Why is the nature-nurture debate relevant to child psychology

Nature & Nurture

The nature vs. nurture debate has been at the centre of thought and developmental theories for a very long time, and has recently come into focus as the result of Pinker's popular The Blank Slate (2005), which considers the nature-nurture debate from a modern scientific view. On one side are those that claim that we are genetically predetermined; that is, that whatever we will be as adults is inevitably and absolutely defined before we are born by our nature. Before the modern era, this was assumed to be a matter of fate, and the modern version of the same argument replaces fate and destiny with genetic and social determination, a life inevitably written as a matter of parentage and the class one is born into (but not variable through variations in that class).

On the other side are those that claim that all human beings are born essentially identical, and that every significant difference between us is a result of nurture. This means that regardless of a child's heritage and situation, it can be trained to think and believe almost anything - the child of a succession of low-IQ parents is just as likely to be a genius as the child of a family of geniuses, since all that matters is the way that they are raised.

The two classical progenitors of these schools of thought are John Locke (1700) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1994). Locke posited that humanity was a blank slate, such that every person was just the sum of their experiences - essentially, that nature had no significant impact on development, but that nurture was everything. On the other side of the argument is Rousseau, who claimed that man existed in a native state as a 'noble savage' who was corrupted by society - that nature was everything, and nurture only had negative effects.

As with so many things in life, the truth is somewhere between. The simplest explanation is that development is in fact phenotypic- that is, the result of a given set of genes interacting with a particular environment, leading to a developed form that is a combination of both.

Why is the nature/nurture debate relevant to child psychology?

Within the field of child development, it is critical that we have a clear understanding of the extent to which the environment and actions of a child influence the adult they will become. This is for reasons economic and functional. If there are characteristics that are the result of nature, and are inevitable, then the ideally a proper understanding of the interaction between nature and nurture will allow minimisation of the negative traits and a maximisation of positive ones.Additionally, if certain capabilities are purely the result of nurture, then it is incumbent on all people involved in child development to focus on theseattributes in order to have a maximally beneficial effect on their children they are raising. In contrast. If there are traits that are entirely genetically predetermined, and cannot be changed by nurture, then any attempts to change these traits within development is wasted.

Between them, heredity and environment are responsible for all human behaviour and social structures. Defining the exact character of nature and nurture means being able to optimise the developmental process in three basic ways - actively, reactively, and predictively. Actively means promoting those structures known to minimise negative traits and maximise positive ones; reactively means being able to respond appropriately to developmental issues, which requires and understanding of both their origin and their form; and predictively means being able to discover and adapt towards specific problems that will occur in a given child's development.

This paper will look at the issue of child development research and practice and how they are informed by the nature-nurture debate through ha series of specific instances. These instances are behaviour genetics, beliefs and attitudes (as well as other teratogens), physical growth, self-esteem and cognitive development. It concludes with suggestions for directions in child development theory and practice given what is currently known of the influence of nature and nurture within each of these fields.


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