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

Nurture encompasses the environment in which we are raised, including our social relationships, surrounding culture, and childhood experiences. Whereas nature represents our physical characteristics, traits, genes, and hereditary factors. The fundamentals of the debate come down to this: (1) do genetic or environmental factors have a greater influence on our behaviour? and (2) do inherited traits or life experiences play a greater role in how well we will fare in life?

Well, as it turns out, we’re asking the wrong questions.

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 affect 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 as well, just as parents who both have black, curly hair are likely to have a child who exhibits the same physical traits.

However, when experiences during development rearrange the epigenetic marks that govern gene expression, they can change how genes release the information they carry. This means that the epigenome of those who grow up in a loving, supporting environment would have a different expression 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 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. Evidently, it will change the course of tamariki’s lives for years to come.