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To quote by Dr. Marilyn Heins

Copyright 1998, The Arizona Daily Star.
Posted with permission on judithrichharris/tna.
This article may not be posted, published, or distributed without permission from The Arizona Daily Star.

Some of the material in these articles also appears, in a different form, in Dr. Heins' new book,

The Arizona Daily Star
September 20, 1998

Marilyn Heins, M.D.:
  • Yo, parents! You can't perfect or ruin the kids, but you can use some good advice
  • Two major worries trigger parenting guilt
  • Author defied the conventional wisdom
  • Message for parents
  • What parents CAN do that matters
  • Parenting vitamin A's

  • Marilyn Heins, M.D., is a Tucson pediatrician, parenting educator, and columnist. She can be contacted c/o the Arizona Daily Star, Box 26807, Tucson AZ 85726.

    Yo, parents!
    You can't perfect or ruin the kids, but you can use some good advice

    Special to The Arizona Daily Star

    Of course parents matter! Human infants, mammals who are born helpless, need care for many years until ready to take their place in our herd.

    However, Judith Rich Harris is absolutely right when she says parents don't matter as much as they think they do -- and they don't matter as much as the "experts" tell them they do.

    She stresses in her book "The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do" the importance of genes, which to a large degree determine temperament and personality, and peers in the ultimate outcome of parenting -- how the kid turns out.

    Many are howling on television and in print that Harris is giving a dreadful message to parents. How can anyone in her right mind tell parents they don't matter at a time when child neglect and abuse are rampant?

    What Harris says is that parents cannot change, nor even have much influence over, basic personality and temperament traits in their children.

    I've been telling parents the same thing for years. I always get a laugh when I tell pregnant couples at childbirth education classes that the most influence they will ever have over their children is at the moment of conception and it's downhill from then on!

    Just for fun, let's assume parents don't matter.

    Now what do "experts" like Dr. Heins do? Should we all go out of business?

    Actually, I think parents today need lots of advice -- advice that makes sense and does not add to the burden of parental guilt -- for three reasons.

    1) We're not trained for parenting and it sure ain't instinctive. When we lived in tribes or extended families, we learned parenting by observation and others around us could correct parenting mistakes before they became fatal errors. We don't live that way anymore.

    2) It's a tough time to parent. Parenting today takes place in a complex, chaotic, crowded, competitive, consumeristic, confusing, rapidly changing world.

    3) Harris is absolutely right: The nurture assumption has turned parents into frantic, guilt-ridden neurotics obsessing over the fact they didn't read to their kids last night.

    What can parents do that matters?

    What can "experts" like me do to help parents?

    What I do is teach parents skills and strategies to help them get through the day -- and the night.

    I, too, am a product of my times so that my thinking has been influenced by the nurture assumption. But my advice does not deal with how your kids will turn out; it's about how to be a good parent today. (See box, What parents CAN do that matters.)

    Wise parents try to live in the moment and do the best they can. They provide the "Parenting Vitamin A's" not because they are obsessing about how their children will turn out or are worried what others will think, but because most kids will respond to and do better with this kind of daily parenting.

    So you read to your kids today because it's fun, not because you think the Early Development Police are after you!

    How your children will turn out is unknown. Harris ends her "What Parents Can Do" chapter by pointing out that the notion we can make our kids turn out the way we want is an illusion. "Love your kids because kids are lovable, not because you think they need it. Enjoy them. Teach them what you can. Relax. . . . You can neither perfect them or ruin them. They are not yours to perfect or ruin: they belong to tomorrow."

    Marilyn Heins, M.D., is a Tucson pediatrician, parenting educator, and columnist. She can be contacted c/o the Arizona Daily Star, Box 26807, Tucson AZ 85726.

    Two major worries trigger parenting guilt

    Where does all the guilt come from?

    Parents I have talked to through the years seem to have two major worries:

    1.) I will do something wrong that will have adverse and permanent effects on my child;

    2.) I am not spending enough time with my kids.

    Because or Worry No.1. many parents seem fearful of disciplining their children or even saying "No!", turning into what I call "parent wimps."

    For many years I wondered where all this fear and guilt was coming from. In the '80s while researching the parenting literature for my own book, I found an article by Arlene Skolnick pointing out that Americans are obsessed with, anxious and guilt-ridden about parenting.

    Why? Because throughout the entire 2Oth century we have been bombarded with "expert" advice based on two conflicting theories of child-rearing.

    On the one hand the Freudians warned us that the child is vulnerable, kids are delicate, easily damaged creatures.

    On the other hand, the behaviorists told us that children are malleable, kids are blank slates with nothing written on them until they are molded by their parents.

    Both the Freudians and the behaviorists, though diametrically opposed politically and though proffering very different kinds of advice to parents, stress three things:

    1.) Parents must do the right thing at the right time or their children will not become happy and successful adults.

    2.) Parents can, if they only follow our advice, raise superior children who turn into superior adults.

    3.) If something goes wrong and the kids don't turn out OK, guess who's to blame? It's the parents, stupid!

    All of the advice based on these theories is part of the nurture assumption and completely overlooks two very important points. Parenting is bi-directional -- the kind of child that is born to you determines how you parent -- and parents are not the only influence on their children.

    Judith Rich Harris has done parents a great service. "The Nurture Assumption," by realistically clarifying the role of parents, may actually begin to chip away at this mountain of guilt and worry in which parents encase themselves. Guilt and worry are exhausting emotions that undercut the joy of parenting.

    -- Dr. Marilyn Heins

    Author defied the conventional wisdom

    By Marilyn Heins
    Special to The Arizona Daily Star

    Who is Judith Rich Harris and why is her book getting so much national attention? Why are so many people from psychologists to preachers fuming and fussing at her ideas?

    She is the mother of two, grandmother of one, and the author of "The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do" (480 pages, The Free Press. $26). An additional subtitle to the book: "Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More."

    After living in Tucson from age 2 to 6, Harris and her family moved to New York until she was 12, when the family returned here.

    She attended Mansfeld Junior High School, graduated from Tucson High in 1955, and spent a year at the University of Arizona before transferring to college in the East. She received a B.A. from Brandeis University and master's degree in psychology from Radcliffe (Harvard) in 1961.

    She was dismissed from the Ph.D. psychology program at Harvard because the faculty did not think she would contribute anything original or important to the field of psychology.

    The author of a respectable, traditional college textbook on child development, Harris was about to start on a new developmental textbook when she had the epiphany that led to "The Nurture Assumption."

    Guess what? She no longer believed in the time-honored party line that parents are the only, or even major, influence on children and how they turn out.

    She abandoned the textbook and wrote a theoretical article attacking the very foundations of developmental psychology and offering a new theory of child development. Despite her lack of academic credentials or affiliations, her article was accepted in the prestigious Psychological Review and she won a major award from the American Psychological Association in 1997.

    Because of a serious autoimmune disease, Harris is homebound in New Jersey and will not go the book-tour route. But the book is, nonetheless, bringing her fame and, probably, fortune.

    What the book really says

    "The Nurture Assumption" is a hoot. She is a witty and articulate writer who clearly and systematically explains her refutations of commonly held assumptions in social psychology and behavioral genetics. She turns the psychology establishment on its ear for many instances of inconclusive or downright bad science.

    Although the nurture assumption has become part of the psychology and parenting literature, Harris is right to point out that the basis for this assumption is awfully weak. No one has been able to show that a particular child-rearing practice or style or family structure (day care vs. stay-at-home mothering or gay parents vs. traditional family) predicts how the child will turn out.

    Harris does more than debunk. She propounds a new theory to explain how kids turn out. After showing that the nurture assumption exaggerates the importance of parents, she reminds us that genes, though responsible for a good deal of personality and temperament, do not fully account for the kind of people children become. Then she fills in the gap with her "group socialization theory."

    The theory propounds that "children's personalities are shaped and changed by the experiences they have while they are growing up." Harris correctly says that children are born with certain genetically determined characteristics like personality. But, she claims, the environment can change them. Not the environment their parents provide but the one outside the home provided by peers.

    I suspect that peers don't explain everything. There are likely other unknown environmental and/or inexplicable factors: luck, a teacher or mentor, a non-parent adult who meets a need.

    A beautifully written 14-page appendix forever puts to rest one of the silliest bits of folklore-elevated-to-social-science we've suffered through: the importance of birth order to behavior. May it finally rest in peace!

    I give this book two thumbs up -- one from the professional me and one from the mother/grandmother me.

    "The Nurture Assumption" is not a parenting book in the sense that it will teach you how to feed a baby or discipline a toddler. But it's well worth a read for those parents who want to learn more about such diverse but related topics as genetics and anthropology while finding out how human beings are formed. It's a very readable, even entertaining book.

    Message for parents

    "Lighten up!" said Judith Rich Harris in answer to my question, "If you were a pediatrician or a parenting educator, what would you tell parents in this post-nurture assumption era?"

    She worries that the nurture assumption has made parents' "act competitive, as though they're going to get graded in how their children turn out."

    "Relax! Enjoy! Give your child a kiss because you feel affectionate, not because you think you're supposed to.

    "Don't worry so much!" Harris advises parents, hoping her book will give parents the message that they don't have to fret about every little thing they did. One hit in anger won't matter. And not worrying about parenting will have a beneficial effect on family life.

    -- Dr. Marilyn Heins

    What parents CAN do that matters

    The Heins list of what makes a good day-to-day parent includes:

  • The ability to be responsible and postpone gratification.

  • The ability to provide care to a helpless creature, a sassy kid and an obnoxious teen-ager.

  • The capacity to love and enjoy your children.

  • The guts to be an in-charge parent

  • The ability to cope.

  • Empathy.

  • Confidence.

  • Patience.

  • A sense of humor.

  • Knowledge about children and how they grow and develop.

  • A few basic skills and strategies for dealing with common everyday parenting challenges.

  • A willingness to get professional help when you're stuck.

  • Parenting vitamin A's


    It's more fun for you and the kids when you like them a lot.


    Figure out and work with, not against, your child's temperament and personality, because you're not going to change it.


    Your children crave and need your individual, focused attention - not every minute of the day but sometime during every day. And YOU need to pay attention to your kids so you can figure out what they are like and what they are learning from their peers.

    ęCopyright 1998, The Arizona Daily Star

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