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Copyright 1998, The Globe and Mail
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The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
September 19, 1998

Book review:

Parents: Relax, it's not your fault

By Bronwyn Drainie

Children are not socialized by parents, says Judith Rich Harris, but by peer groups. Her theory is shocking the world of developmental psychology, and will likely change it forever.

THE NURTURE ASSUMPTION: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do (Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More) by Judith Rich Harris
Free Press, 462 pages, $36.50

In the same way that Jane Jacobs's Death and Life of Great American Cities shocked the world of urban planning and changed it forever, I predict that Judith Rich Harris's The Nurture Assumption will shock the world of developmental psychology and change it forever. There are some interesting similarities between the two books: Both were written by brilliant but down-to-earth women who were outsiders to the professions they dared to challenge. They are also both good popular writers, which helps, given the density of the concepts they are attempting to analyze.

Harris says quite bluntly that every school of psychology from Freud on has got it wrong because they have all relied on what she calls the "nurture assumption," the assumption that the way people turn out in their later lives is almost completely dependent on the way their parents treated them as children. She believes, instead, that parents have a lot of influence on the way their children relate to them, but almost no influence on the character and personality those same children will display out in society, away from the parental home, for the balance of their lives.

According to Harris, we are not socialized by our parents but by our peer groups, and we don't even have to be liked or accepted by those groups in order to be socialized by them. We still buy their values and behaviours as our norm. Her theory is called "group socialization theory," and you're going to be hearing a lot about it, both pro and con, in the years to come. Harris is so confident of her theory that she predicts, near the end of her book, that children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left their schools and neighbourhoods unchanged and switched all their parents around.

I admit to skepticism as I approached this book. The timing seemed a little too perfect: Just at the moment when the bulk of the baby-boomers have become the parents of teen-agers from hell, along comes a new theory that says, "It's not your fault. No matter what the psychiatrist says or what the media or the school principal or the police say, you're not responsible." Moreover, I could hear the whoosh of a huge pendulum changing directions as I turned the pages, and that was more than a little annoying. Perhaps the developmental psychologists have gone too far in recent years, insisting that parents start stimulating and "improving" their children from the womb onward, and Harris is determined to knock down that professional fixation on parental influence. In doing so, she invariably swings too far in the direction of the peer group. As usual, the truth undoubtedly lies somewhere in the middle.

Harris believes (along with most experts) that we get 50 per cent of our influences from our parents' genes and the other 50 per cent from the environment we grow up in. Where she differs from most socialization researchers is in her definition of "environment." The nurture assumption says that parents, siblings, birth order and home influences are the child's salient environments, whereas Harris says the classroom, the playground, the mall and the media -- places where kids interact with each other or are acted upon in groups -- are the prime environmental influences on developing character and personality.

She cites a study by York University sociologist Anne-Marie Ambert, in which she asked her students, of their pre-college lives, "What above all else made you unhappy?" Only 9 per cent talked about home problems, while "37 per cent described experiences in which they were treated badly by their peers, being rejected by peers, excluded, talked about, racially discriminated against, laughed at, bullied, sexually harassed, taunted, chased or beaten." Conversely, Harris is convinced that high self-esteem also comes from the peer group, although she admits this thesis has not been proved in the existing literature.

The majority of her book consists of a critical review of previous research in light of her group socialization theory. She concentrates largely on socialization studies that have been done with abnormal groups of people -- identical and fraternal twins, adopted children, hearing children of deaf parents and deaf children of hearing parents, children of immigrant parents whose language at home differs completely from the language spoken out in the neighbourhood. In all these cases, she finds that children's behaviour conforms quickly and permanently to the outside norms, and that while kids may sometimes try to bring those outside norms home, they never take the home norms out. One by one she cites studies that show no difference in children's behaviour (or at least none that can't be explained by the 50-per-cent genetic influence): whether the mother works or stays home, no difference; whether or not the child goes to day care, no difference; whether the child is raised by gay or other types of unconventional parents, no difference.

The one parenting situation that does make a big difference is divorce, but Harris cites the well-known figures on a drop in income for the mother and children (with its often concomitant move to a poorer neighbourhood) as the reason for the negative effect on children's behaviour. When there is no drop in income after divorce, some studies still show children doing badly, but Harris says that's because the studies have failed to correct for genetics.

Harris believes that defining ourselves in relation to the group rather than the family is embedded in six million years of human evolution. We have always lived in groups for survival, until the last few microseconds of human history when ideas like "the nuclear family" and "quality time" got invented. If you look at ape families or aboriginal human families, you'll see that mother nurtures baby intensely for a short period of time and then shoves him out into the children's group, where the next-oldest child in the family is put in charge of him, to keep him from harm and teach him what he needs to know to survive. Harris insists that in such a system, sibling rivalry is non-existent, because the older child gets something in exchange for losing the mother's attention: a kid of his own to boss around.

Following on the work of evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, Harris believes that we think our relationships with our parents are of prime importance because they are stored in a part of our brain that is accessible to memory and consciousness; the part of the brain in charge of group behaviour is inaccessible, "a lot of its work goes on at an automatic level, like the muscle movements that enable you to pick up a glass."

Our big mistake, Harris asserts, is mixing up causality with correlation. If a child comes from a high-achieving, book-loving family and she does well at school, we assume the parents' behaviour caused the child's. (Ditto with illiterate, unemployed parents and their children, of course.) Harris would say that first, we must allow for the 50-per-cent role that heredity plays in a child's personality. Smart parents pass their smart genes down the line with no conscious will on their part. Second, bright, high-achieving families tend to live in neighbourhoods with other bright, high-achieving families, and they all send their kids to the local school. The children are socialized to these values in their own peer group, which in turn reflects many of the values of the adult peer group they share the neighbourhood with.

Bottom line? Here's about all Harris thinks we can do to influence our children positively: Choose a good neighbourhood and a good school, don't move any more than you must, dress your kid normally (within her definition of normal), take her to the dermatologist and the orthodontist if she needs them, and don't give her a weird name. Oh, and enjoy her presence in your family today without worrying about her future, which you can do very little to shape.

If Harris's theory finds a toehold of acceptance in the academic community (an iffy proposition since she takes such delight in skewering its methodologies), some interesting things will have to be re-examined in our society: the role of teachers, for example, whom Harris sees as more important than parents because they are adults who interact with children out in the real world and in groups; certainly the role of juvenile penal institutions, which according to Harris's theory can only socialize inmates to a more knowledgeable and accepting attitude toward crime; the role of television, which Harris sees as so powerful that even children brought up in homes where the box is prohibited or severely restricted are growing up socialized by it through its influence on the peer group to which those children belong. (She suggests that if we want to stop teens from smoking, we need to devise a television ad that shows tobacco executives cackling gleefully over their latest sales campaign and how thoroughly teen-agers have "bought" it. Being blatantly manipulated by a different peer group would turn kids right off, she insists.)

In the years ahead, I suspect that a city such as Toronto will be a fruitful testing ground for many of Harris's theories. Children's peer groups and neighbourhoods in Toronto are probably more heterogeneous than anywhere else on the planet, with immigrants from 169 countries and 100 language groups jostling together for space and recognition. If children can create working social and linguistic cultures out of such a multicultural stew, cultures quite distinct from all their various home environments, the nurture assumption as Harris has defined it will be knocked slightly askew.

Contributing reviewer Bronwyn Drainie is a Toronto writer, broadcaster and slightly relieved parent.

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