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The Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Sunday, May 16, 1999

Posted with permission on judithrichharris/tna.

Copyright 1999 The Sarasota Herald-Tribune and may not be republished without permission.


Parents' influence stops where peers' begins

by Thomas Tryon

A lot of people didn't like Judith Rich Harris' last book about parenting and child behavior. Psychologists who believe that parents are the chief influence on their children's self-esteem were appalled. Parents who assume credit for the achievements of their offspring were offended. Politicians who cite a lack of both personal responsibility and parental control as the root causes of anti-social behavior were appalled.

But her book and theory are worth reconsidering.

"The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do'' made the heretical assertion that parenting isn't all it's cracked up to be. Society, more than parents, shapes the adults of the future, according to Harris.

In the wake of the Littleton, Colo., school shootings and other outbreaks of youth violence, her writing and theory deserve another look as Americans try to determine, and respond to, the causes of the violence.

Harris described her theory in The Wilson Quarterly (Winter 1999): "There is a great deal of evidence that the differences in how parents rear their children are not responsible for the differences among the children.'' She added, "The evidence I've assembled in my book indicates that there is a limit to what parents can do: how their child turns out is largely out of their hands.''

Harris rejects her critics' contention that she believes "parents don't matter,'' although she does downplay the powerful effects of parenting on children's behavior.

One doesn't have to fully embrace her theory, however, to see the value of understanding her point. The most timely aspect of her theory centers on the impact of the culture on children's behavior. Except for the disciples of rugged individualism and the leaders of the entertainment industry, virtually everyone believes that the culture, which includes the mass media, affects human behavior. Harris suggests that the influence of the culture is greater than that of parents.

That proposition is true, she argues in The Wilson Quarterly, because: "Children learn separately how to behave at home and how to behave outside the home, and parents can influence only the way they behave at home. Children behave differently in different social settings because different behaviors are required.''

She cites scientific studies and offers a compelling anecdote to support her assertion: "Parents are often surprised to discover that the child they see at home is not the child the teacher sees. I imagine teachers get tired of hearing parents exclaim, `Really? Are you sure you're talking about my child?' ''

Peer groups and the culture are powerful forces. "According to my theory,'' Harris wrote, "the culture acts upon children not through parents but through the peer group. Children's groups have their own cultures, loosely based on the adult culture . . . Anything that's common to the majority of the kids in the group may be incorporated into the children's culture, whether they learned it from their parents or from the television set.''

Whether Harris' theory can withstand the tests of time and science remains to be seen. But parents who have witnessed their children's behavior and attitudes change with their friends are likely to give credence to Harris' view.

Fortunately, not even Harris maintains that parents are helpless. Yes, there are limits on what parents can do; does anyone really want to argue with that? No, parents are not excused from their fundamental duties. And, certainly, there are sound reasons to hold individuals accountable for their actions.

But it's crucial to recognize that not even the best parents can raise a well-adjusted child by themselves. As individuals, as a society and as a nation, we cannot expect parents to win the struggle against antagonistic peer groups and a hostile culture.

Harris concludes her essay with a statement and a critical question: "Although individual parents have little power to influence the culture of children's peer groups, larger numbers of parents acting together have a great deal of power, and so does the society as a whole . . . (A) society shapes the adults of the future. Are we shaping them the way we ought to?''

Thomas Tryon is editorial page editor of the Herald-Tribune.

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