Nature vs. Nurture: Growing Up In A Blended Family

“Where did he learn that?” was a frequent comment my well-meaning mother would often ask as she observed my children. Other times you could hear her say, “He must have got that from his grandpa.” The nature vs. nurture debate has gone on for hundreds of years dating back to medieval French times. It can also be referred to as genetics vs. environment. It is an issue that compares whether human behavior is decided by biological DNA or by the environment one grows up in. It can be compared to a tree. As illustrated in the video “Nature vs Nurture/Genetics/Biology/FuseSchool,” When a tree is planted, the seed has certain characteristics native to that kind of tree. Therefore, it should grow that type of leaf or fruit. If it is planted in good soil and around similar trees, it will usually bear the type of fruit you are expecting. However, if the tree doesn’t receive enough water or sunlight then it won’t produce the same outcome. Hence, the nature vs nurture comparison. The tree has its own DNA but didn’t receive the care it needed to grow properly. In this case, we see that both roles played a part and are necessary for survival. 

When we are born, we each have our own unique physical traits and genes that make up our DNA. The only time where your DNA will be exactly the same as someone else is if you are an identical twin. Even identical twins will develop their own likes and dislikes and individual talents and interests as they grow. Their DNA will always be the same but due to the different environments they are in, they will become unique individuals. 

So what exactly is the debate and is there a clear answer? Let’s discuss what each one represents. Nature is the DNA we are born with. This comes from our genetic background. In other words, from our biological family passed down from generations. These hereditary traits may include hair and eye color, height, health issues, and physical features. Our ability to do well in sports or music is often attributed to our genetic makeup. Although training in these areas can improve our performance also. 

To nurture someone or something, means you care for it. Nurture also refers to all the environmental variables that impact who we are including how and where we are raised, social relationships, and surrounding cultures. As with the tree, if it is cared for with love and proper nutrients like the soil and the sun, the tree will thrive. A child, therefore, needs to be cared for in a loving and nurturing environment. Will the adopted child then continue to exhibit only genetic traits or begin to develop new characteristics from the environment they are being raised in? This is where the argument begins.

I spoke with a mother who has both biological and adopted children. I asked her to share

 her thoughts with me about the nature vs nurture controversy. She said, “When you have biological kids who understand you, it’s easier to lay down certain expectations and have them live their lives the way you did yours. But with adopted kids, it’s an entirely different genetic gene pool often with generations of trauma and mental illness mixed in. You really have to focus on letting go of expectations of what you want and become a partner with your child as you learn together who they are and who they can be.”

As an adoptive parent myself, I know how hard this can be. When you adopt a newborn baby, you have dreams of what he or she will become. You have high aspirations that you can develop this tiny, helpless being into whatever you want. You don’t take into consideration that much of that was already decided long before you were in the picture. All you see as the excited new parent is what you want them to become. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This is what drives you each day to love and care for this human being you have been entrusted to raise. When it becomes a problem is when they start to exhibit traits different than what you were expecting. Traits different than your own or the environment you are used to can make you feel inadequate as a parent. This can cause a lot of frustration as you take on unknown territory and try to navigate your way through. Often, this conflict of interest can cause friction between you and your adopted child. There are obviously conflicts between parents and biological children too. Children who are adopted may feel like they are being treated differently, that they have to work harder to get attention, or that it’s harder to be recognized for their behavior or accomplishments. Usually this is not the case, but because of their genetic differences, this is how they may interpret their role in the family. 

No matter how much nurturing is given to the adopted child, they may not recognize it as love. According to a study found in Sciencemag.org, it can take multiple generations for biological factors that affect how genes are expressed to go away. The term “transgenerational Trauma” suggests that trauma can be transferred between generations. This study implies that any kind of trauma a child may have had in their biological family may continue to interrupt their ability to function at a full-potential. Either in utero or in the case of an older child who is adopted, this can be detrimental to their development. This means that “the nurturing work is meaningful, but the fruit of the labor often isn’t seen in your lifetime” (Bhartley). As hard as that is to accept, at least we can find comfort in knowing that it will eventually make a difference. 

As I was raising my blended family of both biological and adopted children, I would often forget that two of my children were adopted. I was so caught up in making sure everyone felt loved and cared for that I forgot to consider how they were feeling. Now, as my youngest of six approaches his high school graduation, I wonder if any of them ever felt cheated or unloved because of my selfish desires of wanting more children. There is a twenty-one-year span between my oldest and youngest child. My older daughters had a very different experience with adopted siblings and having multiple foster children in our home than the younger siblings did. In response to my asking for comments from my own children, my second oldest daughter shared these thoughts with me concerning being raised in a blended family. Our first son was adopted privately through an adoption attorney. Our girls were 6 and 8 when we adopted him and they were a part of the entire process. She states, “I had been the baby for six years, but don’t remember any kind of jealousy. Only happiness to add to our family. He was a sibling just like my others. I think we all bonded easier with him since he was a newborn baby.” As an adult now, he has told us that we showed him that you don’t have to be related by blood to be loved. He is married and has gained two beautiful children. He is proud to have them call him “daddy.”

Our daughter who was adopted was 2 ½ years old when she came into our home as a child in foster care. Uncertain if adoption would eventually happen, a bond wasn’t formed instantly. We had had several children in foster care in our home over the years and, though they were treated with love and care, we knew they would eventually leave us. When she was adopted several months later, she became a part of our family. It was more difficult to form a bond with her since she had already developed a personality and very strong characteristics. Her older sisters were away at college when she was adopted and it made it hard to develop a sisterhood. Also, while they were away, I had a biological baby boy. He was 5 months old when the little girl came to live with us and they developed a special bond as she loved to help me care for him. I suffered postpartum depression following the birth of my son and my older daughter noted that although my adopted daughter’s physical needs were met, her emotional needs may not have been as well as some of my other children’s. There were two older boys in the home then too. I have very little memory of her first 6 months with us. Eventually, we were able to create a mother/daughter relationship. As quoted from my older, biological daughter, “I’m proud to say I come from a loving family with parents and siblings who have worked through good times and bad and accept me and my siblings for who we each are as individuals. A family isn’t created by blood. It’s created by the sweat and tears that go into building loving family relationships and unity.” 

I asked others to share their experiences with me of growing up in a blended family. One response was that since she was the oldest and only biological child, she often missed having her parents to herself. Their family had suffered the loss of her brother and thus began the foster-to-adopt process when she was 11 years old. She says,”It’s important to remind bio kids that their feelings are valid and that it’s okay to talk to parents about how they feel. It’s also a good lesson on how to be selfless. I never looked at my siblings ‘differently’ because they weren’t blood-related. I love them equally and they taught me a lot about growth, patience, and unconditional love.”

When you are in the process of raising your children, you never feel like you are doing it right. Yet, you think you know what to expect in most circumstances. After having biological children it seems like you have at least a few things figured out. One of the first times I realized that nature can take over nurture is when my son who is adopted started biting kids in the nursery at church. He had not been taught to bite, but it was his instinct to get what he wanted in that environment. Therefore, we had to teach him that it wasn’t acceptable behavior. Sometimes, no matter how much nurturing a child is given, genetic traits or behaviors will still be exhibited. Often adopted children have mental health issues, especially if they are adopted at an older age. This can cause contention in the home with parents and other siblings. As one person I spoke with stated, “she felt like a burden when she had troubles of her own because her parents had so much going on trying to deal with the issues of her siblings. She kept a lot hidden inside so as not to add stress for them. I’m sure my parents would have talked to me and listened, but it was something I struggled with.” Whether the child or the parent, it’s important to watch for signs of helplessness and be willing to reach out and listen when necessary. Similar to what was stated above, it’s life lessons that make us a family.
The debate about nature versus nurture will probably never have a solid answer one way or another. What researchers do know is that the interaction between heredity and environment is often the most important factor of all. Genetics will contribute to a majority of a person’s makeup, however, the surroundings and teachings in one’s life can influence what they become or do with their natural talents. A parent’s instinct is to love and care for their child’s physical and emotional needs. The combination of that and opportunities to explore their own heritage will produce a successful individual.