Becoming a parent was one of the greatest blessings in my life. I mean, I LOVE being a mom – more than I even realized I was going to love it. Many of my clients share similar sentiments, amazed by seeing their children come into the world, being with them as they discover it, leading them and developing them through all the wonder that life creates.
That being said, raising kids can feel like an obstacle course – full of surprises, guaranteed increased heart rate, uncomfortable at times – but, if you stay alert, you get glimpses of who they are becoming…and it’s one of the most special treats that was created just for you.
But – like that obstacle course – to be successful (notice the intentional use of successful and NOT perfect), there is more work required than one might think from the outside looking in.
I remember when I was pregnant, my husband and I went back and forth guessing – whose eyes would she have, whose nose, whose feet?! Just waiting to see what she’d look like and whose genes reigned supreme. (I am half joking; it got a little competitive in the Schroeder household!)
Then we’d layer in another question: how will our genes impact her health? Will she have heart issues? Will she have to wear glasses?
Studies suggest that children inherit roughly 23,000 genes from their parents – although not every gene will do what it was meant to. Experiences from our environment impact how genes are expressed. Experiences that leave a signature marker on genes create what we call an epigenome. Here’s what that means when we break it down: not only do my actual genes impact the genes of my little one, but the environment I create impacts her genes too! It is no longer a conversation about nature vs. nurture – but rather a focus on how both impact child development hand-in-hand.
Positive experiences that expose young children to learning opportunities, positive relationships, and healthy communication leave a unique epigenetic “signature” on their genes. The same can be said for high-stress or toxic environments, ultimately resulting in an altered genetic state. Essentially turning some genes “on” or “off,” based on environmental cues. This can be temporary or long-term, but creates the call-to-action to provide a positive and healthy environment for our children from the very beginning.
There will be bumps, bruises, and sickness that are beyond our parental control – but what is within our control is what we choose to expose our children to. Harvard University’s Center for Childhood Development suggests three simple principles that will impact how genes are expressed and influence lifelong behavior, physical, and mental health.
- Support responsive relationships:
- This builds a healthy brain architecture.
- Experiencing supportive and responsive relationships helps build resilience.
- Strengthen core life skills:
- Essential skills support focus, create habits like planning and reaching goals, help us learn how to adapt to change, and lower likelihood of impulsive or reckless behaviors.
- Reduce sources of stress
- Stress activation impacts the brain and other organs in the body; if stress stays high, it can overload biological systems and cause negative long-term effects such as impaired cognitive response, behavioral issues, high blood pressure, high cortisol levels.
- Reducing stress reserves the energy required for healthy brain development.
I could write an entire article on why these same principles positively impact our epigenetic responses as parents – but I’ll spare you the written rambling (for now!).
As parents we administer medicine, baby-proof our cabinets, kiss scraped knees, have fruits and vegetables at dinner, and bundle up our littles on a cold winter day. We must be just as diligent in creating a healthy mental and emotional environment to create long-term positive effects on turning “on” the healthy expression of the genes we’ve passed on.
And the good news….the more we do this, the more likely our kids are to do the same. Good parenting can start with you and positively impact the health and behaviors of your grandkids’ grandkids.
Reflection Questions – Drop your thoughts in the comments!
- How does the concept of epigenetics relate to other MJST concepts you've learned (e.g., 95%/neurological "hardwiring", The Story Framework)?
- How do you approach developing a supportive environment for you and your spouse and – by extension – your kids?
- Where have you fallen short in creating a supportive environment for your family? How did you become aware to it and what actions did you take to shift your experience?