By: Julie Gamberg
I work within the community with children and their parents and I see again and again how much learned behavior comes directly from parents. Parents who behave in a generous, caring way, who offer to help, who are involved and engaged, generally have kids who exhibit a lot of the same behavior. And vice versa. Yet at the same time, when the kids are siblings there are clear, strong differences between the children – begging another peek at the age-old question: What is learned and what is innate?
There are three children in one family I work with: An older child, Marcus, a younger child, Brian, and a middle child, Sarah. The children seem vastly different from one another: Marcus is incredibly outgoing, bright, sweet, and a total showboat. Sarah is a little bit shyer – she prefers quieter activities like reading and drawing. She ponders what others say and she thinks before she speaks. Brian is painfully shy, often hiding behind his father’s sturdy legs, or literally running outside to sit alone. He can sustain quiet activities with an intense focus.
Now that I have my very own child – with her emerging strong personality – I look constantly for signs in her of what I am teaching her and what seems to come from her very own inner place – from synaptic connections, from a pre-ordained personality, from stardust. I think about how to give her the absolute best of me, and how to keep the worst of me off of her radar. I worry that she sees that I get anxious. Am I teaching her anxiousness? I know she sees that I don’t bound out of bed in the morning – that I am spacey and like to spend time staring off into the middle distance, or thumbing through a magazine. Am I teaching her lethargy, or worse, some sort of rejection of life (or at least of mornings!)? I sometimes get lost in work – in the computer, in my smart phone. Am I teaching her to value technology over human contact? Does her fierce independence come from my own? Will she know it’s okay to need and depend on other people?
I think about Brian, and Sarah, and Marcus. Their differences. And I think about their parents. One is quieter, one is more outgoing. They are both smart, and thoughtful, and incredibly kind and giving. And I think about the kids again. For all of their differences, all three kids are also incredibly kind, in their speech and in their actions. However, they demonstrate their kindness in very different ways, and with shy little Brian, it’s especially hard to see. Yet I remember a discussion about teasing in which one child said that it was okay if it was meant well, and Brian shook his head. Someone asked him what he was thinking and he said, “It’s not good to hurt somebody’s feelings.” Shy Brian is five years old.
When I think again about my daughter, I imagine she will probably pick up on many of my habits, good and bad. I think that she will undoubtedly have a personality which at times confounds me – with her own set of rhythms, preferences, quirks, and behaviors. And I’m also going to assume that the core values I hold – those which I show her again and again through my actions and my behavior – especially my behavior toward her — will be perhaps the strongest single influence in her life. No matter what kind of kid she is, what kind of adult she becomes, no matter what personality emerges, I am plowing forward with the assumption that her behavior will be very connected to my own.
The year before last I volunteered on my birthday, and I loved it. My daughter was six months old. This year, I didn’t get it together. My daughter, at a year-and-a-half, is soon entering an age where I can start and sustain traditions and she will grow up thinking this is what people do. I can create a world for her and invite her to see certain behaviors as normal, certain values as a given. I realize how easy it is though to get lost in the endless variables. The influence of media and peers. The differences between siblings and how this can seem to indicate that parents do not have a major effect on their children. The innate personalities of our children which can sometimes seem so different from our own. The developmental stages in which children exhibit all sorts of behavior that make us worry that they will grow up to be psychopaths. All of this is a distraction from the plain truth – children learn how to be in the world from seeing how those who raise them are in the world. The closer I look – the more I look underneath the surface – the more I’m reassured that, for better or worse, I am making quite an impression.