Nature, Nurture, and the Occasional Stern Lecture

My friend Julie’s five-year old daughter whacked off a chunk of her hair the other day for the second time in the space of about ten days. So Julie was beside herself when the little imp turned right around and did it again the very next time she got hold of the scissors.
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My friend Julie’s five-year old daughter whacked off a chunk of her hair the other day for the second time in the space of about ten days. The first time she did it, Julie sat little Zoe down and had a very detailed chat with her about why she wasn’t allowed to cut her own hair, and afterwards she went to the trouble and expense of getting a professional to undo the damage, to the greatest extent possible. So Julie was beside herself when the little imp turned right around and did it again the very next time she got hold of the scissors. And the hair-do, this time, is going to have to fix itself.

But when she told me about it, Julie herself couldn’t understand why she was quite as mad as she was. “Why does this upset me so much?” she asked me. “It’s just hair!”

“Because you see your future?” I suggested ominously.

“I think you’re right!” she exclaimed. “I knew one of my kids was going to give me trouble. Zoe’s the one! She’s going to defy me at every turn!”

I didn’t mean to lodge such a considerable fear into the heart of my friend but I know I was thinking about my own daughter, Belle, and the day she laid out the future for me. I remember it well. She was two and a half years old, and I was buckling her into her car seat, when she piped up and said, “I’ll drive.”

I stared at Belle with alarm, shook to my foundations. How, I thought to myself, am I going to raise a child who has such great regard for her own abilities and such little regard for mine? She’ll never listen to a word I say!

Then I patted Belle on the head and clicked her into her buckle and told her she was too little to drive a car, thanks.

But she did it again the following summer, as she and I whiled away the afternoon in a canoe. “Give me the shovel!” she insisted, “I will shovel us!” She was so little, and so ill-informed, that she didn’t even know the item I held was called a paddle, not a shovel, and yet she felt strongly she could do a better job of propelling us across the pond with it than I was doing.

She was only three. I wondered how I’d survive her adolescence.

I’ve always believed that my children are who they are, or in the words of Julie, that they come with their bags packed. And the more I read about genetic research the more I’m convinced that many of our personality traits, not just physical traits, are inborn.

But now that Belle is turning ten years old, I look back on some of her memorable childhood utterances and I know that I probably made too big a deal out of them. They might’ve told part of the future but not the whole thing.

Yes, she is a confident little thing, and no, she doesn’t usually accept what I tell her at face value. But I think a certain amount of skepticism is a good thing. And I want her to figure a lot of things on her own. As long as she’s respectful, which usually she is, and as long as she follows the few hard-and-fast rules we have around here, which she usually does, it’s okay with me that she thinks for herself.

More important, though, is that Belle’s not operating in a vacuum. She has me to contend with, and her father, and her little brother, and any number of other people who will help influence and shape her throughout her life. So although her bags might be packed, she still has endless choices about where to go with them, and she’s going to get a lot of input from other people along the way.

As for my friend Julie, she’ll probably be okay, too. Perhaps her daughter does have a defiant streak, and no doubt she will test the limits with her mother as she grows up.

But Julie’s no milk-toast herself. In fact, if anyone’s a match for little Zoe, I think Julie’s it.

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