Psychology Author Is Honored by the
Profession That Once Rejected Her
By ALISON SCHNEIDER
The impact of parents on their children was a hot topic at the
annual convention of the American Psychological Association this
weekend. A non-traditional researcher who argues that the parental
role has been overstated was honored for her work, but many scholars
here seemed more confident in studies showing that parents play a
strong role in personality development.
On Saturday evening, Judith Rich Harris, a psychology-textbook
writer, received the George A. Miller Award in honor of an article
that she published in Psychological Review. That paper, which has
recently been expanded into a book, The Nurture Assumption (The Free
Press, 1998), shook up the psychological community by proclaiming
that peers, not parents, shape the personality development of
children. What children learn outside the home has a more profound
impact on their characters than what they learn inside it, Ms.
Her ideas took psychologists, who have long placed parents at the
center of child development, by storm. In part, psychologists were
surprised by the source of such a radical theory -- a grandmother
who had been kicked out of graduate school at Harvard University,
had never earned a Ph.D., has no academic affiliation, and is
neither a teacher nor a clinician nor even a member of the A.P.A.
In fact, Ms. Harris had been dismissed from graduate school by the
same George A. Miller, then the acting chairman of Harvard's
psychology department, for whom her A.P.A. award is named.
Mr. Miller sent Ms. Harris a dismissal letter almost 40 years ago,
stating that Harvard was kicking her out of its Ph.D. program
because "we are in considerable doubt that you will develop into our
professional stereotype of what an experimental psychologist should
be." Ms. Harris read from the dismissal letter at her awards
ceremony and added that she and Mr. Miller had recently corresponded.
He sent her a congratulatory note on her award and called the irony
of the situation "delicious."
Ms. Harris had come to the A.P.A. convention to "look the gift horse
in the mouth and tell it that it hasn't been flossing," she said.
Her goal, she explained, was to convince psychologists that
something they did not consider a testable assumption -- the notion
that parents shape the personalities of their children -- is most
likely a false assumption.
"Parents have no long-term effects on the personality, intelligence,
or mental health of their children," Ms. Harris said. "Parents are
not the movers and shakers of their children's development." Peers
are, she said.
What children learn inside the home does not affect how they behave
outside the home, Ms. Harris said. Rather, they modulate their
behavior to conform to the norms of their peer group. Where small
similarities do show up between behavior in the home and outside of
it, Mr. Harris said, they can be attributed to the genetic makeup of
the child, rather than to any lasting influence of parental nurturing.
Parents do have some influence on their children, Ms. Harris added,
but that influence is "context dependent." It manifests itself only
when the child is in the presence of the parent. "When children
leave the home, they cast off that influence like they would cast
off a dorky sweater," she said.
Context effects have been used by psychologists to support their
faith in the nurture assumption, but practitioners and professors
are letting their theoretical bias influence their assessment of the
evidence, Ms. Harris said.
"The department of your mind that manages your personal
relationships is close to your consciousness," she said. "But the
department of your mind that manages your adaptation to the group is
less accessible to your consciousness. The fact that parents play a
big role in your memories does not mean that they played a big role
in how you turned out," she said.
The nurture assumption has become a cultural myth, Ms. Harris added,
and like many cultural myths, it has done more harm than good,
turning child-rearing into a job laden with anxiety and encouraging
researchers to waste a great deal of time and money churning out
nothing but ambiguous results.
Ms. Harris received a number of polite but puzzled questions at the
end of her speech. One audience member asked whether she feared that
parents would seize on her ideas as an excuse for child abuse.
Another challenged the notion that children adapt their behavior to
conform to that of their peer group, noting that different children
adapt differently to the same group.
Earlier in the day, psychologists heard a very different message
from the one being preached by Ms. Harris. Mary Pipher -- a visiting
assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nebraska at
Lincoln, the author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of
Adolescent Girls (Ballantine Books, 1995) and The Shelter of Each
Other: Rebuilding Our Families (Putnam Publishing, 1996) --
discussed the effect strong family connections have on the
well-being of the individual.
"Modern families suffer less from internal pathology," Ms. Pipher
said, "than from the very harsh environment in which they're
expected to function," an environment full of fragmented
communities, information overload, disconnection from the natural
world, crime, and violence.
Children need two things to grow up, she said: nurturing and
socialization about proper behavior. They're not getting enough of
either, Ms. Pipher said. Children spend more time with their
computers than with their parents, they get more advice from
advertisers than from family members, and they receive less lap time
and have fewer family meals, she said.
Many of the theories that psychologists learned in graduate school
are no longer relevant to today's families, Ms. Pipher said. Rather
than helping patients disentangle themselves from overly involved
families, as they did a generation ago, psychologists need to help
their patients rebuild their ties to their relatives.
Ms. Harris's more-radical ideas about family relations received
applause from the audience in a mid-size convention room. Ms.
Pipher's warmer and fuzzier notions of familial connections were met
by a standing ovation from the packed hall.