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Reprinted with permission from the New Jersey Psychological Association.
New Jersey Psychologist
Perhaps the professional books that are most worth reading are those that challenge our basic assumptions and beliefs, and hopefully our preconceptions. And what belief is more fundamental to the theorizing of personality, developmental, and clinical psychologists than that how children turn out primarily reflects family environment, especially children's relationships and daily encounters with their family members? So, to see on the front cover of Judith Rich Harris's controversial book, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, the claim that "parents matter less than you think and peers matter more" promises the opportunity to reconsider some of our most cherished assumptions and dogma.
Part of what rubs me the wrong way about Harris's book is the straw men and women scattered throughout the volume, including the forward written by Steven Pinker. "We all take it for granted that what doesn't come from the genes must come from the parents (p. xi)." Do we? Or, "A strange factoid in our True-but-Inconvenient file is that children always end up with the language and accent of their peers, not of their parents. No one in psycholinguistics has ever called attention to this fact, let alone explained it (p xi)." The use of the terms "always" and "no one" in these statements rankles me. Pinker states Harris's thesis as follows-- "...in the formation of an adult, genes matter and peers matter--but parents don't matter (p. xii)."
Call me old-fashioned, but is this not an extreme position given the countless research articles demonstrating parental effects in virtually every area of child development? Harris acknowledges this evidence, but when "I looked at it more closely and to my considerable surprise it fell apart in my hands (p. 4)." Harris, a textbook author with no professional degree or affiliation, attacks easy targets such as Sigmund Freud and John Watson ("Give me a dozen healthy infants....") but her view of socialization is so distorted that she can easily shoot down any view that differs from her own. For example, "From the child's point of view, socialization in the early years consists mainly of learning that you're not supposed to behave like your parents (p. 11, italics hers)." Really. And don't get me started about her interpretation of the identical twin literature or sibling personality differences or heredity and personality. One worries what the non-professional reader, especially conscientious parents, will glean from these pronouncements.
Although no one can predict with assurance how any particular child will turn out, I believe there is a consensus among those who study development that personality reflects dozens of interacting factors including heredity, gender, culture, education, economic opportunity, and a multitude of social influences, especially family and peer relationships (Jaffe, 1997). By portraying complex nature and nurture issues in simplistic and distorted ways, Harris performs a disservice to her audience and to our profession.
Regarding her claim that peers are more important than parents, even
during adolescence, when teenagers spend so much time out of the
home, this is not necessarily the case. Adolescents who have close
relationships with their parents, for example, are less susceptible
to deviant peer influence than those who have conflictual
relationships (Jaffe, 1998). Depending on the particular issue,
adolescents are as likely to seek counsel from parents as from
peers. This is not to say that peers don't matter. Everything
matters, potentially. How much parents and peers influence a
particular developmental domain (achievement, adjustment) depends on
the particular child, his or her age or developmental status, the
particular parents, their commitment to child rearing, the specific
situation, and so on. As professionals it is our duty to help
parents appreciate both the complexity of development (each child is
unique) and the importance of sensitive, competent, consistent
parenting. Unfortunately, by offering us contests (nature versus
nurture, parents versus peers) rather than the big picture, The
Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do does
not come close to delivering what its title promises.
Michael Jaffe, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Kean University in New Jersey, a family therapist, and author of Understanding Parenting (Allyn/Bacon, 1997) and Adolescence (Wiley, 1998).