Early Childhood Development:
Nature and Nurture

The nature versus nurture debate is one of the oldest philosophical issues within biology and psychology. 

  • Nature refers to all genetic and hereditary factors: what the child is born with, their inherited traits and abilities.
  • Nurture refers to all environmental factors: what the child experiences, their environment, the care they receive, and the relationships they have with people and their community.

For over a century, scientists were consumed by the debate over nature versus nurture. The debate is between advocates of genetic determinism, who believe that a child’s development is primarily driven by their hardwired genetic code, and advocates of environmentalism, who believe that a child’s development is primarily influenced by their surrounding environment. In the late 1950s, the debate became more complex yet less divisive, with most biologists and psychologists believing that both nature and nurture play a role in a child’s development. While scientists have understood for decades that interactions between genes and the environment influence early childhood development, they have only recently begun to understand the mechanisms behind these interactions.

The field of epigenetics changed the conversation since its emergence in 1942. Epigenetics is the study of how a child’s experiences and environment influences genetic expression. It fills the gap between nature and nurture, explaining how early childhood development is affected by both nature and nurture. While nature tells the body how to work, it is nurture or the child’s environment that either allows or prevents those genetic instructions from being carried out. This means that a child’s environment can even speed up or slow down certain types of genetic activity. If a child’s early years are filled with stress, it can change how their genes are expressed.

A child’s environment can create either:

  • A stable foundation for healthy childhood development.
  • An unstable foundation, which could lead to the progression of serious mental health and neurodevelopmental challenges during the early childhood years.

The development of mental health and neurodevelopmental challenges during a child’s early years is not a product of genetics alone. Mental health challenges can also result from exposure to significant adversity during the early childhood years. Even though genetics can shape a child’s mental health future, they do not represent their destiny.

Epigenetics: Nature vs Nurture

What is Epigenetics? The Answer to the Nature vs. Nurture Debate. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/what-is-epigenetics-and-how-does-it-relate-to-child-development/

Quiz time!

Take this quick knowledge check about epigenetics and early childhood development.

Quiz (Early Years: Nature vs Nurture)
Myth or Fact? Epigenetics is an emerging area of scientific research that shows how environmental influences affect the expression of children’s genes.
During development, the DNA accumulates chemical marks that determine how much or little of the genes is expressed. The collection of chemical marks is known as the epigenome.
Myth or Fact? Epigenetics explain why genetically identical twins can exhibit different behaviours, skills, health and achievements.
Myth or Fact? Young children’s brains are particularly sensitive to epigenetic changes. Experiences that change the epigenome early in life, when the specialized cells of organs such as the brain, heart, or kidneys are first developing, can have a powerful impact on physical and mental health for a lifetime.
Myth or Fact? It's all in the genes! We are who we are because of the genes we inherited from our parents. The genes inherited from one’s parents sets a child’s development in stone.
Myth or Fact? Adverse fetal and early childhood experiences can lead to physical and chemical changes in the brain that can last a lifetime.
Myth or Fact? Our bodies forget our early experiences in childhood. Children's brains are not capable of storing "biological memories" that can affect their lifelong health.
Myth or Fact? Scientific evidence shows that playing Mozart recordings to newborns produces epigenetic changes that enhance brain function.
Myth or Fact? Services such as high-quality health care for all pregnant women, infants, and toddlers, as well as support for new parents and caregivers can—quite literally— affect the chemistry around children’s genes.
Myth or Fact? From a policy perspective, the best strategy is to support responsive relationships and reduce stress to build strong brains from the beginning, helping children grow up to be healthy, productive members of society.

References

Gene-Environment Interaction: Epigenetics and Child Development. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/deep-dives/gene-environment-interaction/ 

Levitt, M. Perceptions of nature, nurture and behaviour. Life Sci Soc Policy 9, 13 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1186/2195-7819-9-13

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