Narratives, Nature, and Nurture

The United States has traditionally been considered a land of opportunity. Here a man can make something of himself, regardless of his background, provided he works hard. America is the land of the self-made man. Our ancestors were persecuted peasants who fled to America and became land-owners. One of our most famous presidents was born in a log cabin. We love rags to riches stories – stories of people who through hard work, pluck, and determination made something of awful circumstances. For generations, we have told our children that they can do anything – provided they work hard enough.

Increasingly, though, a new narrative has entered into American consciousness – a new narrative that is actually quite old. According to this narrative, we are a product of our birth. Born into poverty, we are destined to live in poverty, unless some benevolent rich person brings us out. We are not the actors in our stories – others are. We are victims of the fates.

The changing narrative has had a great impact on how people perceive themselves – and on the actions they take. Those who perceive themselves as successful tend to believe that their actions have power to effect change – but they frequently feel that they obtained this power unfairly. They feel a great guilt for the accidents of birth and rearing that have made them successful – and try to assuage that guilt by becoming patrons. Those who perceive themselves as unsuccessful tend to have low self-efficacy. They believe that their actions have no effect, that they are destined for the life they have – and so the best they can do is rail against the circumstances of their lives and insist that the fortunate successful work to raise their lot.

Self-efficacy. It’s an interesting word – and an interesting concept. Self-efficacy is simply ones belief that one is able to accomplish goals. Self-efficacy is strongly linked to having an internal locus of control – that is, believing that you are the primary actor in your life (as opposed to you being one who is acted upon.)

Yet I would argue that, in general, Americans are moving toward an external locus of control. Neither the successful nor the unsuccessful consider their station to be a result of their own actions. Neither the successful nor the unsuccessful have much hope for changing themselves – they consider their own lives to be determined by their pasts. But the successful and the unsuccessful tend to have vastly different ideas about their ability to change others. If we are a product of our pasts, we cannot change ourselves – but the successful may be able to use their success to change others.

Enter nature versus nurture.

Even as I think about phrase, I realize how deterministic it is. If “nature” is all there is, if genetics are fate – then we are programmed by our genes. If “nurture” is all there is, if how we are raised is fate – then we are programmed by our parents. Either way, we’re programmed. We have no control over our own lives.

Is it any surprise, then, that the parents who consider themselves successful invest so much in trying to alter the fates of their children? This is their one chance to control something about themselves. They overparent.

On the other hand, the unsuccessful parents throw their hands up. They don’t believe they have the power to affect their children, so they do nothing. They don’t believe they have anything to invest, don’t believe it’s possible to alter the fates of their children. They fail to parent.

So we end up with opposite ends of the parenting spectrum – neither of which do children any advantages.

What if, instead of being the product of nature or nurture, children were simply themselves?

Selves, capable of writing their own stories?

What if instead of trying to write our children’s stories, we tried to teach them what makes for good stories? What if instead of consigning them to the life their circumstances gave them, we tried to give them the skills – diligence and self-discipline – that help them to rise above their circumstances?

What if we taught our children that they can be successful – provided they work hard enough?

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