REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION from the Florida Jewish News, p. 22.

My son hunches over that computer day after day and I fear he’ll develop a curvature. “Exercise!” I say and I get the rolled eyeballs.

“Where in the world does he get that from?” I wonder. Ha! I know the answer only too well.

He gets his focus on his work from yours truly. He gets putting his work first above exercise from yours truly, too. I remember the time he decided to lift weights. I was ecstatic. “Now the mold will be broken,” I thought. Now, he’s taking care of his health unlike his mother who always had to force herself to exercise. (Let’s not talk about his father who never even got far enough to consider forcing himself to exercise, let alone doing it.) I was so wrong.

When push came to shove, he stopped pushing and his work came first. Not two minutes to work out. “Can’t you lift weights for ten minutes?” I ask. “Surely you can make ten minutes.”

“Won’t mean a thing, ten minutes,” he sighed, exasperated with his nagging mother.

Just like me. If I can’t find a half hour to take my wonderful walk, I admit the truth, I just skip it. And we all know, especially me, how important that walk is. Especially at my age. But what about at his age?

“Wait a minute, DrDeb,” you’re probably saying, “Aren’t you proud that your son has such a great work ethic?” Oh, I am. I am. I’m just saying that being a great role model is a double-edged sword. They get the good; they get the bad.

Taking all my children into account, for example, shows all of them of them with the same abilities as me in the verbal department, but there are two out of four of them the same as me in the math department—which is nothing to be proud of. Like me, my children have gotten high points for being “nice,” but as they grew up, it also was a struggle to teach them the assertiveness that didn’t come easy to me, either. (Thank God, we’ve all learned.) The list goes on. They’ve learned to cook from me and to put off washing the pots and pans from me, too. All but one (and he’s learning) is highly organized like me, but you’d never know it from their desks or from mine. My husband is not left out of the equation either. They’ve all got an optimistic, upbeat attitude like he has, and one, unfortunately, has his sense of humor too, and so on.

Is It Nature Or Nurture?

Now you can justifiably argue that a certain amount of this is inherited and you would be right. After all, it’s impossible to know whether a trait was inherited or learned, that old nature versus nurture dispute. However, the nature/nurture argument applies to learning from both parents, yet the likelihood of a child picking up certain character traits from each parent isn’t necessarily equal. Of course, we’ll never really know whether the source is learned or inherited, but I have noticed in my work an interesting correlation: The closer the bond between a parent and child, the more likely that the child will be like the parent in many ways. It is as if the parent is more likely to be a role model for the child—both for good and for bad—when the two of them are close.

(This would make a fascinating piece of research, wouldn’t it? Are they close and alike because they have similar genetics, or are they alike because they’re emotionally close? Perhaps there’s no way to tease these variables apart.)

Why, if it’s so difficult to separate the nurture component from the nature component do I suspect that a whole lot more of it is nurture and why do I suspect that that component is particularly strong when the parent and child are close? Well, let’s just take the disorganized person in my family. Genetically, it’s clear to anyone in the family who he takes after right down to his organizational skills, and it’s not me. Nevertheless, he has actually become a more and more organized person over the years, basically working against nature, and I know that’s because of me. I also know that this reformation came about because of the relationship we have.

The Role Of Free Choice

Intuitively, this makes sense. If we were stuck being like whoever’s genes we had, we’d have no free choice. We’d have no room to grow, no way to learn. So, of course, we would have had to be designed with the idea that we could break away from the mold, do the unexpected, and change in radical ways in spite of our genetics. That’s the beauty of being influenced by a great teacher or a significant mentor. And I’m further saying that we, as parents, may not realize just how much we influence our children.

That would be great if it were not for the fact that—especially if we are close—we unwittingly are role models for the less desirable behavior as well. If you look at the kids who talk in the movies, their parents are talking as well. The kids who don’t tell you about the test they flunked have parents who take ethical shortcuts sometimes as well. The insensitive kid may have at least one insensitive parent. The aggressive child may have an aggressive parent. And remember: this is more likely to be true where the parents and children are close. Test out my theory yourself—and then, if you and your children are close, start watching your p’s and q’s.

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