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The Skeptic [UK]
Spring 2000

Copyright (c) The Skeptic 2000
Posted with the author's permission on judithrichharris/tna.


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 cultural myth.

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 around."

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.

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