Parents' influence stops where peers' begins
by Thomas Tryon
A lot of people didn't like Judith Rich Harris' last book about
parenting and child behavior. Psychologists who believe that parents
are the chief influence on their children's self-esteem were
appalled. Parents who assume credit for the achievements of their
offspring were offended. Politicians who cite a lack of both
personal responsibility and parental control as the root causes of
anti-social behavior were appalled.
But her book and theory are worth reconsidering.
"The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do''
made the heretical assertion that parenting isn't all it's cracked
up to be. Society, more than parents, shapes the adults of the
future, according to Harris.
In the wake of the Littleton, Colo., school shootings and other
outbreaks of youth violence, her writing and theory deserve another
look as Americans try to determine, and respond to, the causes of
Harris described her theory in The Wilson Quarterly (Winter 1999):
"There is a great deal of evidence that the differences in how
parents rear their children are not responsible for the differences
among the children.'' She added, "The evidence I've assembled in my
book indicates that there is a limit to what parents can do: how
their child turns out is largely out of their hands.''
Harris rejects her critics' contention that she believes "parents
don't matter,'' although she does downplay the powerful effects of
parenting on children's behavior.
One doesn't have to fully embrace her theory, however, to see the
value of understanding her point. The most timely aspect of her
theory centers on the impact of the culture on children's behavior.
Except for the disciples of rugged individualism and the leaders of
the entertainment industry, virtually everyone believes that the
culture, which includes the mass media, affects human behavior.
Harris suggests that the influence of the culture is greater than
that of parents.
That proposition is true, she argues in The Wilson Quarterly,
because: "Children learn separately how to behave at home and how to
behave outside the home, and parents can influence only the way they
behave at home. Children behave differently in different social
settings because different behaviors are required.''
She cites scientific studies and offers a compelling anecdote to
support her assertion: "Parents are often surprised to discover that
the child they see at home is not the child the teacher sees. I
imagine teachers get tired of hearing parents exclaim, `Really? Are
you sure you're talking about my child?' ''
Peer groups and the culture are powerful forces. "According to my
theory,'' Harris wrote, "the culture acts upon children not through
parents but through the peer group. Children's groups have their own
cultures, loosely based on the adult culture . . . Anything that's
common to the majority of the kids in the group may be incorporated
into the children's culture, whether they learned it from their
parents or from the television set.''
Whether Harris' theory can withstand the tests of time and science
remains to be seen. But parents who have witnessed their children's
behavior and attitudes change with their friends are likely to give
credence to Harris' view.
Fortunately, not even Harris maintains that parents are helpless.
Yes, there are limits on what parents can do; does anyone really
want to argue with that? No, parents are not excused from their
fundamental duties. And, certainly, there are sound reasons to hold
individuals accountable for their actions.
But it's crucial to recognize that not even the best parents can
raise a well-adjusted child by themselves. As individuals, as a
society and as a nation, we cannot expect parents to win the
struggle against antagonistic peer groups and a hostile culture.
Harris concludes her essay with a statement and a critical question:
"Although individual parents have little power to influence the
culture of children's peer groups, larger numbers of parents acting
together have a great deal of power, and so does the society as a
whole . . . (A) society shapes the adults of the future. Are we
shaping them the way we ought to?''
Thomas Tryon is editorial page editor of the Herald-Tribune.