How much of a child’s personality trait is defined by nature and how much is defined by his or her environment?
Episode #80: The skill in raising children is balancing optimal parenting and the child’s personality – both must be taken into account. For optimal education, we need social and economic support – and too often in American culture we don’t prioritize the support we need in early education. How much of a child’s personality trait is defined by nature and how much is defined by his or her environment? Individual childhood traits must be considered in early learning and development – our children don’t grow up exactly the same way, why would we expect them to be taught, or learn, in exactly the same way?
Márcia is a Brazilian Psychologist and Certified Coach based in the US with extensive experience living abroad. She uses her parenting experience to discuss Psychology-based research on how to address the challenges of child-rearing. You can find her here
HiMama Preschool Podcast, Episode 80 – Marcia Fervienza Proofread and revised by Andrew Hall – Jan. 26, 2017
One thing is that education and child upbringing, it’s a mixture; it’s a combination; it’s a balance between optimal parenting and the child’s personality. That has to be taken into account, Ron.
Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.
Marcia, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
So Marcia, you’re a psychologist and certified coach, and you use your parenting experience to apply psychology-based research on how to address the challenges of child-rearing. Tell us a little bit more about what you do and why you do what you do.
Well, psychology always been my passion. It all started I guess because I myself had a very difficult childhood. Nothing was missing from a material perspective, but from a psychological and emotional perspective it was a very deprived child. I was raised by a single mom who had an undiagnosed mental illness and was an alcoholic. So it was a very difficult upbringing for me.
And when I turned eighteen I started seeing a therapist for myself. This was a process that took many, many years. And it did wonders for me; really changed my life, redesigned my life. And based on my own experience as a child, and then on everything that was lacking for me that was missing for me, I started evaluating the impact of those childhood experiences on our development as adults.
I grew up, I formed my family. I have three kids, and with them I started practicing all of that I knew. Part of what a new theory from research and part of what lacked for me while I was growing up, trying to come up to an optimum point of development for them. And that was a very enriching experience for me. Some of my belief had to be rethought, and some of them were confirmed. That strengthened my search and my approach to childhood education child development. And also I made some adjustments based on that.
So this is a topic… children is something that interests me very much. I think that that is a very critical thing in the development of a human being, where parents and educators have a tremendous amount of responsibility on the outcome of that child in terms of emotional and psychological maturity. And it interests me. It’s my passion to try to help educators and parents find that optimal point in their approach their children, to help them develop into healthy and mature adults.
That’s great that you’ve taken your own personal experience and you’re now applying what you’ve learned in your studies, in your experience, to help others so that they may have a better childhood and a better upbringing than the situation that you were in.
You mentioned a little bit about your research and approaches to child development. What would you say your approaches or philosophies are about child development?
Well, one of the beliefs that I had when I started studying this field was the children they were born and you could, through your education and treatment of them, you could help them become anything. And that is true. But one thing that my experience taught me is that there is very… children are born with personality. And sometimes as parents, sometimes we account much for that and sometimes we don’t account enough for that.
So one thing is that education and child upbringing, it’s a mixture. It’s a combination, it’s a balance between optimal parenting and the child’s personality. That has to be taken into account, Ron. That’s one of my strongest beliefs. Another one is that I see that, being from Brazil, having lived in different countries, our society and the way the society is structured from an economic perspective has deep influence on how we’re going to raise our children and what kind of adults they’re going to become. What I mean about that is that for an optimal education and upbringing to happen we do need social and economic support. And our culture – America’s culture – unfortunately our society is not built with that in mind, which is one of our current problems, in my opinion.
Interesting. So a couple of fascinating points to touch on here. So you talked a little bit about nature-versus-nurture and finding that balance between parenting and the child’s personality. What does that look like in real life? Like, if you can give us an example maybe of somebody you’ve worked with or some of your own experiences where there are different things we could do to strike that right balance between nature versus nurture?
Well I think that most of my frustration as a parent happened while I didn’t understand the truth of that. So I have three children, and I had them many, many years apart. I had them between 7 and 11 years apart, which allowed me enough time and attention to focus on one of them in a specific way each time. So my first child, she was a child that she would… she was very challenging, but not overtly challenging. She was a kind of child that I would tell her, “Okay, you can do A, B, C and D and E and F. Now, don’t do Z.” And out of all the options laid out she would do Z. And she would never bring that up to me. She would never tell me that. She would tell me, “Okay, Mama,” and she would go behind my back and do her own way.
Well, I am a person who I am all for telling the truth in any case, every situation, every event. I am known for my honesty. Sometimes I call it “suicidal honesty”. So that was something very hard for me to deal with because I was not like that. I had never instituted any basis of nurturing at the house for her to be developing those choices. My family was not like that. And I spent her entire childhood and teenage years fighting that, trying to correct that.
And today she’s 22 years old. She is a well-developed girl, and she’s going to school and she works and everything. And she’s still like that because she is a reserved person. She doesn’t like to share what she does. But she doesn’t lie – she likes to have her own experiences. So telling her, “Don’t do this because it’s going to be bad for you,” be it me or a friend or the boyfriend, it just doesn’t work for her. So I would have saved myself a lot of headache had I understood that earlier and tried to find a way to deal with that differently.
Now, thinking about my second child – her sister, who was born seven years later – that child was raised… of course that when you raise one kid and seven years go by and you start raising another kid you’ve changed. Your family has changed. I can’t say the conditions were exactly the same, but it was still the same parent and it was still the same household. So my second child was born, and she is the kind of child that even if she wants to she can’t tell a lie. She is unbelievably law-abiding. You tell her, “Please don’t do this,” since she was very young – like, let’s say 2-3 years older – we would tell her, “Okay, don’t touch this wall because we’ve painted it.” And like a week later she would come to you and say, “Is it is already okay to touch the wall?” You had forgotten about that. You’re like, “Oh my god, you cannot not be that law-abiding.”
And her sister the same way since a very early age was exactly the opposite. So there is a lot of nature there, and it took me raising both of them… well, the second now is 14, but it took me a number of years to understand that.
So it sounds like what you’re saying is that it’s very important for, whether you’re a parent or an early-childhood educator, for you to try to understand the individual children that you’re working with or that you’re helping to develop so that you can adjust and be flexible with your developmental and learning parenting styles because you can’t apply the same approaches to every individual child because every individual child is very different.
Exactly. Exactly that. And I mean, I come from a time where probably – I don’t know how old you are, but probably you do, too – I come from a time where we were kind of raised, maybe our parents were raised, where children had no voice children. They don’t matter. They do what they’re told to do. And there was not a lot of respect for the child’s individuality, for who they are, for listening to them, for allowing them a room to choose.
Even though I think that right now we are at the other extreme of this continuum – which always happens when we’ve been doing something in a way for a very long time, when we try to course correct, we usually overcorrect things. So even though now I think we are on the other end of this continuum where are children sometimes they lack guidance because we are asking them what they want to do. And sometimes they don’t know, and it’s okay to tell them and it’s okay to help them choose. It’s okay to give them options. It’s not about that; it’s about being able to listen. So even though now I think we’re on the other extreme of this continuum, I do believe that it’s important to make things about the child, the individual child.
I have to admit, [when] I started raising my first child I brought my baggage from my own childhood. And I was trying to correct my mom’s mistakes with my child. And for many, many years I never looked at her for who she was. I was seeing a reflection of myself. I was giving her what I wish I had been given. And those were my mistakes.
So it’s about the child. We have to look at each child. We have to listen to them. We have to look at them in the eye because it is so important for early-childhood educators to be able to bond with the children that they are helping develop. Because development doesn’t happen only through play; development doesn’t happen only through social interaction. The most important things that a child at that early age has to learn comes from bonding. It’s when the child’s able to bond with their caregivers, be that their parents their teachers or the babysitter, when they are able to bond with those that take care of them that they learn to trust those people, that they want to make those people proud. They want that look and their direction that says, “Good a job, I’m so proud of you!” That’s what they are after.
Every child, they are like small beings that are really thirsty for love and appreciation. That’s what they want to get from their environment. So it is about them. It has to be eye contact. It has to be full attention It has to be, “Talk to me. Let me listen to what they have to say.” And not only that, it has to be looking at them and their behavior and seeing what they are saying through their behavior, because they say so much. And we dismiss it very easily.
And correct me if I’m wrong – you’ll know more about the research that I will – but increasingly it’s saying that the relationships and bonds that you have with children when they are especially very young – at the infant age – that trust that they build in you through that bond is super-critical to being psychologically healthy adults. It has a really big impact. Is that correct?
Yeah. It’s critical for the rest of their lives. They have to be able to trust the person who takes care of them. And this is also another problem that I find: For instance, daycare, which is a critical part of many working moms these days. They need to leave their children in daycare. You go to a daycare center and you go into a room where, let’s say, six-month-old children are being taken care of, or three-month-old children. And you see that they have, let’s say, 10 caregivers, which is not bad. It’s fantastic – super-individualized attention, because they say, “Oh, I take only 10 children and I have 10 caregivers for them.” That’s perfect.
However, the turnover of those professionals is ridiculously high. They can’t take care of any one of those 10 children within that environment. That is not healthy. Children from a very early age, from the first weeks of life, they need to be able to bond with one person. Does that mean the person is not going to change ever? No, but that means they have to know and attach. They have to be able to attach.
And this is another fundamental problem in our current society. We raise children to be self-sufficient from a very early age when they are supposed to be entirely dependent. We don’t allow them to be dependent anymore. We want them to be left to start from the end. Children are out of the house at age 18 to go to college. And at that moment they go to college dorms and they are completely on their own. Well, we don’t have to mention what happens in the first two years of college: partying, drugs, drinking, sex… I mean, you name it, right? And we take all of that as normal. We have incorporated that as normal. It is normal within our current society, but it’s not normal for every country. It’s not normal for every culture. And the results as adults is very different, according to the to the country you’re in.
So at age 18 the child is supposed to be on their own and be self-sufficient at college. Parents are relieved because they’re, like, “Oh my god, okay, they’re gone.” But the child is prepared for that moment since they were born. I mean, what are we talking about when we talk about retraining a child? We are saying that a small baby, a weeks-old baby, is supposed to be able to self-soothe when he cannot even manage his sphincter. He’s supposed to go to bed, cry, manage his needs and sleep on his own because Daddy and Mommy need to through the night. I know this is currently a cultural mindset, and I know that in many ways the way our society is economically established requires that from parents. But that is a crime. You don’t do that to a child.
I just had a baby boy about four and a half months ago, and at least in Canada I know that the philosophy’s are starting change back that and improve. And I know in Canada versus the U.S. the maternal and paternal leave is much longer and better in that regard. So I think you can be a bit more flexible. And I think that kind of goes back to your point earlier about society and how the policies in the country for things like parental leave and for early-childhood education, right?
Exactly, no parental leave. Moms are supposed to get back to work. What is that? I had a baby in this country, so if it’s natural birth you have 4 weeks. They actually have six weeks and that’s it. Oh my god! And then it’s just unthinkable. Nobody’s prepared – neither the mom nor the baby – after that time period to go back to work. No job security for moms who are taking care of their babies. If they take the three months that law allows them, they go at 60% of their salaries. The company offers insurance for that period, or it’s an unpaid leave. I mean, how can you take time to take care of your baby when you don’t have money to buy them milk or to pay your bills?
So it is just not… the society that we live in is not structured to support healthy development for each child’s early years. That is treated as something minor, and it’s such a huge, huge part of this society that we are today the adults that we have, the problems that we face, the mental illness that we have to contend with. That such a big part of that.
I couldn’t agree more. It’s very… you can’t overstate the importance of those policies and the impact that they have on our future generation.
We’re quickly running out of time. And so it’s been a really insightful conversation about nature-versus-nurture and how we need to change our philosophies and approaches to each individual child, the impact of society and policies in place with the future of our children. It’s been great having you on the show, Marcia. If I’m listening to this podcast I want to learn more about you or your work or get in touch with you, where should I go?
My website is www.MarciaFervienza.com. I have three blogs on the website that I’m constantly updating with parenting information, mental health information and self-fulfillment information. So there you’re going to have a lot of resources to read, go through and learn more about me.
And it was an immense pleasure talking to you. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk to your audience because I do believe this is such an important topic that under-discussed, severely underrated, and that we have to start having this conversation if we want to change the future of our country. So thank you very much for this opportunity.
Well, it’s been our pleasure, and we couldn’t agree with you more about the important work that we’re all doing with young children. Thanks again for everything you’re doing, and thanks for coming on the show, Marcia.