Last week I sat down with biological psychiatrist, Paul Markovitz, MD, PhD, to discuss the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture. The conversation had barely gotten started when Dr. Markovitz declared unequivocally that what we do as parents has little impact on how our kids turn out! I found his message both liberating and depressing—and terribly disorienting. It seemed so counterintuitive, flying in the face of everything we were told about cause and effect in child rearing. Yet, according to Dr. Markovitz, scientific studies prove it is 89-96 percent in the genes. Yikes! Until now I had always sided with author Isaac Bashevis Singer who said, albeit tongue in cheek, “Of course, I believe in free will. What choice do I have?”
Here are the main takeaways from my conversation with Paul Markovitz:
It’s all in the genes: According to Dr. Markovitz: “In the past those who insisted nurture was what counted in child rearing based their conclusions more on loose observations and associations than on rigorous research. In recent years we have had many excellent studies, particularly those done of twins, that show similarities of personality, behaviors, mental health or illness, intelligence, sense of humor, even tastes in food and movies, that are astounding, especially when the twins were reared in different households. These are not learned but inborn characteristics.” Dr. Markovitz feels it’s all explained beautifully in the best-seller, The Gene: An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee. I would add The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do by Judith Rich Harris, which also supports Dr. Markovitz’s position.
Children are not your report card: Dr. Markovitz says, “I believe that most parents do the best they can. But should they mess up, even to the extreme of molestation and deprivation, children who are ‘tuned normal’ will still come out okay. If a kid turns violent, it’s more likely that he had the genetic predisposition for violence than that he mimicked his parents’ anti-social behavior. Childhood trauma has often been trotted out as the reason certain children went off the rails. In my experience and research, though, there is nothing you can do as parents that will change the outcome for aberrant behavior or mental illness. We find this hard to accept because we like rational arguments and we want to feel that how we brought up our children made a difference. I would just urge parents to accept their children as they are and not as a reflection of the job they did years ago. We all have our limitations—and they are inborn.”
It’s not you, it’s their genetic makeup: Dr. Markovitz says, “Parents are convenient whipping boys for people in therapy. I have seen patients who are well into their fifties and even sixties who are still blaming their parents but not working to better their lives. My wife says there are ‘wallowers’ and ‘doers’ in this world, and they clearly are ‘wallowers.’ When bad things happen to psychologically healthy people, we mourn or get mad, but we move on with our lives. The ‘wallowers’ are wired to blame. Conversely, there are those who inherited the genes for good problem solving and high intelligence, looking—the proud parents would say—a lot like them. When things go wrong with their offspring, parents can still blame themselves if they like, but it should be for passing along undesirable genes—which might very well go back to great-grandparents and skip a generation or two—but not for their childrearing practices.”
Go forward realistically: Dr. Markovitz concludes, “When it comes to mental illnesses, it is now understood that these are inherited, physical conditions. The psychiatric field is moving toward a hybrid model with pschyopharmacology first and therapy second. Genetic testing is also a very hopeful development, and I believe we will eventually be able to tailor treatment to the specific hard wiring of each patient. But to return to the original question of nature versus nurture in child rearing, in the end it doesn’t matter. If something is wrong, the physician still has to change it. And even when most things are right with our grown offspring, we have to accept the fact that they and we were dealt certain cards genetically. Our only option is to play them as best we can.”
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