A Review of Judith Rich Harris's The Nurture Assumption
Bloomsbury, £18.99, ISBN 0-7475-3599-X
By Lewis Jones
Judy Harris used to write college textbooks on child development,
until one day she faced the fact that much of what she had been
telling her readers was wrong.
This book cuts the ground from under those who think that how kids
turn out can be put down to "the parents" or "the family". She
surveys the evidence to show that this "nurture assumption" is a
In the book's foreword, Steven Pinker writes:
"Being among the first to read this electrifying book has been one
of the high points of my career as a psychologist. One seldom sees
a work that is at once scholarly, revolutionary, imaginative, and
wonderfully clear and witty ... I predict it will come to be seen
as a turningpoint in the history of psychology."
Harris combs through the theories that children's personalities are
significantly affected by various factors: birth order, having only
one parent, having two parents of the same sex, being brought up by
working mothers or by mothers who stay at home, being only children,
early bonding between mother and baby ... one after another they
fall, these theories, under Harris's relentless scrutiny ("the
plural of ANECDOTE is not DATA").
It is the peer group that controls children's culture. They even
learn their language from their peers, not from their parents. And
immigrant children bring the culture of their peers home to the
parents; not their parents' culture to their peers.
Harris's "group socialization" theory makes this prediction: "that
children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left their
lives outside the home unchanged ... but switched all the parents
The clatter I heard as I read thought this book turned out to the
the toppling of some of my unexamined assumptions -- one of the most
exciting sounds in the world.