Monday, March 9, 2015

Nature versus Nurture: Can Good Parents Have Bad Kids?

I am fascinated by this subject. '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 out to be less than stellar citizens. Poor, neglectful, or lazy parenting has been blamed for children behaving badly, from toddler temper tantrums to bullying when they are 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 just born toxic. When children are born into loving homes with parents who are responsible and provide for their needs, but still go off course, it could be that they are just bad seeds. Psychologists recognize there are temperamental differences in babies from birth, and just as not every baby will grow to be a genius, neither will they all form 'nice' personalities. Even though professionals were trained to see all children as intrinsically good until influenced by outside sources that theory is being challenged.

The notion that some children might be the bad seeds of more or less decent parents — is hard to take. Seemingly a negative approach, it violates a prevailing social belief that people have a 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 simply a hard-wired genetic trait and character component that cannot be shaped by the best of circumstances. This doesn't necessarily mean the children will grow up to be psychopaths or hard criminals or that they suffer from any brand of mental illness. There are children who are born with less empathy and understanding of people and who care much less about the consequences of their actions 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 relationship with a spouse and produces healthy, happy children of their own. So, was it something in that child's genetic make up that prevented them from being influenced negatively? What about parents who have multiple children, and some are 'normal' and others are not? I have four siblings, three brothers and a sister. My sister and I are definitely more alike than we are similar to our brothers. Don't get me wrong, my brothers are not bad people. However, they have always been much less likely to care about the consequences of their actions than my sister and me. All raised in the same home, and yet while growing up my brothers were always in trouble, giving the parents grief. I say growing up, even though they are forty-one, thirty-nine, and thirty-eight and still get off the tracks now and then.

Being involved with the foster care system, and many troubled teenagers, my husband and I tried to see 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. We had a boy live with us from the time he was eleven, until he was almost thirteen and had to be removed because once he was '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 my personal safety had to come before trying to help the child. 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 joined the football team, we encouraged him and went to watch his games. We celebrated his birthday and holidays, and we just plain loved him. I mean, that's what tends to happen when you take a child into your home. Yet, it wasn't enough. Even with therapists, teachers, counselors, social workers and the most support we could receive also trying to help him see that we were providing him with 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 home, possibly abusive, with 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 own children treated us the way he did. I have been reading 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. I don't want to excuse bad parents, but maybe there is a grain of truth in the idea that not all people are born good?

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