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Judith Rich Harris


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"I don't know who this woman is and I haven't read the book but she seems to be oversimplifying." --Andrew Dickson, clinical director, child and family psychiatry department, Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Glasgow, in The Scotsman, Oct. 13 1998

"The Nurture Assumption is a hoot. She is a witty and articulate writer who clearly and systematically explains her refutations of commonly held assumptions. . . . She turns the psychology establishment on its ear."  -- Marilyn Heins, M.D., Tucson pediatrician and parenting educator, Arizona Daily Star, Sept. 20 1998

"I have indeed dutifully looked at Harris' book several times in stores, but quite frankly, I found it too rambling, anecdotal and contradictory to purchase or take seriously. . . . My understanding of the formation of adult personae comes from wide-ranging sources, such as Sir James George Frazer's survey of tribal rites of passage in 'The Golden Bough'; Freud's conflict-based analysis of the psychodynamics of 'family romance' in bourgeois society; and even Babylonian astrology."  --Camille Paglia, Salon Magazine,   Sept. 23 1998

"Harris writes beautifully, in a tone both persuasive and conversational. . . . Some critics may pounce on her for not having a Ph.D. . . . but they cannot fault her scholarship. . . . She draws on research from behavior genetics (the study of genetic contributions to personality), social psychology, child development, ethology, evolution and culture. Lively anecdotes about real children suffuse this book, but Harris never confuses anecdotes with data." --Carol Tavris, New York Times Book Review,   September 13 1998

"[Harris'] thesis is absurd on its face, but consider what might happen if parents believe this stuff! Will it free some to mistreat their kids, since 'it doesn't matter'? Will it tell parents who are tired after a long day that they needn't bother even paying any attention to their kid since 'it doesn't matter'?" --Frank Farley, PhD, quoted in Newsweek,   Sept. 7 1998

"Harris' proposal could conceivably hurt our most innocent and vulnerable -- our children. If you're an overwhelmed parent looking to lighten your load, then reduce your time spent on the kids' behavior, emotionial life, achievement and skills, and go party. If you've got anger-control problems, let it all out, because it doesn't matter."
--op-ed by Frank Farley, PhD, Philadelphia Daily News, Oct. 15 1998 (also in Los Angeles Parent, Nov. 1998)

"No one . . . could come away from her book with the message that has, unfairly, been attributed to her -- that it doesn't matter how you treat your children. Of course it does, Harris writes, for the same reason it matters how you treat your spouse: because they are human, and because the way you behave certainly will affect your relationships with those people. . . . Go to your child in the middle of the night, Harris would say, and comfort her; not because it will make her emotionally secure 20 years from now, or because she is forming a template for every relationship she will ever have, but because she is frightened and she is small, and it is in your power to make her feel better. And when you really think about it, this is a more humane reason to treat your child well than the grandiose assumption that your every action will have some power over her future." --Marjorie Williams, The Washington Monthly,   November 1998

"My advice to parents: 'Don't buy this book!' Let me read it for you and I'll tell you if there is any good stuff in it. John [Rosemond] and I. If we ever finish it." --Jim R. Rogers (Parent Educator, Center For Education and Community, Coastal Carolina University), Myrtle Beach Sun News, 11/3/98

"I do recommend that parents and professionals read the book. No summary will suffice to capture all of the valuable information and challenging ideas that are found in this very readable summary of research and theory about what determines our personalities. . . . [Harris] appropriately stresses how much children, from conception on, influence parents. It is very much a two-way process. In summary, I believe that we should take Harris very seriously when she makes the point that parents are only a partial influence on how our children turn out as adults." --Kalman M. Heller, PhD (psychologist, expert on child development, ADHD, parenting, and marriage), ParenTalk, October 1998

"In reading the hype generated by this book, there is a danger. Why show love to a child, why talk to a baby, why read to a toddler unless you can prove it will guarantee success later in life? In my own pediatric literacy program, we help parents see that children who grow up with books are more likely to be ready to learn to read and will want to learn to read." --Perri Klass (pediatrician, Medical Director of Reach Out and Read), op-ed in New York Times 9/9/98 and Korea Times 9/10/98

"Harris's attack . . . consists . . . of a case-by-case critique of research that purports to show a connection between parental and child behavior. . . . Most of what Harris writes in this vein is not only illuminating but thoroughly persuasive. . . . A number of Harris's critics fear . . . that The Nurture Assumption is a book that will let parents off the hook, a license for self-indulgence. . . . Yet there is, in truth, little in Harris's pages to justify this charge against her. . . . What if . . . the only thing we can control for certain . . . is the kind of life our children have at home? If that is so, then we should read to them not because it will help them get into Harvard, but because they like it; we should provide a loving environment not because it will stimulate their social or cognitive development, but because it is the right thing to do; . . . it matters immediately to their happiness and well-being. . . . If only because it reminds us that we are stewards of our children, and not their Svengalis, The Nurture Assumption has performed a lasting cultural service. It defies comprehension that anyone could draw from this the lesson that how we treat them has thereby become a matter of indifference." --Mary Eberstadt, book review in Commentary, 12/98

"There are thousands of studies that show parents' impact on children, [Jerome] Kagan says. Indeed, Harris spends a good portion of her book trying to debunk them, arguing that they mistake cause for effect, fail to take genetics into account, or fall prey to various methodological blunders. But she fails to persuade Kagan, who compares her conclusions to a once-ballyhooed discovery in physics that fizzled. 'It's like cold fusion, remember that, a few years ago?' he asks. 'There is no cold fusion, and this book is wrong.' " --Paula Span in Washington Post 10/28/98

"The publication of The Nurture Assumption was accompanied by an unusual degree of publicity, hype, and instant controversy. I therefore anticipated an extremely provocative thesis along the lines of cold fusion or facilitated communication. The actual book is not so controversial after all. It is, however, an interesting and engaging book to read. Judith Rich Harris has pulled together data from several spheres -- developmental psychology, anthropology, sociology, and common sense -- and offers a plausible answer to the perennial question of what makes people turn out the way they do." --William Bernet, MD (Psychiatric Hospital at Vanderbilt) in JAMA, The Journal of the American Medical Association 2/24/99

"It was not until I encountered God that I came to understand why things work out as they do. . . . It was then that I could appreciate the existence of another force in life, one that we call Satan . . . whom I understand particularly in his role as the 'Deceiver.' . . . [The Baby-Boomers] tended to be a generation that had dismissed the God of their parents as just so much superstition . . . easily susceptible to the work of the Deceiver -- as I see this book written by Mrs. Harris." --Miles Hodges, Interim Pastor, The First Presbyterian Church of Dunellen [NJ], September 6 1998 sermon

"That parents are responsible for their children's lives, character, and misery is an article of faith that has dominated popular culture as well as much of the psychology world for 30 or 40 years. . . . This dogma guarantees that, if parents do their job right, it is possible to raise perfect children. . . . It is precisely this outlook that Jesus challenged regularly. His parables were frequently designed to disrupt the pretensions of human-controlled holiness, which traps both the accuser and the accused. Perhaps there is something of the Spirit in Judith Rich Harris's persuasive argument." --Margaret G. Alter, clinical psychologist, in Books & Culture, A Christian Review , March/April 1999

"Pinker states Harris's thesis as follows-- ' . . . in the formation of an adult, genes matter and peers matter -- but parents don't matter (p. xii).' Call me old-fashioned, but is this not an extreme position given the countless research articles demonstrating parental effects in virtually every area of child development?" --Michael Jaffe, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Kean University [NJ], family therapist and author of Understanding Parenting and Adolescence, in New Jersey Psychologist, Winter 1999

"[Harris's] major contribution is her demonstration that there is no research support for any theory suggesting that any type of parenting is a cause of any aspect of the child's adult personality." --Milton Spett, Ph.D., licensed psychologist with a private practice in Cranford, NJ, in NJ-ACT Newsletter (NJ Assoc. of Cognitive- Behavioral Therapists), March 1999

"That crazy new book . . . I'm shocked that it has hit the fan like it has. . . . Nothing she says is new or innovative or thoughtful even. . . . It's silly, a silly argument."  --Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, in Detroit News, October 8, 1998

    " Harris writes in a witty and conversational style that befits a Fool. * . . . The implications of Harris's analysis are so widespread and her arguments so fascinating (perhaps especially to parents) that I'm mainly just interested that you know about her book. Still, I do think her discussion of group dynamics reminds us of things that we know -- or ought to know -- but occasionally ignore.
    "For example, the distinction between Fools and the Wise is useful. . . . The distinction is based partly on the idea that the conventional wisdom is often wrong and that a community of non-professional investors -- some the equivalent of stay-at-home moms like Judith Rich Harris -- may be a whole lot smarter than the so-called experts."
 --Louis Corrigan, in The Motley Fool, July 1999

* "Fools were the happy fellows who were paid to entertain the king and queen with self-effacing humor that instructed as it amused. In fact, Fools were really the only members of their societies who could tell the truth to the King or Queen without having their heads lopped off."

"When you hear those in the media theorize that your child is influenced more by peers than parents, they are ignoring the fact that for many months peers are not really important, because whether at home or in daycare, babies are adult-centered."  --Penelope Leach, "How Much You Matter" in Child magazine, May 1999

"Another observer . . . went into homes to observe pairs of 9-month-old peers as they became acquainted with one another over 16 near-daily meetings. She found that during their 50-minute meetings the infants directed significantly more of their behavior toward the peer than to their own mother, the peer's mother, an adult observer, the multiple toys available, or the physical surroundings."  --Carol O. Eckerman & Sharon M. Didow, "Lessons Drawn from Observing Young Peers Together" in Acta Paediatrica Scandinavica, 1988, vol. 77, p. 55-70

"Judith Rich Harris has published a new book, The Nurture Assumption . . . . I have yet to read the book, but its description in Newsweek makes Harris' position quite extreme. Logically, I can't see how character would be affected by peers in the environment but not parents."   --professor's comments, University of Central Florida, October 1998

"Is there anybody else out there who is concerned about the widespread publicity about this new book on how parents don't matter? . . . Of course I haven't yet read the book or the article in question. But, as I have read accounts of them, I can't figure out how the five studies we have done showing the relationship between parental monitoring and associations with deviant peers . . . doesn't count against the thesis that parents don't matter."  --Tony Biglan, Ph.D., discussion on the American Psychological Association Division 27 SCRA (Society for Community Research and Action) Email List, September 1998

"In my sermon six weeks ago on 'Numbness,' I said:
'. . . I confess I have yet to read the book, so I am shooting from the hip here, but I have heard few more cockamamie theories. . . .'
      I am here this morning to eat a large portion of crow. I cannot believe, in retrospect, that I was prepared to 'shoot from the hip' like that and comment on a book I had not read, purely on the basis of how other people had characterized it. Nobody should be so foolish . . . . I consider Judith Rich Harris' book . . . to be one of the most important books I have read in years, and, if I had the power, I would make it required reading for this congregation. It raises challenges to some important assumptions we make that need to be challenged. It confronts the difficulty of being open to ideas that run counter to things we think we know."
 --Rev. Dave Weissbard, sermon, The Unitarian Universalist Church of Rockford, Illinois, May 9 1999

"It has been about a year since the publication of Judith Rich Harris' book The Nurture Assumption, in which she argues that when it comes to child development, genes and peers matter more than parents. At the time, I was hopeful that the book would be dismissed. . . . Still, from time to time, I continue to see her quoted as if her assertion that peers matter more than parents is well-founded in the scientific literature."   --Wade F. Horn, PhD, currently Assistant Secretary for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (in Washington Times, December 7, 1999)

"In her important book The Nurture Assumption, Judith Harris [1998] made a strong case for the alarming proposition that most parents are fungible. She has persuaded me that most children -- perhaps 80% to 90% of all American children -- would have grown up just as well socialized, just as well adjusted . . . if they had been randomly switched among bassinets in the hospital nursery. . . . Parents do, of course, influence how their children behave at home, and those parents range from good to bad, from skillful to clueless, in determining whether the homes their children grow up in are happy and peaceful or hostile and complaining; even Harris would acknowledge that much. She insists, however, and I believe she is right, that most of the children of most parents develop adult personalities and behavior patterns that are largely determined by the interaction of their genes with the extrafamilial experiences they have with teachers, with employers, and especially with peers."   --David T. Lykken, PhD, address on receiving the 2001 Award for Distinguished Scientific Applications of Psychology, American Psychological Association (in American Psychologist, December 2001).

"No one denies that there is some truth to [Harris's] argument. Even her detractors like the way she's blown the lid off dumb studies that can't tell the difference between parents' influencing their kids through genes and influencing them through actions. And they applaud her for pointing out that children of divorce are not necessarily ruined for life, notes psychologist Robert Emery of the University of Virginia. But many of the nation's leading scholars of child development accuse Harris of screwy logic, of misunderstanding behavioral genetics and of ignoring studies that do not fit her thesis."   --Sharon Begley, in Newsweek, September 7, 1998.

"Harris' treatment of behavioral genetics is a model of scientific writing. Her discussion of the twin research and its implications for the nurture assumption are very clear and logically very sophisticated. Her explanations of mistaken causal direction, of two-way child-parent causal interactions, and of direct and indirect genetic effects could serve as a logic primer for any consumer of what `psychologists have shown' ."   --John D. Mullen, Ph.D., in Metapsychology, March 12, 1999.

"I think Pinker's argument [in The Blank Slate ] is wicked. He is saying -- along with the US psychologist Judith Harris -- that parents have little or no role in influencing their children's personalities. That is misleading and dangerous. Parents who think they have little effect on how their children turn out are substantially more likely to abuse or neglect them. Pinker is giving a perfect excuse to be violent to children. I think that is utterly immoral."   --Oliver James, author of They F*** You Up, in The Observer, September 22, 2002.

"One seeming danger in questioning the potency of family experience is the possibility that parents will become negligent if they learn that their daily behaviors are not the only, or the most critical, influence on their children. Perhaps they will stop caring for them. This apprehension, too, is ill founded. Most parents care for their children because, like chimpanzee mothers, they cannot do otherwise. . . . Parents who minister to a crying infant, play peek-a-boo with their one-year-old, and tell stories to their five-year-old do not do so because they have decided, rationally, that these acts of caring will have a major effect on their child's future. . . . Parents will not stop nurturing children simply because scientists might discover that many forces, including temperament, share formative power with their actions toward and affection for their children."   --Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., in Galen's Prophecy: Temperament in Human Nature, HarperCollins, 1994.

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