Morals: The Nature vs Nurture Debate
Start children off on the way they should go,
and even when they are old they will not turn from it.
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
:: Morals, Looking for Answers ::
When it comes to instilling morals, these verses are iconic in the Christian community for parents. The problem is, they are not a road map, but more of a command. In fact, most of the Bible is that way. And I think God did this for a reason. If we were just handed all the answers, we would not do much growing.
And while that might be intellectually satisfying, the problem still remains. If you were to put these verses in Jeopardy terms, they are the answer. It is up to us to find the right question. And I think that is where nature vs nurture comes into play when we are talking about morals. We need to find the correct starting point and work are way toward the solution of properly trained children. So here are a few starting questions:
- If we are to train each child to be righteous, should we train all children the same?
- Are some children born with proclivities toward particular good/bad traits?
- If some children inherit certain good/bad traits, can they be taught how to enhance/overcome them?
What We Know About Nature vs Nurture:
Here is what we understand about nature vs nurture when it comes to morals. We know that when shaping personality, for example, a lot depends on genetic factors. Up to 50% of a person’s personality, according to Psychology in Action, depends on what they inherited from their parents. So whether they are shy, outgoing, more aggressive or more passive will be given to them at birth. How they express those tendencies, however, will depend on how they are raised.
Here is a quote from “Contemporary Research on Parenting” (PDF) to illustrate the point:
“contemporary evidence confirms that the expression of heritable traits depends, often strongly, on experience, including specific parental behaviors, as well as predispositions and age-related factors in the child.”
So a child can be born with certain proclivities, but how they are expressed will depend on parenting style and other environmental factors.
Take Ricky Lee Green for example. Ricky was a serial murderer, but he did not start out that way. Ricky was featured in the book, Hardwired Behavior and serves as a tragic case of nature combining with nurture to create a monster. Ricky was raised by a father who beat him and a grandfather who sexually abused him. We can surmise from his father’s and grandfather’s anti-social and immoral behavior that he too was born with latent anti-social traits. And while Ricky was probably born with genetic markers that leaned toward anti-social behavior by pedigree, his upbringing only reinforced it. By the time he was an adult, he was a person confused about his sexual identity and a serial murderer. He was later put to death for his crimes. When it comes to morals and moral interaction, Ricky was probably impulsive and lacked robust empathy from birth, but his training and experience as a child only taught him to use those traits negatively.
Here is a quick look at how morals are instilled throughout our childhood:
So What About Morals:
Let’s go back to our questions and provide some extra information:
If we are to train each child to be righteous, should we train all children the same?
No, we should not train each child the same. If we understand that each child is born with their unique advantages/challenges, then each child must be trained according to their unique temperament. This means that if a child begins to exhibit anti-social behavior, being overly firm or cruel will only exacerbate the situation and reenforce the behavior. Each child must be disciplined and rewarded based off of their temperament.
If some children inherit certain good/bad traits, can they be taught how to enhance/overcome them?
Yes, parental influence and guiding have a profound impact on a child. But what is just as important are these contributing factors:
- the warmth of the marital relationship
- the security of extended family relations
- being raised in a loving community of friends
- being exposed to opportunities to explore
- being exposed to opportunities to succeed
Since morality is the ability to empathize with another person and treat them the way you would want to be treated, creating environments for them to interact and build bonds with loving, caring, trusted people is imperative. Seeing the love of a secure marriage builds security, knowing that family and friends care for them builds a willingness to explore, and opening them up to opportunities allows them to succeed in incremental levels. All this helps to instill love, care, and trust and downplays any need to dominate, manipulate, or control in a bid for temporary security.
Morals are taught. But as we have seen, it is not as simple as sitting down and reading from a rule book. We cannot just plug them in like we would a computer. Each child is born with a unique temperament and proclivities that we must address. If we can understand how they react to different environments, situations, and discipline styles – we can begin to tailor our approach and training style. I think that is why Paul exhorts fathers not to “exasperate your children” but rather to grow them in the light and love of God. In this way our children will grow up healthy, happy, moral, and ready to face the world.