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The Chronicle of Higher Education
August 17, 1998

Psychology Author Is Honored by the
Profession That Once Rejected Her



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. Harris hypothesized.

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.

Copyright 1998, The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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