Nature vs. Nurture: Do Your Efforts As a Parent Really Matter?

‘You know what, I actually like helping you. This is a new development for me.’

Thus spake my 16-year-old, a few days ago. Indeed, this is a new development.

Actually, I’ve been noticing an overall change in her for a while. My observations have been done quietly; I didn’t want to draw too much attention to this change, in case making a Big Deal out of it would jinx the whole thing. But recently, it seems that there has been a kind of metamorphosis in her, from a sullen, shouty, defiant young person to a (mostly)cooperative, responsible, caring, mature and joyful one.

Even friends and family have commented to me in private moments that they, too, have noticed the transformation. Interestingly, not one of them has said to me, ‘See, you didn’t have to try so hard as a parent! Everything would work itself out eventually.’ On the contrary, most of the comments have been along the lines of something my father-in-law said to me recently: ‘A lot of time and effort has been invested into that child, and now it’s paying off.’

Please be assured that this ‘success’ has not gone to my head; parenting brought me to my knees –literally – years ago and I remain in a perpetual state of abject humility and vigilance, ever aware that tomorrow may present a challenge which I am not ready to face. Yet, I can’t help feeling a deep sense of satisfaction regarding my daughter’s recent flourishing.   For, according to Aristotle, human flourishing does not just ‘happen’. It takes time and effort on the part of the older generation to help the younger generation reach their potential as human beings. In that sense, I feel a powerful sense of peace, knowing that although my efforts to raise my children require a tremendous sacrifice on my part, they are not in vain.

Aristotle on Human Development

I have explained before that Aristotle thinks that human beings have what he calls an ‘end’ or a ‘purpose’, which is to live in accordance with reason in thought and action. Remember that reason, for Aristotle, has a moral function: it is the faculty we use to understand what is right and what is wrong. I have also explained that he believes that happiness – which can also be translated as ‘flourishing’ – is achieved by human beings when they live in accordance with this ‘end’. That is, human beings flourish when they have developed their moral reasoning in such a way that they can not only understand what is right, but also conform their actions to this understanding.

Now, for Aristotle, the concept of ‘end’ is also associated with what he calls ‘form.’ The form of a thing is, quite simply, what it means to be that thing. So, for instance, the form of a horse is a mature, healthy, well-functioning, adult horse.   The ‘form’ of a horse is also its ‘end’, in the sense that horses have a natural tendency to develop into their form, and stop developing when they have reached this form.

In this way, Aristotle thinks that form operates as a dynamic power in all living organisms, driving them toward their mature state. An immature organism –for instance, a lamb – possess the form of a sheep, but only in a state of potentiality. As the lamb grows into a sheep, its form manifests itself gradually, from differing levels of potentiality, into, finally, a state of full actuality.

Now, human beings have a form, too, which is to live in accordance with reason. But Aristotle thinks that man is separate from all other natural beings in that he is much less determined by nature to reach that form. He is designed by nature to become a certain kind of person, but he will not naturally develop into that kind of person without help and guidance.

Parenting: From Potentiality to Actuality

As a parent, I find Aristotle’s description of the human condition fascinating here: as human beings we have capacities for specific ways of being, but those capacities may never see the light of day if we aren’t nurtured in the right way. Thus, for me, much of parenting is about guiding the process of growth from a child’s potential character to their actual character.

But the problem is that this is not a straightforward process. Not at all. Aristotle tells us that it is through the repetition of virtuous acts that children will one day develop virtuous characters, and this certainly seems true. Yet, what if, as a parent, you try your absolute best to raise your child to be a good human being – to bring out those capacities for goodness – and they still do not seem to develop in the right way? What if your efforts seem to yield no discernable results? What if your child complains about every rule, defies every injunction, and refuses every opportunity?

I thought about all these issues a few weeks ago as I sat and watched my 16-year-old perform in her Christmas Choir Concert. She auditioned last spring for the top choir in her school –a very competitive process – and got in. At one point during the concert, the singers sang by candlelight an arrangement of the Coventry Carol, a moving, painful song that talks about the babies killed by King Herod as he tried to find the baby Jesus. I was brought to tears as I watched her sing that song; she sang it hauntingly, and so beautifully, with an expression of tenderness that came from somewhere deep in her soul.

As I watched her, I started to ponder on the recent transformation I and so many others had noticed in her. She may have only been giving a performance, but it seemed to me that the ability to sing in this heartfelt way had to be grounded in a character which was beginning to develop a more mature understanding of right and wrong, redemption, and love.

And then, so much of the past flashed before me. I thought about all the fights with siblings over the years, and what I thought at the time were my failed attempts to intervene – sometimes to just say ‘stop it’ and give some kind of random sanction, but other times to talk seriously about what it means to be loving and kind in a family. I thought about all the talks we had about what it means to be a good person, most of which I thought had gone in one ear and out the other.

I thought about other character building experiences, too: all times she threw a fit about practicing her music, and I insisted.   I thought about all my failed attempts to find good music teachers, and somehow trying again and again until we found what she needed. I thought about all her struggles in school: my many attempts to help her develop a good work ethic; the frustrating parent/teacher conferences I had, where I had to fight her corner against teachers who saw no reason to help her succeed. I thought about all the times she was passed over for major roles in plays and musicals; all the music competitions where she didn’t place. I thought about all the schools I researched for her over the years, as I constantly looked for new ways to help her reach her potential; even all the family hikes and museum trips we took, and all the bedtime stories I read to her, all of which gave us occasion to talk about human themes such as family, faith, sacrifice, goodness, freedom and love.

As all these things flashed before me, I got a very distinct feeling that even though so many of my efforts with her seemed to be failures – or at the very least inconsequential – they were all worth it. They had all contributed to the incredible, maturing creature I saw before me.

Please note that the creature was just singing. She was not winning any major awards or competitions. But her flourishing, as a human being, could not have been more evident to me.

The road of parenting is a long one, and often a hard one. So much of the time, we cannot see the fruits of our labors. None of us are perfect, we make mistakes, and at times it feels as if our repetitious and often clumsy efforts aren’t producing anything of significance.

But they are.

 

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