This is a very long (and at times personal) review. If you would prefer to read a more concise and formal version of this review, click here
If Judith Rich Harris is right, there’s good news, and then there’s bad news. The good news is that there isn’t much I can do to screw up my kid. The bad news is that there’s not much I can do to keep her peers from screwing her up.
“The nurture assumption” is the assumption (made by sociologists, psychologists, educators, criminologists, parents, non-parents, and the mass market parenting industry) that the way parents raise their children has a great deal of influence on how their children “turn out.” All of the parenting books we read promise to reveal to us the magical parenting style that will give us happier, gentler, smarter, more obedient children. If we could just figure out the right parenting style, the right method, the right plan, if we could just communicate the right values in the right way, our children would behave well and turn out great. Harris argues that this is hogwash. “Parenting has been oversold.” It “is a job in which sincerity and hard work do not guarantee success.” How children “turn out” (in terms of behavior, attitudes, and personality) depends very little on mom and dad’s parenting style. Rather, it depends about 50% on genetics and about 50% on the influence of peers.
I don’t know how much I agree with Harris’s overall thesis. She certainly makes a persuasive argument that is carefully and logically built, but I have some reservations. For one, just about anything parental influence could appear to account for, she says genetics could also account for. Well, yes, genetics COULD account for it. That doesn’t mean genetics DOES account for it. She has only proven that those who maintain the “nurture assumption” have not proven (or even substantially supported) their case. But neither has she proven hers. (She has made a more convincing case, I will concede.) Ultimately, I give the book five stars not so much because I am certain she is right (I’m not), but because the book is interesting, well written, thought provoking, and, at times, surprisingly funny. (It’s one flaw is that it is a bit repetitive; she could have shaved off about 70 pages.) Rather than merely putting a stake down somewhere in the nature vs. nurture debate, this fascinating tome covers wide territory. It offers an overview of behavioral and social psychology (including accounts of numerous intriguing experiments), a history of child rearing advice and attitudes across the world and throughout the ages, and personal theories of sociological evolution, among other things.
To convince the reader of her thesis, Harris first tears down the evidence used to support the nurture assumption, and she does a rather good job of it. She then uses anecdotal evidence, coupled with logical reasoning, to support her own position. Culture, Harris argues, is not primarily transmitted from parent to child, but from slightly older child to slightly younger child. The “power of group socialization” is paramount. “What children learn from their parents about morality doesn’t go any further than the door of their home.” What you do at home affects how your child behaves at home and in your presence, but it doesn’t necessarily affect how he behaves in the outside world, among his peers. (She cites studies that show, for instance, that children who do not lie or cheat at home are no less likely than their peers to do so in school). For example, as a parent, you could try to remove your child from the bad influence of television by throwing your TV out the window (or, as we have done, simply disconnecting the cable). But it’s pretty much useless. “[A:]s long as most of his peers watch it, the effect on the norms of an individual boy is the same, whether or not he watches it himself.” Children bring the outside world into the home, but they rarely bring the home into the outside world. This is why my daughter comes home from public school saying "totally awesome" but does not go to public school saying, "God is omniscient."
The desire to be a part of the group is strong. This “peer pressure” is internal and not external. While there’s not much parents can do to leave a “permanent” negative mark on the personality, “low status in the peer group, if it continues for long,” can. (Which, she says, is why you don’t want to give your kid a weird name like Skylar or Shiloh, which might interfere with her socialization and lead her to turn out peculiar. She might end up, like me, spending hours writing reviews on Goodreads instead of going to cocktail parties, or, like my preschool daughter did, raking large piles of leaves in the yard and then hovering over them, shouting, “In 40 days, if it does not repent, Ninevah will be destroyed!”)
When it comes to socialization studies, making this distinction between peer and parental influence is rather like straining out a gnat. For most children, their peer group will be the children of their parents’ peer group, so whether it is the parents or the peers who are actually transmitting the culture, things will “turn out” about the same, with some minor modifications. What it does mean, however, is that if you take a kid who is growing up in a crime-ridden, culturally backwards area, and you transplant him to a nice suburb with good schools, he’ll probably “turn out” better than he would if he had remained where he was. This seems to me to be common sense, and it hardly requires 400 pages to defend.
What people have a harder time processing, however, is her argument that (1) “bad” parenting styles do not have any permanent negative effect on a child and (2) “good” parenting styles do not have any permanent positive effect on a child.
We’re uncomfortable with rejecting idea (1) because that would mean placing the blame for our personal screw-ups either on our genetics (which we are absolutely hopeless to control) or on our own choices (which perhaps we’d rather not be held responsible for failing to control). Parents, myself included, are uncomfortable with idea (2), because it means that, basically, we have no control whatsoever over how our children “turn out.” Really, I think many of us suspect that’s true, at least on some level, at least some of the time, but we don’t want to believe it. We want to believe that if we just raise our kids with the right values, they won’t one day choose to be jerks or failures. “Raise up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” is a popular Biblical proverb. The problem is, we’ve all seen many a child depart from the way in which he was brought up, usually because the group of which he is a part (either at school, if a child, or at work, if an adult) does not hold those values. The religious among us may reassure ourselves with the faith that these departures are only temporary, that a seed was at least planted, and that, by the grace of God, it will one day bloom. And perhaps that is true. I choose to hope it is.
So, does Harris believe that it doesn’t matter if you beat your kid, tell him he’s worthless, or teach him that lying and cheating are the best ways to get by in life? No. Parents probably are powerless to write the futures of their children, but they can affect their presents. They have great influence on their children’s quality of life at this moment, and on the quality of relationship that they, as parents, enjoy with their children. “We may not hold their tomorrows in our hands, but we surely hold their todays, and we have the power to make their todays very miserable.”
Harris does actually offer a few timid suggestions about what parents can do for their kids. Parents can impart knowledge, traditions, and religious beliefs to their children, and, **provided they are not contradicted by the child’s peer group**, they will probably stick. Things practiced or talked about primarily in the privacy of the home (cooking styles, for instance) are better able to withstand the tide of the peer group. Parents can also, until a child is about ten, determine who his peer group is, at least outside of school. After ten, though, it’s rough sailing. You can try to forbid your kid to hang out with certain kids, but he can usually find a way to do so, whether during or after school, and usually by lying. Especially in the teenage years, it is very difficult to influence your child’s selection of peer group. “The adolescents who can be monitored are the ones who are willing to be monitored, and they are the ones who need it least. Parents have remarkably little power to maintain control over the adolescents who need it most.” As a “draconian” measure, in extreme cases, a parent can change schools or move to a different neighborhood or even homeschool, all of which may or may not help, depending upon whether the child is able to find a similar peer group in the new environment. (The last option of homeschooling she describes as “risky,” because she does think it is important for children to have an opportunity to be socialized by a group of peers, lest they turn out “peculiar.” I was actually surprised she had almost nothing to say about homeschooling in this book; one would think it would be a field ripe for study given her thesis, but perhaps in 1998 there just weren’t enough subjects who had been homeschooled as children; homeschooling is much more common today.) She doesn’t mention this, but you could also immerse your children into regular participation in a religious sub-community that shares your values, beginning at a young age, so that they form friendships that, one hopes, will last into adolescence, and so that participating in this community becomes a regular habit. My daughter goes to public school, but she also regularly spends anywhere from four to nine hours a week interacting with her peers in church-related activities of one kind or another.
Much of what the author says strikes me as common sense and is in keeping with my own observations of people. I do like the fact that she points out that parenting style is not simply something a parent chooses and then practices. Parenting style is a two-way street; it is influenced by the child, not just the parent. You may have one parenting style for one kid and another for a second kid, and you may change your parenting style according to the child’s reaction to it. Your parenting style may not CAUSE your child’s behavior, but may rather be a REACTION to your child’s personality and behavior. To say “too-hard- style” parents have more rebellious kids sounds like causation; but what if you said rebellious kids illicit a harder parenting style from their parents? And it seems obvious that personality does not result from how a child was raised. I certainly know many siblings (both adults and children) who differ from one another both in personality and in personal values, and their values and attitudes more nearly resemble those of the people with whom they hang out than those of their parents. The influence of the peer group is well known to all the major world religions. It is why the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all encourage fellowship with like believers, and adopt varying degrees of wariness toward relationships with nonbelievers.
Nevertheless, a mother likes to believe that she makes more than a mere genetic contribution to the values, behaviors, and fate of her children. Yes, not believing this may give her some relief when, during a church scripture reading involving the punitive death of David’s son, her four-year-old daughter shouts out loud, with an air of apathy, “Well, EVERYBODY dies!” But not believing it may also cloak that same mother with a sense of indifference when she’s writing a Goodreads review and her son keeps begging her to play Go Fish. She might say to herself, “If I continue to amuse myself rather than share this moment with my son, it will leave no permanent marks on his personality.” Or, she might just go and play Go Fish with the kid, because her parents taught her that virtue is its own reward, and you do what’s right, even if you get nothing in return for it, even if it leaves no “permanent mark.” Or was it her peers who taught her that? Or was it an attitude programmed into her genes? Who knows. Who cares. In the immortal words of the commercial giants who brought us Nike, “Just do it.” Or, as Harris says in this book: “If you don’t think the moral imperative is a good enough reason to be nice to your kid, try this one: be nice to your kid when he’s young so that he will be nice to you when you’re old.” Try to have a good relationship with your kid, not because it guarantees he’ll work hard, get all A’s, have a successful career, never cheat on his wife, always clean up after himself, and never reject your values, but because a good relationship with your kid is better than a bad one.
In the end, the main message of this book is simple and (for some) encouraging: LIGHTEN UP! This whole modern business of parenting has us all so bent out of shape. You’d think no one had ever raised decent kids in any generation before ours! “Parents,” she says, “are meant to enjoy parenting. If you are not enjoying it, maybe you’re working too hard.” We try so hard to do what’s right, so sure it really matters that we get it right, that we end up running ourselves ragged. “The experience of previous generations show that it is possible to rear well-adjusted children without making them feel that they are the center of the universe.” You never know what’s going to happen. Maybe those kids with silly names like Skylar and Shiloh will turn out alright in the end. Maybe your kid will learn better in the public school than in the snooty private one. “You never know. If it makes you feel any better, neither do the advice-givers. You’ve followed their advice and where has it got you? They’ve made you feel guilty...guilty…guilty…if anything goes wrong with your child. It’s easy to blame parents for everything: they’re sitting ducks. Fair game ever since Freud lit his first cigar.” True enough. True enough.