The Soul of Parenting: Before It’s Too Late

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We’ve spent the last few weeks considering the impact of genes on one’s religious nature. The claim is that we are a combination of both nature and nurture, and the way that we in turn nurture must take into account our own child’s nature. Push too hard and you get a robot; push too little and you get a wild and unruly soul. A number of parents wrote asking exactly how to do this, especially when one’s child is resistant. As a result, I’ll try to explore that tension in the coming weeks and toward that end, I would like to ask the parents out there some of the same questions that were posed to me: what have you done when your son refused to put on a kippah or tzitzit? What strategies have you used when your daughter wanted to wear a skirt that is shorter than you would like? Please send me your suggestions and true-tested methods and I will share the most instructive with the hundreds and hundreds of readers who have been reading this column.

In the meantime, one more interesting finding about the possible extent of the impact of genes on religiosity, just to drive home the point that they are a force to be reckoned with in religious parenting.

At the University of Colorado at Boulder, they studied 2,478 adolescent twins to assess the heritability of inner spirituality over time; in other words, how much of religious feeling is inherited? The research team asked adolescents about their inner spiritual experience, focusing on the transcendent relationship, with questions such as, “Do you believe in God?” Or “Do you rely on your religious beliefs as a guide for day-to-day living?” Or “Are you able to turn to prayer when you are feeling a personal problem?” They found that at around 14 years old, the amount it varied from person to person was 29% due to genetics, 44% due to shared family environment (i.e. the house you grew up in), and 27% due to individual personal environment (i.e. your friends and the like.) But then, just five years later at about age 19, the heritable contribution had increased to 41% (from 29%), while the shared family environment and unique personal environment had been reduced to 37% and 22% respectively. In other words, at 14 years old, the largest impact on teen spirituality comes from her family but by 19, it is shaped significantly by her biology. (Button, T. et al. (2011). The etiology of stability and change in religious values and religious attendance. Behavioral Genetics, 41. 201-210).

Another study used a large sample of twins from the Minnesota study we quoted last time and divided them into two cohorts, one of adolescents from 14 to 18 years of age and another from 20 to 25 years of age. The results showed variability among the younger cohort to be 2% at around age 14, 21% at age 18, 27% at age 20, and 46% at age 25. At the same time, the impact of family falls from 74% at age 14 to 30% at age 25 (Laura Koenig (2008). Stability and change in religiousness during emerging adulthood. Developmental Psychology. 44:2. 532–543).

If one were to draw conclusions from these numbers it might strangely be that heritability of inner spirituality doesn’t really show itself so easily in the younger years but does as one grows older. Why should that be if genes are genes and always present? The most likely answer is the influence of parents. Children do not have the freedom to do what they want or go where their hearts take them as long as they are living under their parents’ roof. As such, genetic predispositions are not necessarily acted upon until one gains more autonomy.

While the populations examined in that research may be different than our own, and the findings not necessarily conclusive, the study nevertheless dovetails nicely, I think, with the religious development of Yaakov and Esav that we mentioned on a previous occasion. While their religious leanings may have been determined to some extent already in the womb, we know nothing of their childhood. The verses simply tell us that they were born and then they grew up and one became a hunter and the other became a wholesome person residing in tents. What happened in between? Says Rashi: “And the youths grew up: As long as they were small, they were not recognizable through their deeds, and no one scrutinized them to determine their characters. As soon as they became thirteen years old, this one parted to the houses of study, and that one parted to idol worship.”  In other words, as Rav Hirsch suggested, when they were younger, they were they raised the same, without regard for the different religious sensitivities that motivated them. As a result, by the time they were 13 (today’s 18 or 19?) their true nature took greater hold.

The goal, then, using Rashi’s words, is to scrutinize one’s children’s personalities to determine their characters–not only their intellectual, social and emotional character, but their religious character as well. We need to identify it and address it to the best of our ability, while they are still under our influence, so that when our kids gain their autonomy they will be comfortable in their own religious skins and not feel the necessity to go out hunting for other ways to satisfy their inherited and innate craving for the spiritual. It may be true, as the Gaon of Vilna observed centuries ago, that “one cannot shatter a person’s basic nature,” but we can surely help shape and direct it so that the soul can achieve its spiritual potential in a way that is most conducive to its character. In short, we need to nurture their nature and the younger they are, the better.

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The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.