Silly, Dangerous Ideas about Child Rearing

By Horn, Wade F. | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 8, 1998 | Go to article overview

Silly, Dangerous Ideas about Child Rearing


Horn, Wade F., The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


I have been resisting writing this column for several months out of fear that I would be providing additional publicity for what I consider to be the silliest book published in recent memory. But it looks as if that book is not going away. If anything, it's only garnering increasing attention - even serious attention - in the mainstream press. The book? "The Nurture Assumption," by Judith Rich Harris.

The premise of the book is this: Parents needn't worry if they are too busy pursuing their own careers and interests to spend any time with their children because parents don't really matter all that much when it comes to building character in children. The only two things that really matter are genes and peers.

In case you think I'm exaggerating, here are Mrs. Harris' words from the book: "This book has two purposes: first, to dissuade you of the notion that a child's personality - what used to be called `character' - is shaped or modified by parents; and second, to give you an alternative view of how the child's personality is shaped." What is that alternative view? It's not what children learn in the home that matters, but what they learn outside the home through their interaction with peers.

This idea seems to be resonating with at least some cultural elites. Malcolm Gladwell, for example, described Mrs. Harris' argument in an article in the New Yorker as " . . . graceful, lucid, and utterly persuasive." The American Psychological Association even honored her "contribution" in August by presenting her with the George A. Miller Award at its annual national convention in San Francisco.

But does her argument really make sense?

In a word: no. In fact, it's nonsense. What Mrs. Harris does in her book is self-servingly construct a "straw man" that she then proceeds to knock down methodically. The straw man? That there actually are developmental psychologists who believe it is only parents who "shape or modify" a child's personality.

The fact is that every developmental psychologist I know, or whose work I have read, says that a child's personality is shaped by three forces: biology, parents and the extrafamilial environment, including peers. All are important, and each interacts with the other. The notion that it is either all nature (biology) or all nurture (parents) has no serious proponents.

Indeed, one of the biggest problems with Mrs. Harris' argument is that it fails to recognize how the contributions of biology, parents and peers interact with each other. For example, human infants are born "hard-wired" by their biology to learn language. That is why even babies of deaf parents start to babble at the same age, and in much the same way, as infants of hearing parents. But what language a baby eventually learns - whether English, German or Chinese - is determined entirely by the child's environment.

Similarly, the impact of peers on children can not be separated from the influence of their parents. It is certainly true that peers can have an enormous influence on the behavior of children. Running around in a deviant peer group can - and does - promote deviant behavior.

But what peer group a child is involved in is not independent of parental influence. If, for example, parents consistently bring their children to church and encourage them to participate in church youth activities, the peer experience of their children will be very different from the experience of children whose parents don't expose them to these influences. Conversely, when parents are neglectful or overly harsh in their child rearing, their children may purposely choose a deviant peer group out of anger at their parents. …

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