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The Independent (London).
Sunday, November 8, 1998


You might as well swap the parents round

Robert Winder

The Nurture Assumption
by Judith Rich Harris

Bloomsbury £18.99

All books are avidly promoted by their publishers. But not many come with an endorsement as resonant as the note struck by the American psycholinguist Steven Pinker in his introduction to this gripping analysis of the reasons why children turn out the way they do. "Don't be misled by all the fun," he writes. "The Nurture Assumption is a work of serious, original science. I predict that it will come to be seen as a turning point in the history of psychology."

It is quite a prediction. But Harris's argument is potent and suggestive. For too long, she feels, we have persuaded ourselves (or allowed experts to persuade us) that the behaviour of children is controlled and conditioned by their parents. The entire Freudian tradition has supported a childcare industry with a vested interest in persuading parents that they are of paramount importance. Harris does not dispute their power: parents are absolute monarchs on the domestic scene and can, if they wish,ruin a child's life for ever. But she does, thoroughly and at length, dispute the extent of their influence. In the argument between nature and nurture, the latter has too blithely been taken to mean "the home". But our real characters, she argues, are formed outside the home - by the group dynamics operating in schools, in playgrounds and in society as a whole. And groups move fast to accentuate differences. Kids who attach themselves to a naughty group soon grow naughtier; overweight children quickly get fatter; those who team up with the swots soon start doing "push-ups with their brains".

It's an enticing argument and the evidence in its favour is appealing. Children don't grow up talking like their parents (unless they go to the same kind of schools their parents went to); they learn by imitating their peer group. Immigrant children quickly swap their mother tongue for the idioms and accents of native kids. Then there are the children who are picky eaters at home, but anything-goes gluttons everywhere else. When a young boy skins his knee at home he may well cry, but in front of his pals he is more likely to tough it out.

Harris even narrates a wonderful 1933 behavioural experiment in which a young chimpanzee was raised in the home of Winthrop and Luella Kellog alongside their own baby boy, in the hope that the ape would acquire human characteristics. The plot thickened when the Kellogs realised that the ape wasn't imitating the boy; the opposite was the case. They had overestimated the power of nurture. The chimp remained a chimp, though he looked cute in pyjamas; but the boy went ape. "How did Luella Kellog feel,"Harris wonders, "when her 14-month-old son ran to her with an orange in his hands, grunting 'uhuh, uhuh, uhuh' ?"

Good question. But is it an insight to point out that children imitate most eagerly children slightly older than themselves? The most surprising thing about Harris's claim is her insistence on its outrageous novelty. It does seem slap-the-desk obvious.But though it might startle a few Freudians, it won't raise many eyebrows among parents, who see every day the extent to which their children are moulded by their peers. Still, Harris has given this aspect of human development a fresh and powerful emphasis. In her analysis, children are not trainee adults; they want merely to be successful children, and this involves distinguishing themselves from adults as vigorously as possible.

And while the book is tremendous testy fun, it does strike the odd shrill note. Harris is anxious to assert, and quick to mock. She makes a grandstand play out of the fact that she was once rejected by Harvard, and asks us to share her glee in having the last laugh. Similarly, she bases a whole chapter on the "little ladies" at her school who didn't want to befriend her, and sarcastically thanks them for propelling her on her path to glory ("If those 'little ladies' in the snooty suburb had accepted me, I probably would have turned out just like them.") These seem rather minor scores to be settling when you have just written a turning point in the history of psychology. Or perhaps they prove her point. It wasn't her parents that made who she is - it was her blinkered professors and snooty chums.

Moreover, for such an assiduous demolisher of other people's research (the appendix on Frank Sulloway's recent book about sibling rivalry puts his statistics through a very sharp shredder), she is surprisingly willing to base some grandiose arguments on sketchy or anecdotal evidence. She theorises about British men on the evidence of a single baronet' s son who had a horrible time at boarding school. And she seems to accord undue but fashionable sanctity to the child-rearing habits of "traditional"societies, on the assumption that people who tie their children's foreskins to a piece of string are by definition wiser or more natural than we are.

Is it pedantic to pick these nits? Quite possibly. The Nurture Assumption is written with a degree of passion and vehemence that is probably worth more, in the end, than a level head. There is plenty of time for sober reflection concerning both the general points she urges on us, and the specific details. Presumably some busy researcher such as herself will subject her analysis to the same kind of close scrutiny she has brought to bear on her rivals in the field. In the meantime, she has given us a memorable and refreshing blast of energetic thinking.

She wonders heretically whether the present fashion for "quality time" - parents actually engaging with their children - is really an advance, and broods on the need for schools to unify classrooms to prevent children from falling into the groups -racial, gender, class - waiting to engulf, define and limit them. She even suggests that as we strive to grow more egalitarian in some areas, the differences between us grow more exaggerated in others; they become more noticeable, more "salient", and children cling to them. The more enthusiastically Dad changes nappies and Mum drives trucks, the more zealously boys play football and girls jump rope.

Her style tends towards (and sometimes strains towards) the epigrammatic; she loves to clinch arguments with a gag. She casts cheerful aspersions on Rousseau and his confidence in the innate virtuousness of children by alerting us to the fact that he deposited each of his own offspring at the door of a foundling home. "They may have been born good," she notes, "but they were not born lucky." As a result, her book is a lively anthology of neat sayings. For instance:

"A boy plays with the girl next door when there's no one else, but he nails a 'No Girls Allowed' sign on the clubhouse he builds with his male peers."

"Children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left their lives outside the home unchanged, and switched all the parents around."

"If teenagers wanted to be like adults they wouldn't be shoplifting nail polish from drugstores or hanging off overpasses to spray I LOVE YOU LISA on the arch."

"We think it's cute when little boys pretend to shave. We don't think it's so cute when they light matches or chop down the cherry tree."

Harris gives parents little credit for steering or tolerating the groups that define their children; but for the most part her arguments are fizzy and liberating. They tuck you up, your Mum and Dad.

Robert Winder, Books: You might as well swap the parents round., Independent on Sunday, 11-08-1998, pp 13.

Copyright 1998 Newspaper Publishing P.L.C.

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