Nature versus Nurture: Can Good Parents Have Bad Kids?


This subject fascinates me. 'There is no such thing as bad children - only bad parents' had long been the mantra of child experts. I'm sure we're all familiar with studies showing how children raised in a violent and abusive home can turn into less than stellar citizens. Poor, neglectful, or lazy parenting has been blamed for children's bad behavior, from toddlers' temper tantrums to bullying when they grow older. When you see a child acting out in the mall or grocery store, what is your automatic response? Do you look to the parent, judge them, their appearance, and the way they react to the child's behavior? Do you question what they must have done to produce a child that acts that way?

Do you believe children are a product of their environment and not pre-decided by nature? In an article in The New York Times, respected psychiatrist Dr. Richard Friedman admitted that his profession is beginning to accept that some children are born toxic. When children are born to loving, responsible parents who provide for their needs, but they still meander off course, they could be bad seeds. Psychologists recognize temperamental differences in babies from birth, and as not every baby will grow to be a genius, neither will they all form 'nice' personalities. Even though trained professionals see all children as intrinsically good until influenced by outside sources, that theory has challengers.

The notion that some children might be the bad seeds of decent parents — is hard to take. Seemingly a negative approach, it violates a prevailing social belief that people have nearly limitless potential for change and self-improvement. A child's bad behavior does not necessarily stem from poor parenting or an impoverished environment. It is a hard-wired genetic trait and character component that circumstances can not shape; this doesn't necessarily mean the children will be psychopaths or hard criminals or that they suffer from any brand of mental illness. Some children are born with less empathy and understanding; they care much less about their actions' consequences and the effects on other people.

I struggle with the idea, I mean, I've always wanted to believe that if you raise a child with love and boundaries that child has to grow up well-adjusted, right? With nurturing, any child has limitless possibilities. We'd be amazed when a child raised in an abusive or neglectful home with limited resources becomes successful as an individual, has a loving spousal relationship, and produces healthy, happy children of their own. So, was it something in that child's genetic makeup that propelled them beyond the negative influences? What about parents who have multiple children, and some are 'normal' and others are not? 

Our involvement in the foster care system brought us many troubled teenagers; my husband and I tried to view them all as unique individuals, but give them the same love and security, a home. Sometimes the children responded well, and sometimes they didn't. A boy lived with us from the time he was eleven until he was almost thirteen, but we had to request his removal because once 'bigger' than me, he became threatening and aggressive when he didn't get his way. We struggled with this decision and continued as long as we could, but safety took precedence; we had four children of our own, and two other siblings in care at that time. We'd made him a member of our family, our school, our community. He'd joined the football team; we'd encouraged him and attended his games, celebrated his birthday and holidays, and we just plain loved him. That's what tends to happen when you take a child into your home. Yet, it wasn't enough. Even with therapists, teachers, counselors, and social workers trying to help him see that we provided him a home and a family, and it was in his best interest to 'alter' his bad behaviors, he did not. It was a form of rejection. He came from a neglectful, possibly abusive home and had six siblings scattered between relatives and some also in the foster care system. Was this the reason he rejected us? Or was it hard-wired into his genetic code? Guilt and regret filled us, and this wasn't our biological child; I can't imagine how we'd feel if one of our children had treated us the way he had. I have read stories about families that have a child who feels no connection to them, abuses, and threatens family members with no guilt or remorse. The parents claim they are at their wits' end and don't understand it. Without excusing bad parents, maybe there is a grain of truth in the idea that not all people are born good?