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April 4, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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The Nature of Nurture

In reference to his song ‘We Are All Made of Stars’, Moby observed, “On a basic quantum level, all the matter in the universe is essentially made up of stardust”. Among the failed drafts in Moby’s wastepaper bin may have been the observation ‘We Are All Made of Genes’. Lyrically deficient, yes, but still holding a kind of amazing banality.

Just imagine all those tiny staircases which inhabit every atom in every organ and extremity of every human. Perhaps it is these simple double helix structures, carried through history by our ghostly carbon-based line, which can provide insight into that common conundrum—who will we become?

Genes have been seen as a magic code to development. A place where we can turn and, if an interpreter is available, learn about both our history and our future. They have been placed in one corner of the Nature versus Nurture debate, where two vague concepts oppose each other despite common acceptance of the idea that most characteristics have both genetic and environmental components. Genes provide likelihoods not certainties. A specific genetic sequence can give an increased probability that a characteristic will develop, but a wealth of factors influence whether the medical condition or personality trait does develop and to what extent.

Factors in Development

Developmental influences begin early, according to Victoria psychology lecturer Dr Deirdre Brown. She notes that environmental influences are present from the time of conception, with pre-natal factors such as maternal nutrition and exposure to drugs, medication and alcohol having a strong correlation with later outcomes for children.
Once a child is born, there are many factors that can alter the path development takes. Brown discusses the importance of opportunity in terms of stimulation and development for children. Books, colours, shapes, and play can create opportunities for stimulation, as well as the resource-free activity of having a chat. Research has shown that talking with young children has positive effects for their memory and conversational ability. Parents who use an elaborative style of discussion enhance these qualities in their children more than parents who use more of a question/answer approach.

In describing an elaborative approach, Brown uses the example of a child who has just visited the zoo, and “the parent is then prompting the child to tell Dad what they did that day—the child says ‘We saw bear’ and the mother says, ‘That’s right, we did see bear. And what colour was bear? He was very growly wasn’t he?’ and so they’re encouraging the child to go beyond the one statement.”

While opportunity is often seen as something that is easier for more wealthy parents to provide, this form can be provided on any bank balance. A lack of opportunity can create difficulties for children later on, although Brown notes that this can be compensated for in other areas such as pre-school, primary school and organisations like Plunket that provide useful information and resources.

Relationships and culture are influential in shaping childhood development. While the child-parent relationship is a significant one, a loss or deterioration of this relationship can be made up for by other people in the child’s life such as a grandparent, aunt, uncle, family friend or teacher. Brown believes that culture provides a sense of support for children and can be a “huge strength” in development. However, there can be difficulties when this cultural support base is threatened or removed—for example, when an aspect of a person’s identity conflicts with their culture, or upon immigration to another country.

Family history plays a large role and can alter how parents decide to raise their children, as well as providing a child’s genetic background. Whether positively or negatively, a person’s parenting style is often influenced by the way they were brought up. Conversely, Brown highlights the situation where parents decide that they will take a different approach to what they knew growing up—“Many people say ‘I’m not going to do it the way my Mum and Dad did it’, so they’re rejecting something they’ve experienced in favour of something else”.

While Brown does not think there is a single factor which is most crucial in shaping the adults children become, she observes that learning is the most significant mechanism by which children develop. This is learning, not in the sense of a formal school environment, but “what we take on board walking around in every day life… The things children are observing, the messages they take from that and how they then use that to shape their own behaviour”.

Stages of Development

The basic stages of development include the sensorimotor stage from birth to age two, where children experience the world primarily through movement and senses. The preoperational stage is from ages two to seven. Children acquire motor skills during this period but generally do not begin to think logically until after the age of seven. Abstract reasoning develops after the age of 12. Given the difference in the way children perceive the world, Brown says that it is important for parents to “get away from the notion that children are mini adults and they think, act and interpret in the same way that we do”. She notes that there is a “real quality difference” in how children view simple interactions and the messages they take from them.

It is generally accepted that there are stages to development, but the boundaries between these stages are not rigidly defined. Children of the same age group may be in different stages of development or some may have progressed in one aspect of development but not another. Brown says that this is one of the aspects which is looked at if a child is having social difficulties—for example, if they are bullying or being bullied. A mismatch in social maturation between the child and their peers might be a factor in the problem.

Although change is a normal and necessary part of social maturation, developmental stages can cause parents concern when their child begins to act differently toward them. Part of social development is a shift in focus from family to peers. Brown says that when children are young they look up to their parents who they see as all-knowing but around the ages of eight to ten children alter their “benchmark” from their parents to their friends. This can be difficult for parents, who can see this as rejection rather than a normal stage of development—“this child is something you’ve invested your world in and all of a sudden, it feels like you’re less important to them than they are to you”.

Further tension in the relationship between children and their parents can occur when teenagers begin to push boundaries. This is a normal part of growing up and has been illustrated by Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi’s findings in the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Study (a study of 1000 children born in the early ’70s). Moffitt and Caspi’s research was looking for reasons why there is a peak in criminal behaviour between the ages of 17 and 25 which is dramatically reduced after this period.

The study found that two groups were accounting for offenders in this age group—a small portion of the group (around 5 per cent) were ‘life course persistent’ offenders while the bulk of the surge in criminality was accounted for by the ‘adolescent limited’ group which, in Brown’s words, “was your regular Joe Bloggs adolescent who engaged in an extreme period of acting out between the ages of about 15 to 22”. Moffitt and Caspi were able to show that anti-social behaviour is the norm for this period of development.

A theory that was developed for this trend is that young people are reaching physical maturity before this is recognised with the rights and responsibilities of societal maturation. Brown says that “back in the day, the log cabin kind of day, a 15-year-old would have been considered an adult, and at that point would have moved out of the family log cabin and built their own log cabin next door.”

These days, although there is evidence to show that people are reaching puberty and physical maturity earlier, full independence is not societally accepted until much later down the track. Pushing boundaries can be seen as a way of establishing autonomy. Young people are making their own decisions, even if these are not great decisions due to a lag between physical maturity and the ability to rationalise.

The frontal lobe of the brain, which is responsible for decision making, planning, goal-directed behaviour and cost benefit analysis is not fully developed until a person’s early 20s. It has been proposed that this delayed maturation might be a factor in what Brown calls “a lot of the undergraduate madness in terms of the drinking behaviour, the crazy stunts and the disproportionate level of things like drink driving in that group”.

Brown says that one of the questions raised by Caspi and Moffitt from these findings is whether it is sensible for young people to be making significant life decisions about what they will study and if they will study at age 18 when they “don’t necessarily have all their capacities operating at full speed yet.” A possible solution could be for young people to study more generally at first as in America where students generally complete an undergraduate degree before deciding which more specific, professionally orientated course to pursue.

Putting Theory into Practice

Despite, as Brown puts it, “waxing and waning perspectives on environment versus genetics”, there is now a general consensus on the influence of both although the contribution of each may vary. The challenge is translating developmental theory, which acknowledges a range of different influences on development, in to workable advice for parents and effective treatment options for patients.

It would seem logical to provide patients with treatment which recognises all aggravating and alleviating developmental factors. However, there are difficulties when it is not clear exactly how a condition is being caused. For example, there is research showing that autism has a strong genetic component but because the mechanism has not yet been established, autism is treated behaviourally. Even if the factors which influence a condition are clearly established, the cost and resource intensive nature of treating all contributory factors might dissuade policy makers from implementing it into public health system practice.

For parents it can be hard to merge “pockets of findings” into one consistent best practice parenting style. As a clinical psychologist, Brown aims to bring academic research together to provide a method that “reassures parents about how to be a good enough parent, rather than striving for the perfect parent because that then adds to stress and complications”.

Influences in development are often only examined when something is going wrong. Considering the complexities of the process, it is perhaps incredible that for most people development occurs without difficulty. Brown describes maturation as a “quite miraculous process that needs a combination of things to all happen in the right sort of way at the right sort of time”. Development is “unthinking”—it is something children do while they ride their bikes, are read to by their parents or collect insects from the garden.

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