Nature or Nurture: Case for an Integrated Life-Span Approach

There has been a debate raging, sometimes quietly, sometimes not, in regards to why individuals are the way they are. Most now realize that there is a tremendous interaction between the expression of the genes that we are given and the environment that forms the context for growth and development. Consider identical twins, separated at birth, that grow up with no contact yet are remarkably similar (Santrock 1999, p. 65). Alternatively, consider children who have experienced extended separation from parents and where placed in a orphanage. Though they tested as being developmentally retarded, depending, if the were adopted prior to six years of age, they showed remarkable recovery while those remaining “institutionalized” never functioned ‘normally’ (Cole & Cole 1989, pp. 251-252). Clearly, it is not an ‘all-or-none’ proposition.

Even within a paradigm of an interactive process, the early theorists tended to believe that development happened in childhood and one’s adult years simply played out the development of one’s youth. While there is virtually universal agreement that the developmental foundation laid during infancy, childhood and adolescence cannot be understated in importance, in the last 30-40 years, there is a growing widespread recognition that development is lifelong process. Termed the “life-span approach”, it explicitly recognizes a four-fold approach to understanding both development and psychology, considering biological, environmental, social and cultural factors (Cole & Cole, 1989, p. 11). The case of David, Ruth, Mei Ling and Mrs. Brown represents a situation which virtually demands the application of such an approach. One the following pages are tables which presents each person, their developmental issues by perspective and a psychology summary utilizing varying theorists to ‘explain’ their current dilemma. In addition to the primary consideration of David and Ruth, Mei Ling is also presented to her pivotal role in the dynamics of David and Ruth’s situation.

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Subject

Perspective

Developmental Issues and Conflicts

Ruth

Biological

Ruth is at the age at which child-bearing odds decrease and the odds of a normal birth also decrease. In other words, her biological clock is ticking (Santrock 1999, p. 93).

Environmental

Ruth is recently married after a prolonged period of being a single parent. ‘Accommodating’ this shift physically as well as psychologically, despite being a desired state, presents challenges. In addition, she faces the problems of dealing with an aging parent who is beginning to need her more, both physically and psychologically.

Social

An additional key accommodation is that of having a “co-parent” of a child that is going through her own adolescent identity crisis.

Cultural

From this perspective, Ruth may be grappling with issues of her continuing to work, possibly cultural demands to care for an ageing parent, and struggling with her role as wife, mother, and daughter (Santrock 1999 pp. 466-467, 474).

Assessment

Ruth is likely working/re-working two of Erikson’s lifestages: Intimacy v. Isolation as she grapples with the fulfillment of her need for intimacy as evidenced by her recent (re)marriage and Productivity v. Stagnation as she considers not working to take care of her ageing parent and meet the demands of her new family structure (Gleitman 1986, p. 562).

Subject

Perspective

Developmental Issues and Conflicts

David

Biological

David is at the age when he likely feels the need to be “stable” yet because of past events, he is struggling. From a Freudian perspective, his “abandonment” by his birth mother/parents is producing anxiety and frustration compounded by his adoptive mother’s failure to embrace his struggle and need for resolution.

Environmental

Like Ruth, David finds himself in a new family structure. This is a particularly big change for him as he essentially married not only Ruth but Mei Ling as well (Santrock 1999, p. 419).

Social

David is seeking to complete the next “stage” in his life – to have a family – and is grappling with the age old issue of what shall become of him [gene-wise and otherwise] when he dies. The obvious solution is to have a child with his bride. Despite being married, having a child is a not a one-sided decision.

Cultural

David likely struggles with cultural role expectations that he be nearly positioned career-wise for ‘the rest of his life’ and that he have a wife and child(ren), the hallmarks of “success” in the modern western world (

Assessment

David’s issue with seeking his birth mother easily lends itself to a Freudian interpretation of ‘unresolved conflict once repressed but now, in light of the relevancy of the current circumstances, it has expressed itself in the emotional-physical symptoms of depression (Gleitman 1986, pp. 416, 419-420).

Subject

Perspective

Developmental Issues and Conflicts

Mei Ling

Biological

Mei Ling is nearly at the adolescent period. This pre-programmed stage brings about the secondary sex characteristics through a flood of hormones.

Environmental

Mei Ling is facing the recent arrival of David. Though he and her mother dated, marriage marks the “official” intent of permanence of the relationship. This is a dramatic shift from the previous state in which her alone had the attention of her mother.

Social

Adolescents typically ‘rebel’ to some extent as they seek to establish and identity separate from their parent(s). This is likely a factor in a part of Mei Ling’s inquiries about her father and her frustration with David.

Cultural

The fact that Mei Ling is of Asian descent and now has two Anglo parent is likely a cause of frustration as, externally, she may not identify with “Mom” or “Dad/David”.

Assessment

Mei Ling is likely struggling, albeit somewhat normally, with Erikson’s 5th stage of psychosocial development in which the conflict of “identity vs. identity confusion” is experienced. This stage is intensified due to her mother’s remarriage, the death of her birth father when she was very young as well as the usual issues that arise during this period in her life.

The life-span approach, by virtue of its multiple perspectives, takes into consideration that biology and environmental consideration are only valid in the context of cultural and social frameworks. With this approach, it is possible to begin reconciliation of otherwise often competing theories. A further contribution of this method is that is recognized as having seven very relevant characteristics (Santrock 1999, pp.9-11):

Lifelong in nature – Unlike some paradigms, the life-span approach considers development to be ongoing throughout life, not just a childhood process.
Multidimensional – There are often multiple factors for any given outcome or behavior. Just as David expresses unresolved anxiety from his ‘abandonment’, he is also frustrated by work pressures and the demands of his new family role(s).
Multidirectional – Elements of one’s development do not always improve with age. For example, one’s physical abilities improve until early-adulthood and then begin to decrease. This is a key element in this case for Mrs. Brown who, due to a recent illness, has become suddenly much more aware of her gradually increasing dependence on others to perform tasks for which she recently needed no assistance.
Plastic – In opposition to a pure “nature” approach, development is not fixed though one should keep in mind that, no matter how hard one tries, ‘a pig cannot be taught to sing’. Clearly, biology gives one certain potentialities that are expressed by environmental or other stimulation.
Historically Embedded – Development is contingent upon the broader environmental context of history. For example, a child in the 1950’s is different in many respects that a child of this decade, despite experiencing many of the same psychodynamic issues and stages.
Multi-Disciplinary – One cannot be a biologist and fully understand human development though this perspective is essential. In the same way, one cannot be a pure behaviorist and expect to account for the width and breadth of development.
Contextual – Biology acts upon and with social, cultural and psychological factors. Similarly, the experiences one has shapes the expression of biological elements of development.

While most any aspect of David and Ruth’s current situation can be explained by the application of one or more theoretical perspectives, it is the life-span approach that allows them to come together in one cohesive “story”. Unfortunately, it is only in retrospect, in most cases, that development can be full understood. To illustrate, consider the figure below.

One can easily explain the “path” from E to A with the benefit of the perspective of looking back. However, consider that one would only have a 1/256 chance at arriving at E given the choices that present themselves at each “juncture of life” (Cole & Cole 1989, p. 263).

In explaining any given situation, the lifespan approach seeks to take advantage of all available information from both sides of the nature/nurture debate. While no method can approach the accuracy of hindsight, the insight offered by the recognition that people are ever developing and are not so easily understood by a single school of thought gives tremendous power to the ability of psychology to make meaningful contributions to those in the midst of the struggles of life.

Works Consulted

Santrock, J. (1999). Life-Span Development, 7th Edition. McGraw-Hill College: Boston, Massachusetts.

Cole, M. and Cole. S. (1989). The Development of Children. Scientific American Books: New York, New York.

Gleitman, H.(1986). Psychology, 2nd Edition. W.W. Norton & Company: New York, New York.

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