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October 9, 2000

Posted with permission on judithrichharris/tna.
Copyright ©2000, CRC Publications. All rights reserved.

Parents vs. Peers

Do peers trump parents when it comes to influencing your child's future?

by Annette Dekker

Parents, peers, or pedigree? Which one most influences the personality development of our children? Judith Rich Harris states her answer on the cover of her book The Nurture Assumption (Free Press, 1998): "Parents matter less than you think and peers matter more." Her provocative thesis has talk shows, academics, and especially parents buzzing. Many experts in the social sciences fiercely critique her analysis of the research, while others hail her as a new prophet in child development.

For parents who have spent sleepless nights worrying whether they are "doing it right" and have read dozens of how-to-parent-so-your-kids-turn-out-all-right books, Harris's theory may come as a welcome relief: "So not everything's my fault, after all!"

Yet Harris's theories also arouse some disbelief and anger: "What do you mean I don't matter as much as my child's friends do?"

With such a range of reactions to Harris's pronouncement, Christian parents, who receive children as a blessing and vow to raise them within the faith, may well wonder how to respond. I'd like to explore the implications of Harris's conclusions for both parents and faith communities who want to make a difference in their children's lives.

Relief from Parentnoia

One of the possible effects of Harris's thesis is relief for parents from what I call "parentnoia." Parentnoia describes the dread that haunts many parents in our culture.

Parents have many fears about what may happen to their children, not the least of which is that a wrong move in parenting will cause irreparable damage. When such fear gets the better of moms and dads, parenting becomes burdensome.

At least since the time of Freud, families (and especially parents) have been portrayed as the source of pathology and dysfunction. Harris's theories allow parents to recognize that there are forces other than their own parenting that may account for how their children turn out.

However, while she may offer absolution to parents burdened by oppressive guilt or parentnoia, Harris is also easily misunderstood. Because she states her thesis so provocatively, parents may conclude that most of what they do really doesn't matter, then shirk the responsibility that is theirs.

But Harris never says that parents do not matter. She is emphatic that they do: children utterly depend on their parents to meet a myriad of basic needs, including love and respect. Adults who do not realize the effect of their behaviors on their children's lives might mistake Harris's theory as support for an ignorance-is-bliss position. But if parents throw up their hands in despair, children will give up on their guidance the minute peers show up at the door.

Just because peers matter doesn't mean that parents don't!

Peers Do Matter

Harris points out that children tend to conform to their peers and to assimilate in their group. As they develop they become more aware of their differences from others and tend to gravitate toward those who have similar interests (or genes) as they do.

Whether they hang out with nerds, jocks, delinquents, or crowds in-between, young people need to belong to a distinct group. Children and teens learn how to behave in society from their peers. They do what their peers do and wear what their peers wear. Advertising, from cigarettes to shoes, is based on this basic premise: kids (and even adults) do what their friends do.

There is little question that children are socialized by their peer groups. But Harris's conclusion that children "would develop into the same sort of adults if we left their lives outside the home unchanged--left them in their schools and their neighborhoods--but switched all the parents around" is a pendulum swinging at a far-off place.

If Harris is right, adults looking to blame others for their less-than-perfect lives could now choose to ferret out which peer or TV commercial they hold most accountable for influencing them wrongly.

The practice of blaming peers for our behavior is as old as Adam and Eve. Deciphering life is not a matter of blame, however. Rather than conclude that children are only robotic gene pools at the mercy of their peers, I think parents can best respond by accounting for the strong influence of peer groups when they make parenting decisions.

And Harris agrees. She believes it's essential that parents know what status their children have in a peer group and that they take some responsibility for choosing schools where their children are less likely to be at the bottom of the social totem pole--even if that means moving to another neighborhood. She also recommends ensuring that children have appropriate apparel and social skills so that they do not become misfits in their peer group.

Christian parents have long recognized the importance of peer groups when choosing schools for their children. They know that besides instructing children from a Christian worldview, Christian schools also provide children with peers who come from families who share basic values and beliefs. Friendships with other believers can have a strong, formative effect on children's growing and questioning faith.

The reality that peers matter in our children's lives also underscores the importance of vibrant, relevant youth groups, which provide times of multi-age fun and opportunities for dialogue and debate about issues in our faith communities.

Although it's both impossible and inappropriate to try to control every aspect of children's lives, shaping the influence of peers by providing good peer groups for children is an important responsibility of parenting. Especially during adolescence, when the influence of peers shouts at teens, parents need to be involved in their children's lives. This is not the time for parents to disappear from view--much as their offspring might not want to be seen with them.

Genes Matter Too

Harris also promotes a return to the heredity-environment debate. (Naming it the nature-nurture debate, she says, gives parents an overinflated sense of their influence on the child.) She argues that environment is much more extensive than the nurture of parents and allows for the strong influence of peers.

As for heredity, current research suggests that about half of our personality is shaped by our genes. That's not news for parents, who will readily attest that children arrive in this world with a predetermined temperament that reveals itself within the first year or so of a child's life. Some would call this temperament God-given; others might not be so gracious, blaming the mother's or father's side of the family for those inborn traits that aren't so endearing.

Harris says that parenting styles are more often based on a parent's response to the child's temperament or genes, not on parenting principles. She cites her own experience of nurturing her two very different daughters with very different styles of parenting.

Harris emphasizes that parenting is a two-way street and notes that the child-to-parent effect has been largely underestimated. A child with a pleasant personality or facial features will have a different effect on parents than one who has an inborn aggressive streak or is less beautiful. "It is not that good parenting produces good children," Harris writes; "it's that good children produce good parenting." And children are "good" because their parents have "good" genes.

Social scientists agree, however, that genes do not determine destiny. Predisposition is not predestination! Neither do genes absolve parental responsibility. Naturally, parents can and should respond differently to the unique nature of each child, and they may also naturally like one child more than another. But that does not give them license to blame the child's genes for their actions.

Just as parents try to discern which aspects of a child's genetic makeup need to be encouraged and which may need to be overcome or compensated for, they need to monitor their own impulses and decisions in the same way.

The Personality Flaw

One weakness of Harris's argument is her suggestion that personality--shaped by peers, parents, and pedigree--defines how children turn out.

That is simplistic. Children and teens make choices. They base those choices not just on their personalities but on an incredibly complex myriad of factors of which neither they nor we are fully conscious. The values of our society and peers, propagated by the strongly influential media, push and pull children in directions that may or may not be best for them.

Although media influence is a relatively new phenomenon, the fact that societal values do not often mesh with our own beliefs about what is important in life was recognized millennia ago. That's when God, through Moses, instructed parents to "teach these words of mine to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up" (Deut. 11:19).

God knows parents need every chance they get to instruct children about values and beliefs. How we do so may depend in part on what decade of peers we grew up with, but teaching children about God's wonders and ways is an important responsibility of parents and the faith community.

Teaching children how to be discerning, even when among their peers, is part of our task. So is teaching children to take responsibility for their actions and decisions.

In a society that is less family friendly than it once was, we need to protect our opportunities for "sitting at home and walking by the way."

What About Grace?

Harris does not address the influence of grace in our children's lives. Of course, grace cannot be quantifiably measured. Despite our desire to predict or control the future, research will never isolate those factors that will ensure a favorable outcome to our children's lives. Nothing can.

However, the knowledge that the Spirit works miracles of grace in my children's lives is what sustains me as a parent. When I lapse into believing that who they become is up to their peers and my husband and me, I definitely suffer from parentnoia.

Sometimes I find it difficult to trust that God's Spirit has good in mind for our children. When their life journey is more tortuous or rebellious than the one I would have them take, I am fearful. But I know they must make their own journey. I pray that they will make some good friends along the way. I pray that the compass of teachings we have given them will, along with some gentle nudging or bold shoves from the Spirit, ultimately guide them in the direction that is best for them.

We watch them take different paths. Sometimes we talk about their choices. Often they do not wish to talk about them. We choose to love, not shun, our grown children when they make decisions we disagree with. Sometimes it is difficult to know how best to love.

Because we believe that God loves us all as children, Christians have a unique perspective on the process of parenting. As we experience that God's love is ever present and independent of our successes or shortcomings, we learn much about loving our children. And as we grow in our understanding of what it means to love children, we learn more about the amazing nature of God's endless love.

Yes, peers influence children's lives. But neither peers nor parents can control or predict how children will choose to live their lives. What parents can do is to love with enough joy and laughter sprinkled in so that their children will choose to maintain a relationship with them throughout their adult years.

Parents can also expand love for their children by showing hospitality to their children's peers. Surrounded by such love and faith, both our children and their friends will have the opportunity to discover a loving relationship with their Creator. If they do so, we can once more be amazed by grace and filled with gratitude.

Annette Dekker is a marriage-and-family therapist and a member of Waterloo (Ont.) Christian Reformed Church. She lives in Kitchener, Ontario.

Becoming an Intentional Family

The following are some practices that families choose to meet their needs for connection, meaning, and community. Which might you choose to become more intentional about? Knowing the influence that peers have, do you include them in family rituals from time to time?

We make and eat meals together regularly.

We often share enjoyable family activities at home and away from home (including vacations). We make chores, routines, and homework opportunities for connection.

We have creative holiday rituals.

We enjoy regular, positive contact with extended family and friends.

We have satisfying bedtime rituals. (Couples too!)

We are actively involved in our faith community.

We are involved in neighborhood activities.

We are active in our children's school.

We talk about social and community concerns.

We talk about our spiritual life and acknowledge God's presence in our life through various rituals.

(Adapted from The Intentional Family: How to Build Family Ties in Our Modern World by William J. Doherty, Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1997.)

Recommended Reading:

The Intentional Family: Simple Rituals to Strengthen Family Ties by William J. Doherty (Avon Books, 1999)

The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families by Mary Pipher (Ballantine Books, 1997)

Families Where Grace Is in Place: Getting Free from the Burden of Pressuring, Controlling, and Manipulating Your Spouse and Children by Jeff VanVonderen (Bethany House, 1992)

For more about Harris's book visit The Nurture Assumption website: tna/index.htm

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