MEMBERS ONLY: Watching Nature vs. Nurture Play Out In My Kids

We’ve all probably had the debate at least once in our lives over how much of our personality is driven by our environment and how much is driven by our genetics. “He was born with a fiery temper!” “She was raised to be a well-behaved lady!” Well, let me tell you a story…

I have three kids, two sons and a daughter. Jordan is ten, Anastasia is 8, and Kyle is 5. Now, because of his autism, Jordan’s personality is atypical and can’t really be compared to his siblings. On the other hand, Anastasia and Kyle are neurotypical and they are so alike it’s a bit freaky. They share speech patterns, inflections, facial expressions, and behaviors.

But they’re siblings so that shouldn’t be much of a surprise, right? Ordinarily, no. But if you haven’t been following me for a while, you might not be aware that Kyle is my donor son. He’s Anastasia’s half-brother and they’ve never lived together. In fact, they’ve spent their entire lives living over 300 miles apart.

Let’s break this down a bit more.

Anastasia grew up in a non-Spanish speaking home with me, her Italian/Czech mother, and her brother. We’ve only had cats, lived in (mostly white) Middle Village, NY until we moved to Alexandria VA where our community is a mish mosh of Middle Eastern, Central American, and West African.

Kyle grew up in a dual language home with his two moms, Maria (the biological mother from Ecuador) and Jenny (Dominican), and a dog. They live in (mostly Asian and Latino) Elmhurst, NY. Kyle is an only child.

Aside from the obvious, as couples, Jenny, Maria, Debbie and I are very different so there’s not even the possibility that both kids are pulling from a homogeneous background. We’re best friends but when we lived in the same state we didn’t hang out all the time and do the same stuff together. Debbie and I are homebodies. Jenny and Maria go out constantly. Kyle spends a ton of time with his grandparents. Anastasia saw hers every month or so when we lived in New York but now it’s a few times a year since we moved to Virginia. Jenny and Maria and Hipster-lite (not that they’ll ever admit it), making veggie and fruit smoothies for Kyle whereas Deb and I let Anastasia eat far too much McDonald’s. Debbie and I are very rough and tumble with the kids, lots of wrestling and tickling. Jenny and Maria are much more subdued. We don’t even watch the same TV shows and Jenny falls asleep during every movie.

Anastasia and Kyle’s circumstances could not possibly be more different and yet…they’re still eerily alike. It’s so weird that watching Kyle is like a window into the past. We all just sit there and keep saying, “Holy crap, Anastasia used to do exactly the same thing at that age!” And it’s not like every kid does this stuff. Every kid throws a temper tantrum at a certain age and learns to tell a lie around the same time. This isn’t that. It’s what Kyle says and how he says it that keeps freaking us out. It’s how he shoots a look at us or cocks his head a certain way that leaves us wondering where the hell he picked that up because it’s not from any of us.

I have to stress how little influence I’ve had on Kyle’s life, partly by necessity but mostly by design. I’m Kyle’s father but I am not his parent. That was always the arrangement. Even if we hadn’t moved to Virginia two weeks before Kyle was born that’s how it would have been.

As it was, until he was three, Kyle more or less ignored my existence. He knew I was his father but it didn’t mean anything to him. He had his mommies so who the heck was I? When he finally figured out what that meant, he was suddenly excited to see me and play with me which was a pleasant surprise. But even then, we only saw each other a few times a year for a few days and if you’ve ever tried having a conversation with a 3-year-old on the phone, you know it’s not easy to do. All told, if I’ve spent 300 hours of Kyle’s life in direct contact with him, I would be very surprised. He’s spent significantly less with Anastasia.

Maybe it came from other influences they have in common like cartoons? I wouldn’t bet on it.

If you’re not familiar with children shows for the really young kids, they do not usually have a long shelf life. Aside from stuff like Barney and Spongebob and Dora, the shows an 8-year-old watched when she was three will not necessarily be the same as the shows a 5-year-old watched when he was the same age. There’s also new ones being pumped out at a phenominal rate to see what catches on. And there’s the gender difference as well. Anastasia tended to watch Tinkerbell and “girl” shows while Kyle tended to watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and “boy” shows. All of this is a roundabout way of explaining that they did not learn a lot of their behavior or verbal patterns from watching the same shows.

They also never played with the same toys. Anastasia was a Barbie and Shopkins girl while Kyle collected action figures and the Grossery Gang. Kyle has a collection of cars and Anastasia has a 4′ tall doll house. Kyle has been playing video games for years and Anastasia is just getting into them. They don’t even watch the same Youtube videos. There was some overlap in books but they weren’t speaking in clever rhymes after reading Dr. Seuss.

And yet, somehow, they both immediately developed a habit their first year in school of helping the kids that were struggling with their classwork, the only kids in their class to do so. They both share facial expressions despite not sharing any facial features at all except the Rosario nose. Seriously. Do these two look anything alike?

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The Rosario nose cannot be stopped.

Our next door neighbor Claudia noticed the eerie similarities the first time she met Kyle and she’s only known Anastasia for a little over two years so it’s not just the four of us that have known them since birth. 

I’m sure the “nurture” people will pooh-pooh most of this and I’m not saying how you raise your kids has no impact. Of course it does. One only has to look at, say, three out of five of Trump’s kids to see how decades of poor parenting can turn a child into a sociopath. Nurture (or in the case of Trump, abuse), is important but it’s screamingly obvious that nature is not some minor detail that can be dismissed. We are a product of both and if you’re still not sure, the science is pretty settled in this regard. It just never occurred to me that nature could have such a specific, repeatable effect on behavior.

On the one hand, it’s pretty cool that anything they both do that is awesome, like being kind and helpful, I get to take credit for. On the other, I get the blame for their identical brattiness when it rears its ugly head. The fact that they have the exact same annoying fake cry has earned me more than one nasty look for Maria and Jenny. Whoops.

It will interesting to see how long this duality lasts. Anastasia is very “girly” (although she loves to play outside and run around) and Kyle is currently growing at the same pace as Jordan. That means by the time he is ten, he will be about 5’2″. He’ll be, like his father and his brother, usually the largest person in the room and not just in height. Rosario men are not slender-boned. It’s hard to see how their mannerisms can stay this similar under those circumstances. God help me if they both turn into identical obnoxious teens. Then I’ll have three women out for my blood because they’ll all know who to blame. 

Wish me luck…