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The Chronicle of Higher Education
December 11, 1998



Do Parents Matter?
Scholars Need to Explain What Research Really Shows

Wendy M. Williams

Rags-to-riches stories always strike a responsive chord in Americans' hearts. We love to hear about the drug-company representative who writes a best seller in his spare time, the young gymnast who competes despite a serious injury and wins an Olympic gold medal, the son of a poor widow in Arkansas who becomes the leader of the free world. We love underdogs. Best of all is an underdog with a message that frees us from responsibility and self-doubts. The most recent example of this phenomenon is Judith Rich Harris, the suburban mother, grandmother, and textbook writer who has been at the center of one of the year's major media frenzies.

If you have a pulse, you've heard of her by now, anointed by the media as the "Parents don't matter" maven on the basis of her recent book The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do (Free Press). Her thesis is that parents' importance in shaping their children's development has been greatly exaggerated. She argues that, beyond the contribution of genes, children's behavior is shaped much more by peers, friends, and schools than it is by parents.

As evidence, Harris cites the fact that children of immigrants adopt the language and ways of the dominant culture outside their homes. She also notes that children often behave one way at home with their parents and entirely differently in the world at large. The effects of children's birth order, for example, are evident in the home, where the eldest child typically bosses the others around, and the younger ones submit. In other environments, however, the younger children are not especially submissive, nor is the oldest child particularly bossy.

Part of the reason for Harris's wide appeal may be that she explicitly encourages people to relax about child-rearing. In fact, Harris has been quoted in The New Yorker as saying about people who avoid or delay childbearing because of the amount of time and effort involved: "If they knew that it was O.K. to have a child and let it be reared by a nanny or put in a daycare center, or even to send it to a boarding school, maybe they'd believe that it would be O.K. to have a kid."

Harris's critics -- including eminent developmental psychologists such as Jerome Kagan, of Harvard University -- have dealt out examples of parents' pivotal role like cards on a casino table.

The critics also have noted that the measures of parental influence in the studies that Harris relied on were not nearly sophisticated enough to detect some of the subtle ways that parents affect their children. Some studies asked parents to describe themselves and their children -- asking questions such as "Are you afraid to take risks?" -- and then used the answers to measure how similar the children's personality and behavior were to those of their parents. Such questions yield overly general descriptions, which often do not correspond to observers' more-subtle evaluations of people's behavior. Further, the critics point out, in stressing the importance of peer groups, Harris has minimized the fact that parents play a role in choosing their children's peers -- for instance, by moving to a particular neighborhood or sending a child to a particular school. In sum, many of Harris's critics believe that she adopted an extreme and oversimplified position, ignoring data that contradict her views, to capitalize on the shock value of an unexpected premise ("Parents don't matter"). Her persuasive and articulate presentation of her ideas at times obscures the fact that we have substantial evidence of parents' importance.

However, the intellectual controversy alone doesn't explain Harris's rocket ride to fame. She and her handlers (including her agent and publicists) realized that her views would have more of an emotional than an intellectual impact on most Americans. One reason is Harris's dramatic life story, the stuff movies are made of.

Begin with a flashback to young Judith, a graduate student in the psychology department at Harvard in the late 1950s. The acting chairman of the department, George Miller, writes her a letter telling her that she doesn't cut the mustard as an experimental psychologist. Harris leaves Harvard, marries, raises a family (consisting of one biological and one adopted daughter), and writes textbooks from her home in suburban New Jersey. During her children's school years, Harris is stricken with an immune-system disorder that leaves her almost completely confined to bed.

Flash forward to the 1990s. Despite her lack of vigor, she writes a careful, creative, and controversial article -- containing the ideas she later presents in her book -- and sends it to one of the best journals in psychology, Psychological Review. Although she has no Ph.D. and no current academic affiliation, the journal publishes her article. She then submits it for the prestigious George A. Miller Award, given by the American Psychological Association for the best journal article in general psychology. In the summer of 1997, she learns that her article has won.

When she gives her address accepting the award at the A.P.A.'s annual convention the following August, she reads from the letter she received 38 years earlier from George Miller, booting her out of Harvard and telling her that she lacked the makings of a good experimental psychologist. The audience erupts. Cameras flash. The media spaceship lifts off and carries her to the covers of major magazines, talk shows, interviews, documentary films. Harris captures the American spirit, the ultimate underdog in the spotlight of an academic rags-to-riches story.

Her ideas make fascinating reading, and her work clearly deserves attention from developmental psychologists and other scholars of child development. But the degree of attention paid to her in the news and entertainment media suggests that more is at work than her having creative ideas and expressing them well. To understand what really has happened with Harris and the starburst she created, we must look at the characteristics of modern American culture that provided the fuel for this media event.

On the positive side, a part of every one of us wants to believe that the American experience enables anyone -- even a grandmother in failing health -- to rise to the top of the charts, if only she works hard enough. Harris's smiling, impish face exemplifies the comeback-kid ethos. It is a happy story that parents everywhere can share with their children (that is, if they are still bothering to talk to their children).

However, beyond our love affair with spunky underdogs lies, I believe, a far more troubling reason for the attention Harris has received -- what I see as Americans' hunger for excuses that allow us to abdicate personal responsibility. We are quick to trumpet our successes, but even quicker to dodge blame for our failures. Harris's thesis that parents do not affect how their children turn out is the perfect antidote to some of the horror stories that we have trouble explaining. Adopt the "Parents don't matter" mantra, and mothers and fathers are no longer responsible for adolescents who execute well-planned shootings of classmates and teachers. Nor are parents responsible for teenagers who abuse drugs or alcohol and kill themselves or others when driving while drunk or high.

Harris's "Parents don't matter" views can be used to bolster a vision of development that reduces it all to either genetic or environmental determinism: "It's all peers and schools" or "It's all in the genes." Anything, as long as "It isn't my fault!" Many parents feel guilty about how their kids turned out; Harris's message relieves that guilt. The hopelessness we all share makes us crave the quick and easy answer that someone else must be to blame.

Frustrated and overworked parents may take solace in the message that they cannot control how their kids turn out, but years of research show that this simply isn't so. Psychologists must work harder to disseminate that research to the public, rather than communicate it exclusively to other scholars. And although children are not mere putty in their parents' hands, parents must not hide behind the excuse that they have no meaningful influence on their kids. If parents do not accept their substantial, if not omnipotent, role in child development, our society will create the children it deserves.

What will be the legacy of Harris's work? With luck, her experience may help educate the public about the way in which science operates. In interviews with me and my colleagues, many journalists expressed the view that because Harris won an important award, her research must contain the ultimate answers.

In fact, Harris took a bold position, which she argued creatively and forcefully. Awards in science do not go just to people who uncover what seems to be an ultimate truth; awards also go to people who argue bold ideas. It is to the credit of those who recognized the value of her ideas, despite the fact that they may have disagreed with some or most of them, that Harris received the recognition that she did from academic psychologists. But we do not yet have the final word on how much influence parents have on their children's development. Additional answers will come from more-sophisticated research on child development, carefully distinguishing and contrasting the influences of genes, parents, peers, and communities.

Unfortunately, the Harris phenomenon illustrates Americans' tendency to be uncritical consumers of messages that get us off the hook. The ready excuse supplied by Harris enables all parents to heave a sigh of relief and throw up their hands at their children's exploits. As a scholar, Harris herself advocates a critical exchange of meaningful ideas. I fear that her conclusions may be adopted, unchallenged, by too many American parents desperate for an escape from personal responsibility for their children's actions.

Parents must resist using this escape hatch. They must seek out information documenting the rich history of research that substantiates the many, varied influences that parents have on children. Raising well-behaved, responsible children takes time and energy, both of which are in short supply among many parents today. But the less time and energy that parents spend on their children, the more those children will be sculpted by peers, communities, and our society at large.

The media give us what we want and what we will pay to hear; Harris supplied the goods this season. Our hunger for her message illustrates both our great strength and our marked weakness as a nation. Little is more appealing in our culture than the message that, in the land of opportunity, anyone can aim for and attain any goal. But no one wants to be held accountable for failing to achieve it.

Wendy M. Williams is an associate professor of human development at Cornell University and the co-author, with Stephen J. Ceci, of Escaping the Advice Trap (Andrews McMeel, 1998).

Copyright 1998 by Wendy M. Williams, Ph.D., all rights reserved.

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