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At-Risk Children and Teens: Nature vs. Nurture

At-Risk Children and Teens: Nature vs. Nurture

I have heard thousands of life stories and have observed that most have maddeningly similar themes. Recounted early years that are often wrought with child abuse - sexual, physical, emotional and neglect. Growing up in dangerous neighborhoods burdened with poverty. Preteen memories filled with tales of sexual encounters, drug use, violence and gangs. The teen years and beyond are laden with more of the same as well as the fathering of children and juvenile incarceration.

Often times a young inmate's life story goes something like this:
"Well, I have 7 or maybe 8 brothers and sisters. Most of us have different dads. Child Protective Services took me from my mom's house when I was 5 ‘cause her boyfriend raped me or some shit like that. I don't remember it. Then I was in foster care. I went from place to place for a bit. Some were all right; some assholes tried to beat me or rape me. So I got tough. I went back to Mom's when I was about 8. Her new husband taught me to be a man by having my older brothers and uncles beat me up, ya know, so I could learn how to fight. I loved to roll through the ‘hood with my uncles. They had the best guns and women. I started doing ‘work' for the gang ‘bout 12 - shared my first gun with my brothers. We'd shoot some meth before doin' our business. Now I've got three babies and three baby mamas. My last one just had my first son - named him after me."

In seeing the life patterns, I cannot help but wonder if these men, now incarcerated, would have led productive lives if their environments were different. This brings to mind the long-standing debate of nature vs. nurture.

If, as children, these men were free from abuse, poverty, drug use, violence and gangs, would the result have been the same? In this improved environment, would they still have chosen to lead a life of crime, violating their bodies with drugs and the rights of others and property? Would the telltale signs of personality pathology still be present? If so, nature arguably prevails - maybe they were born criminals. But if not, if in these improved circumstances they chose to be productive, upstanding members of society, nurture becomes the winner.

There is a third option: an interaction of nature and nurture. Maybe there is an inborn tendency for criminal behavior that will only be expressed in the right environment. In this case, criminal behavior is a result of both nature and nurture.

Unfortunately no one will ever know for sure. Certainly a limited number of twin and adoption studies have been conducted to examine the causes of criminal behaviors (see the paper for a review) but the results certainly have strong limitations.

Maybe it's just as reasonable to say that this debate is not important - that regardless of the truth, every child deserves the opportunity to be successful. In this case, we chose to focus on nurture. This choice begins in the home - parents choose to provide safe environments - free from abuse, drugs, and gang pressure. They choose to set developmentally appropriate expectations and limitations and demand attention to education. This choice then expands to communities - schools and neighborhoods choose zero tolerance for gangs, drugs, violence and truancy.

It's just a hunch, but I believe that when we uniformly decide to make these choices for our children I'll need to find a new specialty.

 

Marisa Mauro, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

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