THE NURTURE ASSUMPTION
by Judith Rich Harris (Free Press)
by Richard Barbieri
Revolution or forgotten footnote? Reading The Nurture Assumption,
one fears the first option, but hesitates to vote for the second.
Harris's theory, that parental behavior hardly matters to the way
children grow up, and that the peer group forms a person's
character (along with the parental genetic contribution), seems
at first wildly implausible. But she provides evidence -- the
blunders committed by social scientists for the past hundred years,
the inadequacy of their testing methods, and the actual paucity of
concrete data to support nongenetic parental influence -- that
makes it hard to dismiss her views, especially because they are
bolstered by both common sense and anthropological data: that
children usually grow up in a child-filled environment, and that
their wellbeing depends far more on conforming to the norms of
that group than on taking on the mores of their parents.
Her eagerness to build her case, however, actually undermines it.
Harris's position is so extreme -- that we would have exactly the
same children if we kept everything else constant in their lives,
and "switched all the parents around" -- as to provoke quick
rejection (perhaps as a pioneer she believes that only such
extremes can get her a hearing). And she depends heavily on an
evolutionary view, connecting us so totally to our prehistoric
ancestors as to deny human differences either in our nature or our
aims. She defends physical punishment, for example, because "big
hominids have been hitting little ones for millions of years."
Yet Harris has many useful insights. She eases the guilt and
nervousness that some parents find an overwhelming burden. And she
shows that schools are the place where most children develop their
social selves through interaction with peers, that teachers have
an extraordinary opportunity to affect such development, and that
independent schools have a special chance because they can select
and shape a peer group in ways not open to most institutions.