Imagine your teen is 8 years old. Would you give her advanced calculus to work on? And if you did, would you yell at her if she didn’t know how to do it? Probably not. The problem is that society treats emotional development very differently than academic development, although there are many similarities.[i] We want our children and teens to behave properly, and we get mighty frustrated and embarrassed when they don’t.

There are few to no classes on maturity, making mindful choices, gaining emotional perspective, and delaying gratification. We do not teach these things directly, and we yell at kids or punish them when they do not know how to do them. It is as if we expect them to evolve naturally. Well they don’t just appear. Like other forms of intelligence, maturity is a complex interaction of natural abilities that are cultivated through learning experiences. Children and teens are constantly learning how to behave based on their experiences. Emotional and behavioral rules and mores are just as complicated and nuanced as mathematical concepts. And just like math, kids have to learn progressively, and may not completely grasp advanced concepts that are ahead of their developmental level. Like math, some kids need more instruction, while others have a natural predisposition, and ‘just get it.’ But how can you teach maturity? And how much does what you do as a parent really impact your child’s behavior?

The debate continues over the contributions of genetics (the ‘you’re born that way’ perspective) versus environment (where other factors such as experiences, parental modeling, other relationships, and your own reactions to the world around you can shape your growth) in emotional and social development. This is commonly known as the nature versus nurture debate.

There has been much research to support the notion that adapting and improving parenting style can reduce children’s development of disruptive or other behavioral problems and increase pro-social problem-solving skills.[ii] Parents’ emotional reactions have been found to influence their children’s level of emotional control.[iii] However, it is easy to take results like these and twist them into parent blaming. Parental style and modeling does appear to have some impact or interaction with children’s behavioral self-control and pro-social interactions, even for children considered predisposed for behavioral problems, but to what extent?

The relatively new field of Evolutionary Psychology explores how social and moral behavior does not simply appear out of nowhere. This branch of psychology dismisses the old theory of the ‘blank slate,’ meaning that every individual is born neutral and his personality develops wholly as a by-product of experience. Instead, this theory describes social and moral behavior as a set of functional behavioral ‘programs’ that use and process information from experiences in the world.

According to this theory, these programs are the result of evolution. They are developed over generations of adapting to and solving certain problems. We are each born with a set of ‘programs’ inherited from our ancestors; so two individuals might be born with very different sets. The set I was born with depends on what proved advantageous to my particular ancestors. But the differences don’t stop there. These programs continue to adapt to real word experiences for each individual. These programs adapt and change based on experiences with significant others, who intentionally or unintentionally shape these behavioral programs.

Instead of nature versus nurture, this could be better described as nature through experience. According to this theory, we are born with certain inherited genetic profiles, strengths and appetites for given fields or skills. However, our experiences ‘prune’ and shape that profile. So, for example, imagine three individuals, Allan comes from a brilliant family and has a genetic predisposition to intellectual pursuits. So does his sister, Betty. Craig does not; his genetic profile does not lend itself to intellectual curiosity. At school, Allan runs with the wrong crowd, and is mocked when he does well on tests. Betty pursues her schoolwork with diligence, and feels pride at her achievements. Craig struggles, but meets up with a gifted and motivated teacher who inspires him to push himself. By high school, Allan is barely passing, while Craig and Betty are successful students. Was it genetics or experience? Yes.[iv]

So these programs have evolved over generations to benefit the species, and then an individual’s program will evolve based on his own experiences. This suggests that parents do have an ability to impact how these programs take shape, although often in ways that they may not realize at the time.[v] If parents could predict the message that their every reaction sends to their teen’s program, perhaps they could tailor their messages to shape the program to behaviors that they want their teen to have. If only it were that simple.

Parents’ ability and influence is more limited than that. Not only are children born with genetic profiles outside of parents’ control, much of a child’s experiences (the so-called nurture) is outside parents’ control, especially once that child is a teenager. The older a child is, the more of his experiences take place out in the world, outside the control of his parents. And those adaptive programs keep adapting to the world, not just to the parents. All those experiences shape and influence that teenager’s behavioral programs.[vi]

So the behavior a parent is seeing in her teen is largely the result of genetic predispositions that respond and adapt to world experiences. What does that mean for accountability? How much is a teen really responsible for who he or she is? How much are parents responsible for who their children turn out to be?

I would suggest that parents try to remember that every teen at their core is trying to succeed. If their behavior does not appear to reflect that, than you need to look at the context and consequences of that behavior. Why did that behavior make sense to the teen at that time? What priority does that behavior serve? There are always some reasons that make the behavior make sense, even if your child can’t tell you what those reasons are.[vii]

Your teenager is a PERSON. How much can you make yourself a different person? How difficult is it for you to suddenly stop doing some habit or reaction that you know leads to negativity for you? How much can you make your friend or spouse be a different person? Your child was born with strengths and interests. He didn’t choose those. The world around him provides a context and gives him a variety of overt and covert feedback that continues to shape that profile. If he is locked in a pattern of self destruction, the natural temptation for parents is to try to find a way to make him behave differently, and to feel shame and guilt as a parent for ‘where did I go wrong?’

I would suggest that both of these reactions are completely understandable but neither is particularly productive in finding a solution. Instead, the more difficult thing to do is to join with your teen in his frustration or hopelessness and try to see his behavior, the world, and his place in it as he does. Why is he not trying? How does he see himself? Rather than try and make him behave more successfully, try to understand why the negative behavior is happening. You cannot make him be someone else. You cannot make him see the world or himself differently. At best, you can control a small percentage of the consequences of his actions. Maybe you can try to show him that sometimes his behavior leads to more positive consequences, meaning he is already capable and has the strengths to do better, he only needs do that more. Beyond that, you can only try to know him and love him for who is. I wish there were better answers than this. But I have yet to see them.


[i] Howard Gardner has written extensively on expanding the concept of intelligence and learning. He has stated and expanded on the idea that there are multiple forms of intelligence beyond the linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences focused on in school. He usually discusses eight separate forms of intelligence, including intrapersonal intelligence (knowledge about one’s self) and interpersonal intelligence (knowledge about others). As with the more typically discussed linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences, every individual has an innate capacity or ability level, yet there remains room for nurturing and cultivation. The fact that our education system limits itself to only two or perhaps three forms of intelligence (spatial intelligence) is something he also discusses heavily.

Gardner, Howard. (1999). The Disciplined Mind. New York: Penguin Books.

Gardner, Howard. (1999). Intelligence Reframed. New York: Basic Books.


[ii] Gardner, Frances; Shaw, Daniel S.; Dishion, Thomas J.; Burton, Jennifer; & Supplee, Lauren. (2007). Randomized Prevention Trial for Early Conduct Problems: Effects on Proactive Parenting and Links to Toddler Disruptive Behavior. Journal of Family Psychology 21(3), 398-406.

Koblinsky, Sally A.; Kuvalanka, Katherine A.; & Randolph, Suzanne M. (2006). Social Skills and Behavior Problems of Urban, African American Preschoolers: Role of Parenting Practices, Family Conflict, and Maternal Depression. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 76(4), 554-563.

Landry, Susan H.; Smith, Karen E.; & Swank, Paul R. (2006). Responsive Parenting: Establishing Early Foundations for Social, Communication, and Independent Problem-Solving Skills. Developmental Psychology, 42(4), 627-642

Moffitt, Terrie E. (2005). The New Look of Behavioral Genetics in Developmental Psychopathology: Gene-Environment Interplay in Antisocial Behaviors. Psychological Bulletin, 131(4), 533-554.

Jaffee, Sara R.; Caspi, Avshalom; Moffitt, Terrie E.; Taylor, Alan. (2004). Physical Maltreatment Victim to Antisocial Child: Evidence of an Environmentally Mediated Process. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 113(1), 44-55.


[iii] Valiente, Carlos; Eisenberg, Nancy; Fabes, Richard A.; Shepard, Stephanie A.; Cumberland, Amanda; & Losoya, Sandra H. (2004). Prediction of Children’s Empathy-Related Responding From Their Effortful Control and Parents’ Expressivity. Developmental Psychology, 40(6), 911-926.

[iv] Ridley, Matt. (2006). Genome: The autobiography of a species in 23 chapters. New York: Harper Perennial.


[v] Cosmides, Leda; Tooby, John; & Barkow, Jerome, H. (1992). The Psychological Foundations of Culture. In Barkow, Jerome, H.; Cosmides, Leda; & Tooby, John. (Ed.s), The Adapted Mind. (pp.19-136). New York: Oxford University Press.

Pinker, Steve. (2002). The Blank Slate. New York: Penguin Books

[vi] Harris, Judith Rich. (1999). The Nurture Assumption: Why children turn out the way they do. New York: Touchstone.


[vii] Brooks, Robert. (2007). Raising a self-disciplined child. New York: McGraw-Hill Books

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