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The New Yorker
December 16, 2002


What Parents Can't Do

According to Louis Menand, Steven Pinker, in his book "The Blank Slate," and I, in my 1998 book, "The Nurture Assumption," imply that it is "irrelevant . . . that parents can make their children into opera buffs, water-skiers, food connoisseurs, bilingual speakers, painters, trumpet players, and churchgoers -- that parents have the power to introduce their children to the whole supra-biological realm -- for the fundamental reason that science cannot comprehend what it cannot measure" (Books, November 25th). Neither Pinker nor I regard these things as irrelevant, and they are certainly not unmeasurable. Scientists have shown, for example, that parents have little or no ability (other than by passing on their genes) to make their children into churchgoers, though they can influence which church they will go to, if they do go to one. Parents can try to produce bilingual children by using a foreign language at home, but unless the children have a chance to use that language outside the home, they will usually fail. Children end up with the language and accent of their peers, not of their parents. Parents can influence some things but not others. The effects of parenting, and of the environment more generally, do not have to remain a mystery or a dogma -- they can be investigated empirically. The results, however, may dismay those who have their own personal vision of how the human mind ought to work.

Judith Rich Harris
Middletown, N.J.

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