Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

BOOKMARKS; Do Peers Trump Parents?: Conventional Child-Rearing Theory May Be Based on Wishful Thinking

Magazine article Family Therapy Networker

BOOKMARKS; Do Peers Trump Parents?: Conventional Child-Rearing Theory May Be Based on Wishful Thinking

Article excerpt

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

Judith Rich Harris

The Free Press. 462 pp. ISBN: 0-684-84409-5

Anxious parents sending their children to summer camp often take pains to send along a list of their kids' food aversions, bedtime rituals, swimming fears and so on. However, experienced counselors have learned to take such lists with a grain of salt. They know that, at camp, children will generally eat whatever they see their bunkmates eating, and in their quest for peer approval, they will frequently attempt activities they previously feared or avoided at home.

In her bestseller, The Nurture Assumption , Judith Harris has stirred up a national controversy by arguing that the socialization of children hinges on peer interaction more than on what takes place at home with parents. Harris, now a 60-year-old grandmother who was tossed out of Harvard's doctoral psychology program 38 years ago because the faculty considered her a lightweight, has become a lightning rod in the latest installment of the perennial nature/nurture debate. Her sweet revenge is that her work has now won the American Psychological Association's coveted George A. Miller prize, awarded for superior achievement in integrating findings from diverse subfields of psychology, and named, as it happens, for the very professor who once sent her packing.

Harris argues that it is time for clinicians and researchers to end their 50-year fascination with the nurture assumption, the bedrock belief that a child's personality is shaped primarily by his or her parents. In Harris's opinion, the nurture assumption has been sustained mainly on the basis of flawed research and wishful thinking. She claims that generations of research investigators have allowed their preconceptions to blur their judgment, selling the public on false conclusions based on weak and inconsistent data. For example, most child development studies lack controls for parent-child genetic overlap, leading researchers to interpret a boy's aggressivity as being due to harsh parenting when it is just as likely that he and his father are both suffering from the same inherited impulsive disposition. Similarly, while firm and consistent parenting might foster greater maturity in children, investigators typically fail to point out that the cause and effect may operate in reverse--that is, even-tempered, compliant children may make rule enforcement easier for parents.

Harris insists that researchers also rely too heavily on questionnaire data, a relatively inexpensive way of collecting information riddled with methodological shortcomings, especially when parents are asked to report on both their own behavior and their children's reactions to it. Parents almost always overemphasize their children's in-home behavior and underrepresent behaviors that occur elsewhere, such as in school, on the playground and at the local mall. For example, divorced mothers asked to report on their children's reactions to the family breakup state that the divorce has adversely affected their offspring's adjustment. However, when the same children's attitudes and behaviors are evaluated outside the home by neutral observers, "the differences between the offspring of divorced and nondivorced parents get much smaller or go away entirely."

In short, Harris makes a cogent case for throwing out most of what we think we know about parent-child interaction and for concluding that no solid evidence shows that parents can, short of wholesale abuse, predictably affect their children's adult personality, achievement level, social behavior or mental health. According to Harris, no one style of parenting is linked to any particular set of personality outcomes. Except for genetic influence, there is no way to know whether the parents of a healthy, well-adjusted youngster were permissive or authoritarian, overindulgent or laissez-faire. Given this inherent lack of predictability, Harris thinks parents spend far too much time worrying about the latest advice child-rearing "experts" have concocted. …

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