources on this topic, I linked to 2 fantastic interviews on two Creating a Family show with the very top experts on this subject in the blog itself.

  3. Avatar Michelle Harris says:

    I agree with you on this topic and appreciate how you articulated it. I have two birth daughters and am able to see personality traits and physical traits that have come from my parents and even grandparents. We are in the process of adopting a child/children from another country and I think about how little I will know of the nature piece.
    Thank you for the illustration of the rectangle. I definitely think it is nature AND nurture.

  4. Avatar Maggie Dean says:

    This is so interesting the nature nuture debate will forever be debated . Havingnow I will never work this one out really interesting though x adopted and birth children I k

  5. Avatar Elizabeth Larsen says:

    Thanks for this post, Dawn–it so speaks to my own experience that I’m grateful someone was able to articulate it so well. Happy holidays!

  6. Avatar Penelope S. J. says:

    Oh no, your before description of what you wanted your parenting to be sounds exactly like mine. Now I have to contemplate the after vision. Humm. I do like the quote about both genetics and environment being important. I can see what you mean about it being comforting.

  7. My children are via traditional surrogacy and are boys. My surrogate’s kids are amazing and I adore them. I got to know them for a VERY long time before our surrogate achieved conception and then, carried and delivered. It is AMAZING how some things transcend nurture.

    Like their love of all things cars. And how they interact with said cars.

    I feel blessed beyond blessed that I got to know these children, and so well, before the boys were born. To respect their privacy and that of our sons, I won’t go into details but really, genetics does play a part in personality. One of our sons is very like our surrogate’s son. I am glad for that, and that I know her son, and can handle my son in the same way.

    It is a total blessing.

    At the same token, nurturing plays the biggest role. Consistency, everything.

    When our surro was preganant a friend of mine who has twins (that have SPD and a host of really difficult issues) told me every day she wakes up w/a smile and a big hearted attitude towards the day. No matter what. That is how I totally roll the second I walk into their room. They are the most loving, positive kids I know, because really… they are surrounded by positive energy.

    Blessings to you in the new year, ICLW!!!!! hugs

  8. Avatar lily ashley says:

    i enjoyed reading your post, it was very interesting, thank you

    ICLW hugs!

  9. Avatar Ben's Mommy says:

    Thoughtful blog. I too have thought about how much of what I see in my little guy is due to his environment or due to his genetics. I too find the idea that both count to be reassuring. Thanks for the encouragement.

  10. Avatar WifeyC says:

    Thank you for posting. It was very interesting to read. And it is amazing how your outlook can change once you are in the situation.


  11. What a great read!


  12. Avatar staciet says:

    What a great topic to discuss. It is one that is especially intriguging because I have twins. They are fraternal, but still you’d think there would be more in common between the two of them than there is. They are raised the same, yet they are so different. They look so different, yet there are still so many similarities. Ugh. It could make my mind explode if I let it!

    I think I am with you on the nature “and” nurture idea. It makes for less chance of me cleaning up brain matter. 🙂

    Here from ICLW.

  13. Avatar Alana-isms says:

    Here from ICLW…

    What excellent food for thought. I am intrigued by “nature vs. nurture” and enjoyed reading this post. 🙂

  14. Avatar Betty Boop says:

    Your radio show on this topic was fabulous! I particularly liked the discussion of how prospective adoptive parents should evaluate mental health information of birth parents when deciding on whether to accept an adoption referral or birth mother match. I also found the discussion about how much of personality and temperment were influenced by our genes and how much by our environment. It’s funny because it has made me look at my husband, who had a really weird upbringing, in a whole new light. The interview was great and I enjoy this blog on the same topic. It’s nice to hear your personal opinion on a show topic since you don’t usually give your opinion on the topics on your shows.

  15. Avatar chrissy says:

    this is such an interesting topic for me too! thanks for the info!

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