This psychologist argues that when it comes to nature versus nurture, nurture matters more than we may think
When we talk about raising brilliant kids, it’s a commonly-held belief that parents need to hover and push. To obsess over their child’s success and force them to achieve. A British psychologist says this approach is all wrong and that getting the best out of your kids is as simple as loving them — and being gentle in nurturing their interests.
In an essay for The Guardian, psychologist Oliver James explains that when it comes to a drive to succeed, nurture is critical, far more so than a person’s genetic makeup. He calls it the “carrot or stick,” suggesting that achievements and performance are nurtured through teaching, whether it’s learning something bad or good.
James says, “In my case, for instance, purely because I was the only boy with three sisters, I was treated completely differently by my father. Despite my repeated failure at school, he constantly encouraged me to see myself as clever and I eventually did OK.”
He explains further. “I can teach my son his times tables but, equally, if I am a pickpocket by profession, show him how to do that.” He says it is a mixture of love and maltreatment that causes a child to make their parent’s behavior part of themselves.
In other words, for better or worse, your kids will take parts of you and absorb them, which in turn, will help them grow into who they’ll one day be. It isn’t about genetics so much as it’s about what they see and how they’re raised.
In debunking the “tiger” parent ideal, he brings up Tiger Woods. Known the world over as a golf prodigy from a very young age, it’s well-documented that Woods’ parents were “ruthless,” as James says, in their quest to make Woods number one at his sport. The result was his eventual sex scandal, which James speculates arose from a life full of duty in the quest for greatness. That his acting out via casual sex outside of his marriage was possibly a result of the way he was raised and needing an outlet after all of that enforced practice and hard work.
On the opposite end, James tells the story of the Polgár sisters. Raised by Hungarian educational psychologist László Polgár and his wife Klara, the three girls all went on to become grandmasters at chess. Susan, the eldest of the three, was the first female grandmaster of chess. Her sisters accomplished similar feats despite women not typically being at the top of this game.
Polgár believed that practice was the most effective way to create excellence and that nature had little to do with success, despite men usually dominating in chess. In his “experiment” of letting his daughters learn to play the game, he set out to prove that by treating it as a playful and fun activity the girls were encouraged to enjoy, that they’d become successful. And he was right.
He treated the game as a fantasy and let his daughters find it fun instead of a chore. As a result, they loved to play and eagerly practiced on their own, rather than viewing it as a duty. Achievement happened naturally as the parents nurtured the girls’ interest without coercing them to achieve. Now adults, the women are, by all appearances, well-balanced and not “addicted” to success.
Now, how do we apply this to our own parenting? James says it’s as simple as loving our children and putting enjoyment ahead of success. If your kid enjoys a certain sport, encourage them to play it but be relaxed about it. If they’re successful, celebrate it. If not, remain calm.
James suggests to never coerce small children into activities and to avoid strict practice regimes or punishments. Focus on their achievements but don’t impose perfectionism. He says, “The answer to “I got 98% in maths” is not “What happened to the other 2%?””
Above all, never enforce the idea that a child’s abilities are fixed. James closes saying, “If parents or teachers do not start from the assumption that abilities are fixed, children perform better. But even more important than mere beliefs is actual nurture.”
Basically, believe in your kids and give them the tools they need to succeed at what they enjoy without becoming an obsessive vulture. If a child wants to do something, let them. If not, never force it.
It sounds simple to put into practice but sitting through one youth sports game with crazy parents shouting at their kids proves that this relaxed approach is not second nature for everyone. But it certainly should be.