Shaping little humans

I’ve long had a fascination with the nature versus nurture debate. Is it nature (what kids are born with) or is it nurture (how the human environment shapes kids)?

Some experts go with percentages. Many twins studies (often used to measure the impact of genetics) suggest that it’s approximately 50% nature and 50% nurture. That’s a little too neat for my liking.

Another way to view the debate is to view nature as human potential and nurture as human influence. That is, our biology lays out possible pathways for children along the lines of gender, temperament and intelligence. That is, boys’ and girls’ brains develop differently; children are born with individual temperaments that don’t change very much over time; and children have special gifts and intelligence in different areas (some like to write, some are more verbal, artistic, sporty and the like. It can be argued that biology impacts on kids’ pathways but it only presents possibilities rather than fait accompli.

On the other hand, children within the same family who have obvious biological differences (e.g. highly strung temperament vs easy-going) frequently share many similarities. It’s the similarities between children within an environment that demonstrate the impact of nature. When all children in a family share a trait, characteristic or value (such as tolerance, persistence, independence, kindness) then you can safely attribute this to the impact of parents or carers. It’s quite clearly upbringing rather than nature that causes the similarities.

How parents shape children

If parenting is the art of shaping little humans then it’s useful to consider the tools we have at our disposal to influence children.

Modelling is perhaps the most powerful way to shape little humans. The parent-child relationship is an intimate one. Kids see our quirks and foibles first hand so it’s little wonder many children conduct relationships in similar ways to their parents including how they resolve or avoid conflict. US psychologist Martin Seligman’s research into optimism and pessimism found most children’s explanatory style closely resembles that of the parent they spend most time around. Seligman’s work suggests that adults need to be aware of how they speak about themselves and the world as the sponge-like nature of kids mean that they will soak up their optimism and/or pessimism.

The messages that parents give through our language and behaviour on a daily basis also shape the humans that we are raising. Tell a child he’s capable; back this up by treating him as if he is capable and you’ll be sending a powerful message a long the lines of: ‘I really believe you can do this’. Actions speak louder than words when it comes to the messages we give to kids.

The traits and characteristics that parents value have a massive impact on children. If, for example, you value persistence then you’ll more than likely foster this in each child but in different ways. You may throw your eyes up in despair when your child fights tooth and nail to stay up longer each night but secretly, you may welcome the fact that you have a child can stay the course when it matters to them. If you value persistence you’ll push your child to go a little harder at a homework conundrum rather then allow him to give in too easily. Your values will be shown through the things you stand up for and frequently fight over with your kids.

The lifestyle you lead also helps to shape the humans that you are raising. “All work and no fun” is a lifestyle that stressed out parents present to their kids. Your lifestyle impacts on your stress levels and well-being which also impacts on kids. But more importantly, your lifestyle is a template for the life that your kids are likely to lead as adults. Okay, your child won’t lead exactly the same life as you do, but the lifestyle imprint is significant enough to leave residual guilt and lead to potential conflict should your children take a 180 degree opposite lifestyle direction from yours.

Shaping little humans. It’s what parents do every day. It may sound a little spooky, even a little controlling. But it’s not.

It’s the socialisation process that we all experienced on the way to our own adulthood. In fact, it’s the socialisation process that is at the heart of great parenting. And it truly makes us human.

And it’s the socialisation process – the shaping of little humans – that makes parenting such an important and hopefully, satisfying job.

For practical ideas and techniques to help you shape little humans, plus our latest parenting courses and resources – subscribe to our Happy Kids newsletter. My latest book Spoonfed Generation: How to raise independent children has lots of practical ideas to help you shape capable little humans.