Heraclitus wrote, “Our own nature hides from us, but wants to be found.” Do you remember moments in your life when you asked “Who am I?” Perhaps you were interacting in a social situation in which you realized you didn’t fit, reflecting near a river or in your place of faith, or talking to someone you love. The self was somewhere that you needed to discover, and you sensed a primal drive to find it.
Parents, teachers, caregivers, and mentors are the most important guides in the child’s journey.
The Nurture the Nature parenting philosophy uses the rich outcomes of contemporary brain, genetic, and personality sciences to help parents guide their children to feeling connected to who they are and their core nature. This parenting philosophy helps adults help children develop gifts, skills, talents, successes (and survive failures) and is based on a constantly developing clarity regarding a child’s core personality, who the child is. This philosophy is gift-centered rather than lack-oriented, and it runs counter to the social trends and pressures that seem to rule parenting today (i.e. “Your child should be or do ______________ or he or she won’t succeed.”)
The Nature of a Child’s Gifts
Contemporary science, especially genetics and brain research, shows us that at least these seven aspects of our children (and ourselves) are more hard-wired, or inborn, than we may have realized:
- personality traits,
- gender traits,
- talent areas,
- learning styles,
- mood and behavior patterns,
- stress responses, and
- emotional and relational styles.
One child’s map for these aspects of self is different than another’s, and begins to unfold from within. None of our children are blank slates at birth. Ten, twenty, and thirty years ago science and social science researchers assumed that nurture and socialization were 90 percent of what makes children into the adults they become. Now we know at least 50 percent of the child’s future is inborn.
How does this change parenting? Exploring this new (and perhaps quite ancient) truth about children is not “biology as determinism.” Nature does not at birth decide what journey the child will make. Parents, teachers, caregivers, and mentors are the most important guides in the child’s journey. But in the wake of new scientific information, our big question now as parents and friends to children need no longer be: “What should I do to mold the child into what I and the society think he or she should be?” It can now be more liberating and lead to even more success for children: “How can I best nurture the actual nature of my child for success in the world?”
To start on this journey, check out Table 1 “Discovering and Nurturing Your Child’s Nature” adapted from Nurture the Nature below.
Discovering and Nurturing Your Child’s Nature
To get the help of everyone you trust, try sending out e-mails and letters to all family members and everyone close to your child. Ask:
Ask ten or so questions like this (more than ten usually overwhelms people), for each area listed above, over a period of months. And of course, as you ask the questions, be as specific as you can. For instance, when you ask about personality traits, you could add, “Is he or she more extroverted or introverted? What are the strengths of his or her personality?”
Social Trends and Externalized Parenting
Do you worry about any of the following questions?
- Is my child’s life overscheduled?
- Am I spending all day taking children from one class, rehearsal, workout, team practice, and social event to another?
- Is my child obsessed with the computer, video games, television, cell phones, text messaging, blogging, or other electronic addictions?
- Does my child have a materialistic sense of entitlement that cripples his or her ability to fully mature and find purpose and meaning?
- Do I live in a constant anxiety that as a parent I am failing one or more of my children?
These questions often grow from a social-trends parenting system that has evolved over the last decades—it is media and society driven, externalizing the locus of control for child-raising away from parents’ instincts about their own children’s nature. Social-trends parenting pressures parents and other caregivers into paying so much attention to social fads and experts that the nature of the individual child gets lost. Parents and kids become convinced they need to do many activities (and perhaps nearly all of the following) to be “complete” and “well-rounded”: play the piano, develop dance skills, play one or more sports, learn at least two languages, be strong readers, and become adept at computer skills! New brain research shows that this kind of pressure is causing both parents and children to experience ongoing symptoms of chronic stress, including anxiety and other similar disorders, which are increasing exponentially in children and parents. Along with the increase in anxiety, we are seeing increased violence and aggression. Among the many reasons for these increases are the anxiety and stress both parents and children feel as they face a constant sense that children are failing to live up to external expectations and must fiercely compete.
Have you noticed any of these stress-causing social trends or myths in your family or community?
- Children are born as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, without a core nature to guide their own development.
- A parents’ job is to engrave on the slate, to input the necessary training and information, and to create a child with the necessary characteristics that contribute to success in life.
- In order to fulfill the parents’ expectations, children’s daily experiences must be constantly packed with lessons and activities that will prepare them to excel in a scarcity-based view of a highly competitive world.
- Children will not reach their success potential as adults unless they become alpha high achievers in all or most groups they get involved with.
- The most successful adults are people who were, as children, extroverted and assertive.
- Criticizing a child will most often damage his or her self-esteem.
- Talking about feelings with children (and getting children to talk about theirs) is the most important thing parents can do.
Understanding Your Child’s Core Nature
What would happen in every family if we “turned off” the myths, the external pressure, and the craziness and let our children develop within our stable homes? What if we turned off the electronics for a week and let each child be bored—what activities would our children gravitate toward? What great self-discovery might occur if we went on a long trip with each eleven- to fourteen-year old child, tuned out “the world,” and asked, “Who do you feel you are becoming?” “Who are your heroes?” “What do you think you are good at?” “What gifts do you want to pursue in your life?”
Many parents have enjoyed this sort of activity, or rite of passage, for their early adolescents. They have asked their pubescent children to encounter themselves away from the world, and ask, “Who am I?” Many of these same parents have kept a journal for six months prior to the rite of passage. As they share alone-time with their early adolescent, they share their journal about what they think the child’s inherent gifts and strengths are.
Nurturing the Nature of Your Eleven-to Fourteen-Year-Old
The Rite of Passage is just one thing you can do to nurture the nature of your eleven- to fourteen-year old. Other tips include:
- Discover with your child three or so key activities—one academic or intellectual (this could be good school performance, homework, etc.), one social activity (this could be Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, Faith-Community activities, or student government), one physical activity (this could be athletics, just getting good exercise, or spending time in Nature).
- Carry on debates and meaningful discussions at family meals, on topics such as current events—ask your child’s opinion and ask him or her to back up the opinions.
- Permit self-esteem to rise and fall. Self-esteem rises and falls constantly during puberty. It’s okay for your child to become down; it’s okay for him or her to get criticized by peers; it’s okay for self-esteem to fall. As long as the child learns new skills, new adaptations, his or her self-esteem will rise again in the way and time that fits your particular pubescent child’s identity.
- Retain the role of the mother, but strengthen the role of the father. The father’s role often needs to be increased in the pubescent age group. The mother’s role is not diminished, but pubescent children with active fathers do better, in general, than those without them. Fathers and healthy male mentors have a certain way of caring for, disciplining, and challenging the natural, hormonal fire inside a pubescent child.
Moving Forward with Purpose
Ultimately, every girl and boy seeks to live a life of purpose and meaning. Some meanings are drilled into our children, some they learn by rote, some they gain from tradition, and some they must discover within themselves. The Nurture the Nature philosophy respects each of these, and makes both the science-based and intuitive assumption that in each child is a path to purpose, a map for meaning, waiting to become the self-motivating driver of each child’s life. Each child desperately needs attentive parents, educators, and mentors to push, prod, organize, discipline, and guide the self to fruition, but each child also needs down time, self-reflection, internal maps, and a way for inward nature to be found that grows from the child’s own gifts, and nothing external, nothing else but the child’s own nature shining through.
Getting to know the “nature” of your child can be like a treasure hunt. We look into our children’s eyes and wonder, “Who is he?” “Who is she?” and we begin searching for clues. Some clues are obvious. The physical child can show up in observations such as: “Wow, my kid is so athletic,” or, on the other hand, “My kid hates team sports and needs to be pushed into even exercising.” Personality traits of your child can be obvious: “My kid is always the leader of the pack, totally extraverted.” Or: “My kid is really shy. I worry that he or she will never have friends.” The treasure hunt of learning your child’s genetics and neural way of being also includes hundreds of not very obvious traits, at least not at first. We all need help in noticing these hidden clues and finding these riches.
—Michael Gurian and Dakota Hoyt
Michael Gurian, a family therapist, is the New York Times bestselling author of twenty books published in twenty one languages. He is co-founder of the Gurian Institute, which researches internationally and provides pilot programs for schools, parents, and communities.
Dakota Hoyt, an educator and Gurian Institute Certified Trainer, is a coordinator of the institute’s parent development programs, including its school and parent newsletter programs. Dakota has been a professional educator for thirty years, advocating throughout the country for strong parent, child, and school relationships.
By the Author
Nurture the Nature: Understanding and Supporting Your Child’s Core Personality, Jossey-Bass/John Wiley, 2007.