The Balance of Nature and Nurture in Child Behavior & Development

By Dr. Claudia S. Copeland, Ph.D. ·

The Power of Nature

When I first heard, as a college student, that criminal behavior was more strongly linked to kids’ biological parents than to the parents who raised them, I was skeptical. How could a parent you’ve never even met influence such a seemingly voluntary behavior? But the data from study after study tell the same story: adopted kids with a biological parent who has a criminal record are more likely to break the law later in life than kids with an adoptive parent who has a criminal record. If “nature” can have such a strong influence on such a non-biological trait, how much power do we as parents truly have to “nurture” our kids into the positive individuals we’d like them to be?

To be sure, children’s environment does have an effect on their behavioral development, but the influence of genetics is clear and strong, and the link between genetics and behavior holds true for a wide range of psychological traits, including personality traits, psychopathology, and occupational interests.

While the degree of genetic influence on behavior was shocking when I was a childless young woman, it’s a lot less surprising now. As a parent, I have seen firsthand how unique my kids’ personalities are, how their fundamental natures seemed apparent from their earliest days. They are truly, intrinsically different from each other, and different from me, in ways that just can’t be explained by their life experiences.

The Power of Nurture

And yet—the influences of the world around them, including myself as their mother, are undeniable. Early years traveling have given them both language skills and a love of and openness to other cultures and exploration. Kindness from adults and childhood friends has served to nurture compassion for others while belittling by mean-spirited schoolmates has wounded them and led them to be wary and conformist. I often ache to control their environment, to protect them, and worry that painful experiences can irreparably harm them. Intuitively aware of the power of experiences to shape children’s development, I join the ranks of 21st-century moms who feel pressured to parent their kids away from negative influences.

This pressure is fueled by data showing that child development is strongly influenced by “nurture”. Those same criminal behavior studies that showed a strong genetic component to antisocial behavior also found that kids of adopted parents with criminal records were more likely to commit crime later in life (although the biological factor was stronger), and that the kids most likely to commit crime were those whose biological and adoptive parents had criminal records.

Even in highly genetically inherited neuropsychological diseases, the role of nurture is apparent. Schizophrenia is rare among psychological disorders in the strength of its genetic component: in identical twins, when one twin is schizophrenic, the other has about a 50% chance of also being schizophrenic. And yet—even when two people are 100% genetically identical, their chance of sharing the psychological condition of schizophrenia is still only 50%, not 100%. Half of the twins of schizophrenics never show symptoms of schizophrenia. Since they are identical genetically, this must be due to the influence of “nurture”.

Nurturing with Respect for Nature

So, as parents, what are we to do? Nature is clearly influential, and a perceptive parent knows there is only so much he or she can control. (Besides, do you really want to control who your kids become, hovering over them rather than standing aside to let their individuality blossom?) But nurture is also clearly influential, and as parents, we’re responsible for teaching and guiding our kids. We’re under pressure to raise happy, confident, well-behaved children, and that pressure can be daunting when our kids don’t measure up to certain behavioral standards we would like them to achieve.

When my high-energy, often wild and rambunctious boys were quite young, I met a beautiful Zen practitioner at a local coffeehouse. Attracted by her sense of radiant peace, we started talking about meditation and raising children with mindfulness, and she told me that it was simply a given that her daughter went to meditation with her; that they would sit together, developing their practice, side by side. Recognizing the lightning stab of guilt at never having insisted that my kids meditate, I decided to be frank with her: there was simply no way my boys were going to sit still with me at a meditation center. They could barely sit still for a single meal! Meditation with my boys? No way. Impossible.

She pondered this for a moment and then pointed out that as social beings, we evolved in tribes. As such, individuals have filled different roles for eons, and one of those roles was that of the warrior.

“Maybe your kids were born to be warriors,” she mused.

As the profound nature of this idea sunk in, she continued, “Perhaps the way to mindfulness for your sons is through martial arts.”

This simple statement felt so right. So true. My boys were not incapable of discipline; they were just different from children whose nature it was to happily sit still. They needed a different path to channel their energy, and I needed to find and nurture that path. After trying a few types of martial arts, we found that kung fu was a perfect fit. Now, when my highly active boys would get restless (say, in line at the grocery store), I would send them a few feet away with orders to do a set of kung fu forms. All of a sudden, they would be perfectly focused, doing their forms in sync with each other, their wild energy channeled into effort towards a positive practice, and their problem behavior transformed into a strength.

What works for one child might not work for another—this is both the frustration and the beauty of individuality. The challenge is to recognize and respect our children’s unique nature, and then figure out how to nurture their growth, while respecting and loving that unique nature that makes each child his or her distinctive, exceptional self!

Dr. Claudia S. Copeland holds a BA in neuropsychology from the University of California at San Diego and a Ph.D. in molecular and cellular biology from Tulane University, specializing in parasitology and virology, with postdoctoral research in molecular entomology and computational genomics. A biomedical writer since 2008, she has interviewed countless medical experts in a broad range of subjects, from addiction treatment to infectious disease to mind-body medicine for wellness. A complete list of her research and popular science/health publications can be found at