Like many adoptees, I have a heightened interest in genetics. Throughout our lives we see the features and traits of our friends repeated among their siblings, something we never experience firsthand. At family reunions we’re the tallest one, or the skinniest one, or the darkest one. Everyone else likes salty food, while we have a sweet tooth. We hear new mothers say, “Yep, she’s got the Thompson red hair,” and know that this child will have “the Thompson look” in all her school pictures, a person you could spot in a crowd and know to whom she belongs.
It isn’t that adoptees belong any less; love is love. And we’ve all seen countless examples of parents and adoptive babies who don’t actually share DNA, yet look eerily alike– truly evidence that God has a direct hand in placing these babies in the right families. Even without such evidence, we know that God’s hand is guiding these match-ups. But adoptees know that our physical traits, and a good number of personality characteristics, came from people outside our family tree. I was fortunate to attend a high school that offered a course in genetics, and soon learned that scientists have argued for generations about whether nature or nurture really has the most impact upon whom we become.
The Nature Camp
The nativist group sites evidence that it’s mostly nature: We inherit our athletic ability from Uncle James, who was a star basketball player. Or we sing well because Great Aunt Trudy performed in operas. A sassy child is compared to a relative with the same stubborn streak. And there are studies of identical twins, separated at birth, who meet again as adults and find they use the same brand of toothpaste, the same deodorant, and even have children with the same names. Not only hair and eye color, but tastes and preferences, are clearly genetic.
Further studies say it goes beyond liking potato chips or pickles-these same twins have similar politics, creativity, organizational habits, opinions, and religious commitment. Respect for authority vs. daredevil adventurism also seems to follow genetic lines as well. My own sister, also adopted, was a perfect example of this. She was easily the most talented artist I’ve ever met, a prodigy with a paintbrush. She also had a rebellious streak. After her tragic death at 17, her birth mother contacted us and, not at all surprisingly, was a renowned Norwegian artist, traveling the world with her one-woman exhibit. And had a rebellious streak.
This would be akin to, years ago, adopting a boy with amazing musical ability, and then having Mozart show up on your doorstep. Nature often prevails.
The Nurture Camp
And yet my Dad and I were two peas in a pod. We enjoyed the same humor, music, lengthy discussions, shared hobbies. If everything that shaped me were genetic, how did we have so much in common? I maintained that nurture won out, that you could take any child, plunk them down in a random family, and they would grow up rooting for the same teams as their family, fixing the same foods, driving the same way, and embracing the same manners and beliefs.
If you could find a primitive tribe in the jungles along the Amazon, take an infant from that setting, and raise him in Venice Beach, California, that child could grow up to be a surfer with a favorite rock band, a messy bedroom, and a bunch of friends who all say, “Dude, that’s awesome” and “epic fail.” He could have orthodontist visits, anxiety over the upcoming prom, and plans to become a pediatrician. Nurture would clearly shape him into an American teenager. You could argue that John Locke was right; the mind is a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which environmental factors have all the impact.
And then we have the “birth children,” for lack of a better term, who have every reason to resemble their parents both physically and emotionally, yet do not. “I don’t know how we got him,” someone will whisper, jokingly. Even within one family, you can find siblings who bear no likeness to anyone else, in appearance or disposition. You can find adoptees who feel completely embraced and connected, and birth kids who feel distant and detached.
Today scientists rarely plant both feet in one camp or the other, but rather, acknowledge the influence of both heredity and environment; it’s a mix. My husband and I share the trait of being able to keep a sense of humor during life’s mishaps. And all our kids are the same way. But did they inherit that, did we teach it to them, or was it a little of both? Experts continue to research, to study the brain, to factor in poverty and IQ, to break it down by race. Yet, for all their efforts, no one can accurately pin our outcome on one or the other.
The Missing Puzzle Piece
And I think I know why. Mind you, I am not a scientist. But I’ve been observing and pondering this issue for decades. And I think what matters most is something the scientific community has never even acknowledged. What matters most is completely outside the sphere of nature or nurture: It’s the Spirit we’re born with. I have watched this component carry more weight than all the physical or environmental factors you can stack up. Those traits and characteristics that were part of us in the premortal world, and will still be part of us in the eternities ahead, are the guiding force in our behavior. We are, first and forever, children of our Heavenly Father. All of us. So, while we can look at a baby and marvel at what a clone she is of her mother, or see similar freckles with our cousins in the family photo, the bottom line is that none of these things matter as much as our inner being.
This is why you find dysfunctional families with amazingly well-adjusted kids, and exemplary families with troubled kids. It’s why you see a litter of puppies with some lethargic ones and some frisky ones. They simply come that way. How many mothers have said that they knew how their children would be at birth; they could sense the little personality who was coming into their care?
So parents who struggle with wayward children need to remember there are factors outside their control-both free agency and one’s spirit. It will be fascinating to meet up, in the next life, and see how foolish we were to blame ourselves when we might well have signed up for challenging kids in the first place! And, likewise, parents who take entirely too much credit for their phenomenal children, will be chagrined to learn that these easy, compliant kids would have succeeded just about anywhere. It doesn’t mean that parenting has no influence; it means we are not solely to the blame-or to the credit-of the outcome.
Don’t forget that each of us came here with inborn divinity, a spark of potential beyond our wildest dreams.
This means we never give up on a single soul, because once you look beyond the earthly components– your family’s DNA and your environment– that’s when you glimpse the best person of all: The child of God who is most like Him! That inherent goodness is stronger and more truly defines us than anything here in mortality. It almost makes the debate seem silly-sometimes I find myself thinking, “Who cares which one has the most influence? It’s the third one that really matters.” That’s the inner person I really am, whether adopted or not. It’s the soul who cheered when the Plan of Happiness was presented. And every one of us on earth did that.
Sometimes I look around at the vast array of humanity, both good and evil, and realize that each one of these people has a Patriarchal Blessing waiting for him. God knows the spirit inside even the least likely candidate to join the church. That person could repent, get baptized, and hear all about who he really is, and who he can become, from a servant of God. And it will have nothing to do with his genetics or his upbringing.
An adoptee friend of mine sees the temple, itself, as a greater influence than nurture or nature. He writes, “President Hunter taught that the temple can be the great symbol of our membership. For those of us who are adopted, the temple is the great symbol of an eternal family, my eternal family. I always thought I had a spiritual advantage growing up, over my friends and their biological families. Because the temple was the only thing that really tied my family together (besides our love for each other) I felt what I believe was additional urgency to be a good commandment keeper and worthy of the temple blessings I hoped would keep me with my family, regardless of our weaknesses.”
Temple covenants, while dependent upon our behavior, are what matter most. Think of it: Every spouse is “adopted” into the new family unit, and can become knit together with this family, the same as a biological or adopted child is. So not only are all spouses “adoptees” of a sort, but all members not directly descended from Abraham are adopted into his lineage, as well. That makes most of us adoptees. And it doesn’t matter if you look like him or act like him-it’s all about eternal blessings, our divine lineage, and the atonement of Christ. And those will forever trump nature and nurture.
Find Hilton’s new book, “Wishes for an LDS Child“
Joni Hilton is also “Your YouTube Mom” and shares short videos that teach easy household tips and life skills
Be sure to read her blog at jonihilton.blogspot.com