Nature vs Nurture in child development
The debate surrounding the relative contributions of nature and nurture to child development has been ongoing for centuries. While in the past, this was a polarising debate, most psychological researchers are now exploring the varied qualitative ways in which nature and nurture interact in a host of contexts (Mcleod, 2023). The development of a child’s temperament, which refers to their behavioural and emotional patterns, is the result of a complex interplay between nature and nurture. Nature refers to an individual’s genetic inheritance, while nurture pertains to the impact of environmental factors on their development and behaviour such as parenting, education, and socialization. The purpose of this essay is to argue that child development is effected by both nature and nurture, even at age three, and that their interaction is complex and dynamic.
There is scientific support for the position of nature over nurture, with numerous studies demonstrating the impact of genetic factors on a wide range of developmental outcomes, including physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioural traits (Thapar & Stergiakouli, 2008; Caspi et al., 2008; Hindley et al., 2022). Research on twins have consistently shown that traits such as shyness, sociability, and emotional reactivity are heritable (Goldsmith et al., 2000), and studies have indicated that genetic factors are a significant contributor to the development of mental health conditions like autism spectrum disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (Ramaswami & Geschwind, 2018; Howe et al., 2016). In addition, intelligence has been shown to have a genetic basis, with heritability accounting for up to 50% of variation in IQ scores (Plomin & Deary, 2015). This suggests that heritability only partly accounts for a child’s intelligence.
There is substantial research citing the influence of parenting, education, and socialization experiences on a child’s developmental outcomes. Studies (Rothbart & Bates, 2007; Brody et al., 2001) have shown that positive and nurturing parenting, for instance, has been linked to better social and emotional outcomes in children, while negative or neglectful parenting can have detrimental effects on a child’s emotional and cognitive development. High-quality early education programs have also been found to be crucial for cognitive outcomes, particularly in children from disadvantaged backgrounds (Burger, 2010). In contrast, children who lack access to high-quality early education are more likely to experience negative developmental outcomes, such as lower academic achievement and higher rates of school dropout. Furthermore, it is important to consider the influence of cultural and social factors on a child’s temperament and developmental outcomes (Camilli et al., 2010). For instance, children growing up in collectivist cultures tend to prioritize social harmony and group cohesion over individualistic goals, whereas children in individualistic cultures may place greater emphasis on autonomy and independence (Rothbart & Bates, 2006).
It is essential to note that the interaction between nature and nurture is not straightforward. Studies have shown that genetic and environmental factors often interact in complex and dynamic ways to shape a child’s development. Genetic factors can influence environmental experiences, and environmental experiences can influence genetic expression. For instance, a child’s genetic makeup may make them more sensitive to environmental stressors, such as poverty or trauma, and these stressors can lead to changes in gene expression that contribute to negative developmental outcomes (McGowan et al., 2009). Likewise, environmental experiences can also influence genetic expression. This is shown in studies that demonstrated that early nurturing experiences can lead to changes in gene expression that promote positive developmental outcomes, such as resilience and emotional regulation (Meaney, 2010).
It is a popular belief that the younger the child, the less opportunity nurture has had to affect its development. However, there is a lot of evidence that environmental factors start to influence children from birth. For instance, although a study (Touchette et al., 2013) of fraternal and identical twins found that young childrens’ sleeping patterns are primarily determined by genetics, other research (Kim et al., 2016; Kim et al., 2014; Fisher et al., 2012) found that environmental factors, such as exposure to sunlight during the day and establishing a regular bedtime routine, can also significantly influence a child’s sleeping patterns.
Similarly, despite the fact that genes also determine a baby’s food preferences, whether the baby is active or sedentary and up to 60% of a baby’s temperament (Saudino, 2005), parental feeding practices and physical activity levels can shape a child’s dietary habits and physical activity patterns, demonstrating the importance of both genetic and environmental factors. Finally, while genes determine whether a baby is easy to calm and soothe when crying, activities as seemingly mundane as swaddling, rocking, and swaying can help babies overcome this genetic predisposition and improve their ability to self-regulate (Maryville University, 2020). At the age of three, a child’s temperament has been formed from a combination of genetics, environment and caregiver’s nurturing ability.
In conclusion, the development of a child’s temperament is shaped by a complex interplay between nature and nurture, and this holds true even at the age of three. While genetic factors play a role, environmental influences such as parenting, education and socialisation are also significant. Therefore, it is essential to provide children with a positive nurturing environment and high-quality early education programs to support their overall developmental outcomes, particularly during their critical early years.
Author: Catalina Nam, B Social Work (Hons), M Couns, AMHSW.
Accredited Mental Health Social Worker, Catalina Nam has extensive experience in counselling including but not limited to: NDIS; veterans; migrants; disability; domestic violence; and seniors; and she has undertaken advanced training in Grief and Loss. Having moved to Australia from Korea in 2003, she has first hand understanding of the challenges of being a migrant.
To make an appointment with Catalina Nam, try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call Vision Psychology Wishart on (07) 3088 5422.
Brody, G. H., Conger, R., Gibbons, F. X., Ge, X., McBride Murry, V., Gerrard, M., & Simons, R. L. (2001). The influence of neighborhood disadvantage, collective socialization, and parenting on African American children’s affiliation with deviant peers. Child Development, 72(4), 1231–1246. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8624.00344
Burger, K. (2010). How does early childhood care and education affect cognitive development? an international review of the effects of early interventions for children from different social backgrounds. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 25(2), 140–165. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecresq.2009.11.001
Camilli, G., Vargas, S., Ryan, S., & Barnett, W. S. (2010). Meta-analysis of the effects of early education interventions on cognitive and social development. Teachers College Record: The Voice of Scholarship in Education, 112(3), 579–620. https://doi.org/10.1177/016146811011200303
Caspi, A., Langley, K., Milne, B., Moffitt, T. E., O’Donovan, M., Owen, M. J., Polo Tomas, M., Poulton, R., Rutter, M., Taylor, A., Williams, B., & Thapar, A. (2008). A replicated molecular genetic basis for subtyping antisocial behavior in children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry, 65(2), 203. https://doi.org/10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2007.24
Fisher, A., van Jaarsveld, C. H., Llewellyn, C. H., & Wardle, J. (2012). Genetic and environmental influences on infant sleep. Pediatrics, 129(6), 1091–1096. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2011-1571
Goldsmith, H. H., Lemery, K. S., Aksan, N., & Buss, K. A. (2000). Temperamental substrates of personality. In V. J. Molfese & D. L. Molfese (Eds.), Temperament and personality development across the life span (pp. 1–32). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
Hindley, G., Frei, O., Shadrin, A. A., Cheng, W., O’Connell, K. S., Icick, R., Parker, N., Bahrami, S., Karadag, N., Roelfs, D., Holen, B., Lin, A., Fan, C. C., Djurovic, S., Dale, A. M., Smeland, O. B., & Andreassen, O. A. (2022). Charting the landscape of genetic overlap between mental disorders and related traits beyond genetic correlation. American Journal of Psychiatry, 179(11), 833–843. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.21101051
Howe, Y. J., Brand, H., & Talkowski, M. E. (2016). Genetics of autism spectrum disorder. Autism Spectrum Disorder, 161–180. https://doi.org/10.1093/med/9780199349722.003.0011
Kim, B.-R., Stifter, C. A., Philbrook, L. E., & Teti, D. M. (2014). Infant emotion regulation: Relations to bedtime emotional availability, attachment security, and temperament. Infant Behavior and Development, 37(4), 480–490. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.infbeh.2014.06.006
Kim, B.-R., Chow, S.-M., Bray, B., & Teti, D. M. (2016). Trajectories of Mothers’ emotional availability: Relations with infant temperament in predicting attachment security. Attachment & Human Development, 19(1), 38–57. https://doi.org/10.1080/14616734.2016.1252780
Maryville University. (2020, October 14). Nature vs. nurture child development. Maryville Online. Retrieved May 5, 2023, from https://online.maryville.edu/blog/nature-vs-nurture-child-development/
McGowan, P. O., Sasaki, A., D’Alessio, A. C., Dymov, S., Labonté, B., Szyf, M., Turecki, G., & Meaney, M. J. (2009). Epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor in human brain associates with childhood abuse. Nature Neuroscience, 12(3), 342–348. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2270
Mcleod, S. (2023, March 14). Nature vs. nurture debate in psychology. Simply Psychology. Retrieved May 5, 2023, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/naturevsnurture.html
Meaney, M. J. (2010). Epigenetics and the biological definition of gene?×?environment interactions. Child Development, 81(1), 41–79. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01381.x
Plomin, R., & Deary, I. J. (2014). Genetics and intelligence differences: Five special findings. Molecular Psychiatry, 20(1), 98–108. https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2014.105
Ramaswami, G., & Geschwind, D. H. (2018). Genetics of autism spectrum disorder. Neurogenetics, Part I, 321–329. https://doi.org/10.1016/b978-0-444-63233-3.00021-x
Rothbart, M. K., & Bates, J. E. (2007). Temperament. Handbook of Child Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470147658.chpsy0303
Saudino, K. J. (2005). Behavioral genetics and child temperament. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 26(3), 214–223. https://doi.org/10.1097/00004703-200506000-00010
Thapar, A., & Stergiakouli, E. (2008). Genetic influences on the development of childhood psychiatric disorders. Psychiatry, 7(7), 277–281. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mppsy.2008.05.009
Touchette, E., Petit, D., forget-Dubios, N., & Dionne, G. (2013). Genetic and environmental influences on daytime and nighttime sleep duration in early childhood. PEDIATRICS, 131(6). https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2012-2284