Teach Your Child to Drive (And Why the Brain is Like a Team of Horses)

Are children born hardwired to act a certain way? Or is it their life experiences that shape the way their brains grow and develop? Scientists spent a long time trying to settle the old "nature vs. nurture" debate. As it turns out, the debate was grounded by a false premise - that we had to choose. We know now that both nature AND nurture influence brain development. For example, most babies are born in to the world with the capacity to make noise. We can thank genetics - the hardwiring - for that. However, which of the world's 6,500 spoken languages that baby ends up speaking depends upon the sounds that she hears from her caregivers. Nature and nurture. Genetics and experience. 

Hardwired drives

Our kids' brains come equipped with certain powerful drives that are hardwired from birth, like software already installed on a new computer. Here are a few of them:

  • Fight / Flight
  • Seek Pleasure / Avoid Pain
  • Social Connection
  • Seek Approval / Avoid Disapproval
  • Empathy
  • Guilt

You may recognize some of the drives on this list, like the well-known fight or flight response. If I am walking up to my house late at night and someone jumps out at me I don't have to think about how to respond. It is automatic. My heart rate and breathing accelerate, adrenaline surges through my body, and I am poised to confront the threat or hightail it out of there.

We are also born wired to connect. It isn't just nice. It doesn't just feel good. Hormones like oxytocin and vasopressin prime the brain for connection, causing newborns to orient to human faces as soon as they can focus their eyes. In fact, lack of connection can cause "failure to thrive," which can be fatal to babies and young children. Connection isn't a fluffy afterthought in the human experience. It is hardwired.

Hardwired drives and the power of experience

Just because something is hardwired in an infant's brain at birth doesn't mean that it is immune to the power of experience. In fact, many of those drives require experiences and practice to fully mature and develop. For example, while we might be born into the world hard wired with the capacity for empathetic responses, it takes loving relationships and plenty of learning to leverage our mirror neurons for building empathy.

There is another reason that experiences are important: Our hardwired drives do not always work in concert with one another. Imagine this scenario:

Sixteen-year-old Joanna has a powerful urge to skip sixth period math class to go to the park and spend some time in the sun. It will be way more fun to lie in the grass than to wrestle with tough calculus problems. As she considers the choice at her locker, she feels a pang of guilt and a slightly unsettled feeling in her stomach. She also imagines the look on her math teacher's face if he were to find out. The drives compete, and a split second later she grabs her math textbook and heads to class.

Or this:

Seven-year-old Jorge has a powerful urge to fight with the kid who just pushed him on the playground. As he prepares to throw a punch, he sees his favorite teacher out the corner of his eye. He likes her and wants her approval. The drives compete, and a split second later he shoves his fist into his pocket and walks away.

Teaching your child to drive

Your challenge as a parent is to raise a child who can manage competing urges. There is nothing wrong with seeking pleasure or having fun, but a kid who prioritizes fun at the expense of everything else will not get very far in life. There is a time for standing up for yourself, but a kid who can't control his angry impulses will be in constant conflict and trouble.

Imagine that your child's hardwired drives are like a team of horses. Success in both school and life depends upon her capacity to drive them and keep them on the road. This is where experience comes in. Children do not learn to manage their competing hardwired drives and urges on their own, they outsource this to parents, teachers and caregivers.

So how do you teach your child how to drive? Start with these ingredients:

  • Set clear limits and consequences. At around the age of two, the strategy of limits and consequences becomes very important to help your child develop self-discipline. This core character trait enables kids to manage their impulses and say no to themselves.
  • Forge and maintain a strong connection. This is important for babies and teenagers alike! The stronger your connection with your child, the more motivated she will be to keep it intact and make choices that don't undermine your relationship and approval.
  • Nurture empathy. Encourage your child to put themselves in someone else's shoes.
  • Reinforce good behavior with approval and encouragement. For example, "Jules, that was a great way to let your brother have a turn."
  • Model the respectful and caring behavior you want your kids to emulate.