The debate over whether we are the result of our genetics or our upbringing is centuries old, and always a hot topic for parents. Who does your child take after? Is she an athlete like you, or artistic like your partner? Does she inherit amazing piano playing skills from your grandma, or is she an expert tennis player like your aunt? People like to spot what they see to be similarities between family members - does your new baby have your eyes? Is she tall like her uncle? Is she clumsy like grandad?
But to what extent are these presumptions really true? How much of who we are is defined by genetics? What affect does attributing a child's character or talents to something beyond their control have on how they grow up?
I read a fascinating book recently, called "Bounce". In it, Matthew Syed argues that sportspeople and child prodigies are made, not born. He has found evidence to suggest that countless world champions are the result of hours (and hours - ten thousand to be precise) of practice, rather than their genetics. He cites the Williams sisters and Tiger Woods as examples, and found that often champions are created when their parents have already set out a path of success for them to follow. Matthew Williams, father of the tennis players Venus and Serena was inspired to encourage his daughters to play after watching a tennis player win money in a competition. He taught himself to play from a book, and coached the girls from a young age, taking them to the court for hours every day.
Practice has been seen to be the reason for child prodigies in other areas too, including music, chess and art (Mozart had amassed his ten thousand hours of practice by his teens), and a child who initially appears to be exceptionally naturally talented can in fact be explained by lots of hard work, rather than DNA.
Solving the nature/nurture mystery isn't as easy as all that, and plenty of things could well be down to genetics. But I really do think that as parents, it opens up a world of possibilities if we try to put that explanation to rest. Putting talents down to DNA can:
Add pressure: "Are you going to be as good at the violin as your sister?";
Belittle how much hard work and how many hours of practice a child has done to improve in a certain area: "You're so lucky that you're so naturally gifted when it comes to art - I wish I could draw as well as you!" ;
Limit children: "We're not good swimmers in our family!" "You'll be a fussy eater like your brother..." "We're not very graceful people in the Smith family-we're forever falling over!";
Excuse characteristics that could be improved: "You're always late - you take after Aunt Ethel!"
Just think of the world of possibilities you open up if you tell a child that they can do anything in the world with enough practice and dedication - if you tell them that they're not limited by their genetics and what the other members of their family can do. If a child (or anyone) enjoys something and feels they have the capacity to be quite good at it, they are more likely to do it. The more they practise, the better they'll get! Perhaps Syed's ideas in Bounce aren't one hundred percent accurate, but if we treat them as if they are, it opens up a world of possibilities.
I practised swimming a lot when I was younger, and swam for six to seven hours per week. At five foot one, I was never destined to become an international swimmer - and my height can largely be blamed on my genes! But I enjoyed swimming and I became quite good. I can still beat my husband in the pool, and one of my cousins, despite them being bigger and stronger (and having the added benefit of testosterone!) because I've practised - I've honed my craft.
So your own past experiences of swimming really don't have to impact the experience your child has in the water today - think of your child as a book, waiting to be written. When life doesn't feel pre-destined, things start to feel exciting!