So researchers have discovered a possible genetic link to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This was reported yesterday in the media as a triumph for parents of children with ADHD and a vindication of their parenting. Many had felt that the ADHD diagnosis represented an implied ‘slur’ against parents of ADHD children – too much easy talk of poor parenting, too much unsupervised TV, too much computer time, too many additives and junk food, and so on, being the presumed causes of ADHD. Not true – it’s all in the genes, yesterday’s reports seemed to say.
This issue raises all sorts of interesting questions about the relative roles of nature and nurture in our growth and development. Coincidentally, we are also marking the tenth anniversary of the full mapping of the human genome, when all our genetic make-up was finally uncovered and recorded. This opens up exciting potential for treating disease in the future, and already we are beginning to see medical benefits.
But it would be a serious mistake to allow ourselves to think that understanding the genetic backdrop to the kind of people we are, and the physical or psychological characteristics we have, in some way absolves us of personal responsibility for our actions or decisions. In my view, it is essential to hold on to the notion that we are essentially moral beings with the capacity to make decisions based on what is right, and what is wrong. Of course, how easy or difficult those decisions will be will vary from person to person, and at the end of the day perhaps only our Maker knows whether we have done the best with what we have, and how hard we have really tried to get things right. But ‘relaxing’ into the easy notion that we have no choice in our actions, that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, just genetic predisposition, because that is just the kind of person our genes say we are, is a renouncement of our potential as human beings.
So for parents of children with difficult behaviour tendencies, whether ADHD or other types, it is fine to be aware of the genetic backdrop, and to be sensitive to just how difficult it can be for these children to behave in a controlled way all the time. But we must never encourage an approach that says that we can stop trying, or give up on the idea that children must be taught about taking personal responsibility for their actions, however hard that may seem in some contexts. Otherwise where will it stop?