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October 11, 1998

[also published in Allen American, Lewisville Leader, McKinney Messenger,
Mesquite News, Coppell Gazette
and The Colony Leader.
Syndicated by the E.W. Scripps Company.]


Nature or nurture: The parenting debate

Parents have no effects on the way kids grow up

by Judith Rich Harris

Judith Rich Harris is the author of the book, 'The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do.'

What makes children turn out the way they do? Everyone knows the answer: it's "nature" (their genes) and "nurture" (the way their parents bring them up), right? Wrong. That is, the first part (genes) is right, but the second part isn't. It's not "nurture": it's the environment.

There is a difference and that's what my book, "The Nurture Assumption", is about. The nurture assumption is the assumption that "nurture" and "environment" are the same. It's the belief that what makes children turn out the way they do, aside from their genes, is the way their parents bring them up. Almost everyone takes this for granted, but the things we take for granted are not necessarily true -- in fact, there is good evidence against the nurture assumption. The evidence comes from a variety of sources and it leads to a stunning conclusion: that parents have no important effects (other than genetic) on the kind of people their children will be when they grow up. That parents cannot determine how their children will behave when they leave home.

The book has been widely attacked. I've been accused of ignoring all the evidence that shows that parents do have important effects on their children. Kids who receive good parenting tend to turn out better than kids who don't. Kids who grow up in a home full of books are more likely to become good readers. I do not deny or ignore bits of evidence of this sort: my theory of how children develop can explain them. It can also explain observations that are at odds with the nurture assumption, such as the fact that the children of immigrants learn to speak the local language without an accent, even if their parents speak it with a heavy foreign accent.

What has attracted the most attention, however, are the headlines that ask, "Do Parents Matter?" I have been accused of saying that parents don't matter, though my book contains a chapter titled "What Parents Can Do."

What's worse, people have been claiming that my book will make parents more likely to neglect or abuse their children. If it "doesn't matter" what parents do -- if they cannot determine how their children will turn out or how they will behave when they leave home -- then why should parents be nice to their children?

For the same reason you are nice to your friends and your partner, even though you have no hopes of molding their character. For the same reason your great-grandparents were nice to their children, even though they didn't believe in the nurture assumption.

That's right: your great-grandparents didn't believe in it. The notion that parents can ruin their children by rearing them poorly -- or turn them into happy, successful adults by rearing them well -- is a relatively new idea. Before the late 1940s, most American parents thought that kids turned out the way they did because they were "born that way." The parents of disappointing or troublesome kids -- my own parents, for example -- didn't get blame: they got sympathy.

Child-rearing styles, and people's ideas about children, vary from culture to culture. In one time or place, children are indulged; in another they are treated strictly (I describe these variations in my book). What doesn't vary is parents' commitment to their offspring. For thousands of generations, parents successfully reared their children without benefit of the belief that the proper child-rearing style would make them turn out better. They took care of their children because they wanted to, needed to, couldn't do otherwise. They did it because a child's smile is a reward worth working for and a child's cry stabs at a parent's heart.

Whatever else changes, this will always be true.

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