Nature vs nurture is an age-old debate that crops up everywhere in the world of psychology, with opinions ranging from whether it was our environment growing up that causes us to externalise our emotions in an (un)healthy way, to whether or not our genes are solely responsible for those stubborn 10kg we just can’t seem to shift.

With nurture encompassing the environment in which we are raised, including our social relationships, surrounding culture, and childhood experiences, and nature representing physical characteristics, traits, genes, and hereditary factors, the fundamentals of the debate come down to this: do genetic or environmental factors have a greater influence on our behaviour, and do inherited traits or life experiences play a greater role in how well we’ll fare in life?

Well, as it turns out; we’re asking the entirely wrong question.

It’s no longer solely a question of whether or not we grew up in a healthy, happy, loving environment, or whether or not our parents were also prone to weight gain – it’s a complex mix of the two, expressed through a phenomenon called epigenetics.

Epigenetics is an important area of scientific research that shows how environmental influences from our childhood affects the expression of our genes, highlighting how early childhood experiences can have a lifelong impact.

The genes children inherit from their parents are purely biological, and are used as markers that guide their development. For example, a child with two tall parents will very likely grow up to be tall too, just as parents who both have black, curly hair are likely to have a child that exhibits the same physical traits.

But, when experiences during development rearrange the epigenetic marks that govern gene expression, they can change whether and how genes release the information they carry. This means that the epigenome of those who grow up in a loving, supporting environment will have a different expression than they would have, had they grown up in a toxic or stressful environment, ultimately leaving a unique imprint or ‘epigenetic signature’ on the genes moving forward.

While research has shown that these signatures can be temporary or permanent, results vary as to how easily or quickly these markers can be turned on or off.

From this research, the data is clear: it’s not about nature or nurture. It’s about our gene expression, through a complex mix of the both of them, developed through either positive or negative childhood experiences.

At Te Awhinatanga o Mana Rōpū, we believe that it’s up to us to make sure that our tamariki have those positive experiences – it will literally change the course of our tamariki’s lives in the years to come.