NURTURE ASSUMPTION REVIEWED: DO PARENTS MATTER?
by Justin Miera
Child psychology is the exploration of human behavior and thinking, with regards to our kind's youngest members. Those who study this discipline try to answer the question, "Where and how do children learn the information and conduct needed to function successfully with other people?" The motivation to search out these answers comes from several sources. Some people want to improve our quality of life. Others desire to help heal those with mental illness or who have gone through serious trauma. Psychology may offer the chance to discover how we got to where we are, or it could be a tool for cultivating a child's mind and thereby shaping the future. Many people consider childhood socialization as a natural progression that can not be manipulated or altered from its primal predisposition. Regardless of their intentions, modern psychologists have a profound impact on children and their place in society.
There are many people around the world that also regularly deal with the intricacies of childhood development, consciously or not. Every parent makes daily choices on how to handle a plethora of issues including behavior, nourishment, communication and entertainment. Teachers deal with information acquisition, consequence implementation and inspirational motivation. Religious leaders sermonize on our youths' bankruptcy of morals. Politicians capitalize on the fearful image of rampaging teenagers to legitimize power consolidation. Who has the "right" answer? What can we do, if anything, to improve the physical, mental and spiritual possibilities of upcoming generations?
In contemporary academic psychology there are two basic camps that have staked out positions on childhood development: behavioral genetics and socialization research. The behavioral geneticists are interested in the inherited attributes handed down through the generations. They see heredity as the key to understanding how and why people act and think. The geneticists could be classified "nature." Socialization researchers see infants as malleable lumps of clay that can be changed and altered by adjusting their environment. They believe that if we manipulate influences and modify behavior, we can create a certain type of personality. They see the primary influences on a child's life as family, peers and society. This camp could be known as "nurture." These two adversaries are often referred to by there competition for distinction: nature vs. nurture.
Judith Rich Harris published a book in 1998 called "The Nurture Assumption." While Harris is not a psychological researcher or practitioner, her work is having an impact on the field of childhood psychology. Harris was "kicked out" (Harris, 1998, p. xvi) of Harvard's psychology department and wrote textbooks for many years. Even with this dubious resume, or maybe because of it, she is inspiring a certain degree of controversy with her ideas. Some parents and academicians are calling her work ground breaking and feel vindicated in their own opinions and choices. Many others see her ideas as an affront to popular child development beliefs. Whether her ideas have a lasting impression on child rearing and education has yet to be seen. Her brazen theory insists that after parents give birth they have no impact on the socialization of their children. She believes that the personalities of children are derived solely from two sources: genetics and peers.
This paper will examine Harris' assertions, dissect her indignation with parental nurturing, explore the relationship between these ideas and other psychological theories and research, analyze the potential flaws and contradictions of her theory, and examine the ramifications her work could have on contemporary child rearing.
On the surface, this combination of genetics and peers may seem like a melding of opposing forces, nature and nurture. Harris believes that many personality traits are derived from the parent's genes. These qualities are supposedly embedded in our physiology and unchangeable. On the other hand, Harris also believes that it is only through peer interaction that a child finds relevance in the world. While this does fall under the socialization model, with variable influences impacting a child's character, Harris chides the notion of nurture. She describes nurture as the misguided attempt of parents to have an affect on their children's lives.
An individual's genes provide the raw material that determines certain quantifiable traits. The specific sequences of genetic material in our DNA and RNA can produce such effects as hair color, eye color and mature height (Eggen & Kauchak, 1992, p.159). Behavioral geneticists also believe that genes control such characteristics as aggressiveness, insensitivity, impulsiveness and boredom (Harris, 1998, p. 309).
Harris contends that it is these genetic traits that create the basic behavior of children, not the personalities of the parents who raise them. She asserts that about 50 percent of human characteristics are derived from heredity. Harris allows that the other 50 percent of variations could be attributed to environmental influences. Unfortunately, she does not refer to the specific studies that prove this ratio (1998, p.23). She also reasons that if a child is cordial, and that the parents are cordial, then genetics "could account for all of it" (p. 24) because there is no way to specifically determine the exact percentage of influence.
Further allusions are made to genetic influence through anecdotes and study results. Some of her favorite examples are twins, criminals and adoptees. One reference to both criminals and adoptees is to a nonspecific study from Denmark that tracked the criminal records of adopted boys. The variables studied were the criminal records of the biological parents and the adopted parents, and the neighborhoods of the adopted homes. Harris does not cite the nature of criminal offenses by either adults or children.
Boys from honest biological parents became criminals 14 percent of the time in honest adopted homes, and 15 percent of the time in criminal adopted homes. Boys who were born to criminal biological parents became criminals in 20 percent of the honest adopted homes, and 25 percent of the criminal adopted homes. She counters this 5 percent discrepancy in criminal biological parents by explaining that those biologically criminal boys raised in rural areas actually had a 20 percent rate of dishonesty. Boys raised in the city of Copenhagen therefore had a higher offsetting rate of criminal behavior which skewed the statistics.
Adopted identical twins are often exemplified in Harris' theory. She begins chapter 3 with four tales of twins separated early in life and reunited in adulthood. The adult twins shared many likes, dislikes, bad habits, practical jokes, careers, cloths and cognitive deficits. One pair bit their nails, drove the same car and named their sons the same. Another pair read magazines from back to front and liked to startle people in the elevator with a sneeze (1998, p. 33).
Harris goes further by illustrating a pair of identical twin girls whose parents provided two opposite environments, yet they turned out exceedingly similar. One set of parents was disappointed with the adoption and favored their older child. These parents provided a stark, simple home. The second set of parents doted over their adopted girl and provided an empathetic and cheerful home. As it turned out, both girls shared an unnamed learning disability, and both were "pathologically immature, socially inept, shallow of character, and extravagant of expression" (1998, pp. 293-294).
Harris attributes most personality qualities to the genetics of parents, not the environment created by the parents. To a certain extent, this is a distinction over which came first. Does the genetics of a person determine their likes and attitudes thereby fating all of us to act on every situation the way our ancestors have hereditarily determined? Is there no free will for parents to change their behavior and thereby change the personality of their children? Harris sees the only possibility for environmental change coming from the children's peers.
As alluded to earlier, in the Danish study, environment does play a factor in the psychological development of children. Harris' distinction is that the environment of a child's peer interactions is much more relevant than the environment created by the parents. Part of her argument is based on the amount of time children spend with each other as opposed to their parents. She often references traditional or tribal cultures as a point of natural observation. In rural Okinawa a mother complained that her 5-year-old son only returned home for meals during the day. Harris also cites African boys who tend cattle, and the younger boys that tag along with them hours at a time (1998, p. 92).
A greater part of her argument for peer influence is that of social context. She sees socialization as the movement of childhood behavior towards the appropriateness of society. How do children gauge the correct behavior? By the positive and negative reactions they receive. Since children spend most of their time with other children, and get the most pleasure from peer social interactions, Harris reasons that the feedback from peers is the most powerful motivator (1998, pp. 285-288). Three examples she uses for the power of peer culture are deaf children, the offspring of immigrants, and British baronets.
Harris sees Deaf culture as an excellent example of peer influence because hearing parents can not pass that culture down to their children. Hearing parents may be able to empathize with certain aspects of the Deaf world, but they can not know both the hardship and uniqueness of being deaf. Even when a hearing person has the facility of American Sign Language (ASL), they have a difficult time understanding the cultural differences and nuances of Deaf communication. Harris refers to Susan Schaller, an ASL teacher, and her experiences with misunderstanding signed jokes. She understood the words, but the punch lines never made sense because they related to the perspectives of a silent world (1998, p. 193). Deaf people often develop cultural norms and characteristics that are contrary to their dominant culture. Deaf Nicaraguans take pride in being punctual while hearing Nicaraguans have a relaxed attitude about time. This is the opposite in the United States where hearing people are very time conscientious and Deaf people are more casual (p. 197). These qualities came from the groupness of the peer class thereby distinguishing "us against them."
The term groupness is taken from the social psychologist Henri Tajfel. Tajfel found that by randomly assigning boys to a categorized group the groups generated their own identity. When asked to assign payment for the experiment, members of each group applied greater rewards to the anonymous members of their own group. This experiment apparently demonstrated that without even knowing members of a group, the simple act of division triggered discriminatory behavior (Harris, 1998, pp. 127-128).
The desire to belong to a relevant group is also what Harris uses to reason the social development of immigrant children. She describes how the offspring of immigrants move away from the culture and language of their parents in order to assimilate with their contemporary peer group. The last aspects of the old culture to disappear are those that exist only at home. Children may still speak to their parents in their native tongue, but will not take the old language to the new peers. Harris describes this code switching as a temporary, transient phase on the way to full assimilation (1998, pp. 189-192). The term code switching is taken from a bilingual psycholinguist named Paul Kolers. Kolers asserts that if people learn different skills in different languages then they can only perform those skill in their original linguistic context. Therefore, until the skill is relearned in its new language, a person has to consciously switch their thoughts between languages. Harris extrapolates this language context to personality traits. A child may swear incessantly around her peers, but mind her behavior around her parents. At a certain point the child fully assimilates into peer culture and no longer responds to parental influence (pp. 65-66).
Harris' other example of peer socialization is taken from the example of nineteenth century baronets. Baronets were the children of wealthy British aristocrats. The children spent their early years in the care of nannies, and their middle to adolescent years in boarding schools. Parents had little to no contact with their children in the tradition that children should not be seen or heard. Harris explains that at schools like Eaton, Harrow and Rugby the older boys handed down the cultural expectations to the young boys, particularly in the realm of accents. Harris reasons that their distinctive aristocratic accent could not have come from governesses, brief and impersonal interactions with their parents, or from middle class teachers. It was their peers that developed and prolonged the cultural norms of Britan's elite. Harris quotes Sir Anthony Glyn:
"The object of public school education is not to learn anything useful or indeed to learn anything at all. It is to have the character and mind trained, to have the right social image, and to make the right friends (1998, pp. 203-204)."
Harris defines nurture as the influence that parents wield over their children (1998, p. 2). She calls this an erroneous assumption and attempts to disprove it. Harris claims that any nurturing, or attempts to modify a child's development, on the part of a parent has no positive affect. She goes farther by claiming that attempting to nurture actually causes harm to both children and parents (p. 352).
The so called harm to parents comes in the form of guilt and anxiety that their children have not, or will not, turn out well adjusted. Harris absolves parents from these feelings by placing responsibility for socialization on the shoulders of children and the friends they choose (1998, p. 352).
The harm to children, by over interested and interactive parents, comes in four forms. First, children are prevented from forming innovative ideas because "What it learns from its peers is also likely to be more timely, better suited to the current conditions" (1998, p. 119). Second, over interested parents would essentially clone themselves into their children thereby eliminating the diversification of variety. Third, children can not count on parents to be around due to things like illness, death, divorce or war. Children should therefore count on their peers to teach them what they need for survival. Fourth, the interests of parents and children will naturally run contrary to each other. If children rely on their parents to learn and develop then they would be bent by the whims of the parents interests. The child needs to keep her own self-interest at heart (pp. 119-120). An extension of this fourth notion is parental peer groups. Because parents are influenced by the biases of their peers they tend to perpetuate cultural artifacts that run contrary to the interests of the children. She sites such examples as genital mutilation, strict bedtime, bottle feeding, and corporal punishment (pp. 205-208).
To further discredit the notion of nurture, Harris illustrates five fallacies of the assumption: a) nuclear family environments are natural, b) socialization occurs from contact with others in society, c) learning styles are universal to experiences, d) nurture is stronger than nature, and e) we can shape our social context. To clarify, Harris calls these five statements false assumptions, that they are wrong (1998, pp. 356-357).
Harris calls the nuclear family the first mistake of the nurture assumption. She cites several traditional cultural rearing practices throughout the book. The term traditional is not well defined though. It encompasses seemingly everything from prehistoric homo sapien, to historic tribalist, to rural agrarian cultures. The clearest categorization of traditional societies that Harris gives is anything not of "...a typical middle-class North American or European family" (1998, p. 12). Harris' biggest problem with the nuclear family is that all the attention for children must come solely from the parent(s). In her traditional model, Harris describes that 80 percent of cultures allow polygyny. The increase in mothers means the responsibility for nurturing is shared by many rather than a few (p. 356). Another aspect of traditional families is the termination of breast-feeding. The young child of two or three years of age is deposed from breast feeding, and its heightened attention, by the arrival of a baby sibling. The young child is now displaced to the care and attention of "siblings, half-siblings, cousins, and younger aunts and uncles" (p. 91). These older siblings, and their peers, now have the responsibility and dominion over the younger children. This is where Harris' true socialization occurs (pp. 89-94).
Harris does not believe that children are socialized by the myriad of people throughout society, but rather by the other people in their own social category, their peers. Harris defends this idea with the notion of salience. Salience comes from the self-categorization theory of John Turner, who is a student of Henri Tajfel, the theorist of groupness. Salience is the quality of things that demand our attention; things that are conspicuous and prominent. The self categorization theory states that we group our selves from the micro to the macro, from salient features that are right in front of us to those that are more universal. For example, a child might categorize herself as a second grader, then as a girl, then a child, a Smith, a Denverite, an American, and then, maybe, as a human. When she looks for her social category to find behavioral cues she will probably go first to second grade girls. Harris quotes Turner as calling this a psychological group, or reference group:
"A psychological group is defined as one that is psychologically significant for the members, to which they relate themselves subjectively for social comparison and the acquisition of norms and values...from which they take their rules, standards and beliefs about appropriate conduct and attitudes...and which influences their attitudes and behavior (pp. 141-142)."
Harris does not believe that we carry our learned behaviors with us and apply them consistently in every social situation. Rather, she believes that people learn how to behave differently in diverse social contexts. Harris disagrees with Margret Mead's assertion that cultural knowledge is transmitted from parent to child. Harris does allow four possibilities for the transmission of cultural knowledge: a) parents encourage behavior, b) children imitate parents, c) children imitate all adults, or d) children imitate their older peers. To contradict Mead and the first two possibilities of cultural transmission, Harris uses Mead's anthropological study of the Arapesh people of New Guinea. The Arapesh are exceedingly gentle with their children, but engage in brutal cannibalism and warring. Therefore, Harris concludes that despite a loving home environment children adopt different social behaviors. To contradict the third cultural transmitter, Harris refers to the children of immigrants. Even though they are surrounded by the cultural influences of foreign born parents, and the parent's peers, the children still assimilate into the dominant culture. By default, Harris concludes that the fourth transmitter is the only possibility: children imitate their older peers.
The fourth mistake of the nurture assumption is its omission of genetic influence. One example Harris uses to reaffirm her belief in genetics is with regards to obesity. Harris states that 70 percent of a person's weight is based on heredity. She insists that there is no evidence that a parent's behavior has any correlation to the long term effects of their child's weight. She therefore chides doctors and media representatives for encouraging parents to attempt to affect their children's weight through diet and exercise. Harris states that "This is not merely an error: it is an injustice" (1998, p. 292).
Another genetic issue has to do with divorce. Harris declares that divorce has no deleterious effect on the development of children. She does not disclose what studies show this information, but insists that children of "intact" families have the same behavioral genetic makeup as those from "broken" families. She goes on to state that the only way to abrogate the potential negative affects of divorce is to genetically determine one's partner prior to marriage. Harris says that a person should choose a partner with a low genetic predisposition to such factors as aggressiveness, insensitivity, impulsiveness and boredom. If partners choose correctly then divorce will probably not take place (1998, pp. 307-309).
Finally, the last mistake of the nurture assumption is the belief that we can shape our own social context. Harris touts that any attempt to reconfigure our historical, genetic social predispositions is futile. She uses ancient hunter gatherer societies to illustrate her point. These societies naturally tended towards groups in order to survive. To be a member of a group one must adapt to its norms and demonstrate value through one's commitment to the group, not the family (1998, p.122). As groups grew, and their social strata became too complex, they would split into smaller sister groups. To develop their new unique identity, these sister groups would create distinguishing cultural traits. To firmly establish this new society, the other sister society had to be completely disdained and hated. Because this hating has gone on for so long we are now all genetically predisposed to hate. Harris states that "we are born xenophobic" (p. 112).
Harris does offer 20 pages of solutions to the 371 pages of nurture criticism. Unlikely enough, the solutions are things that parents can do to influence the lives of their children. This may seem like a contradiction to Harris' assertion that parents have no control over the development of their children, and that it is. Unfortunately, this concession to any parental role comes in the second to the last chapter, after a chapter that exonerates parents from "dysfunctional families and problem kids" (1998, pp. 289-327), and before a chapter that starts with Harris' poem:
How sharper that a serpent's tooth,
To hear your child make such a fuss.
It isn't fair - it's not the truth-
He's fucked up, yes, but not by us (p. 350).
Harris allows that parents can affectively provide knowledge, skills and opinions that will influence their children. These influences can only work if the peers regard their presence as optional, when conformity is not being enforced, or in situations where differences are appreciated (1998, p. 330). Some of these influences include professional careers, leisure activities, and religious philosophy (p. 329). Parents can also have influence by making the family into a group. For this to succeed, the family needs to be big enough, have enough similar gathering points (e.g. five girls), be in a foreign environment (e.g. traveling), and allow every member a diversified nitch (p. 331-334).
Harris' biggest parental influence is over choosing children's peers. She encourages parents to move into affluent neighborhoods where children will be surrounded by children with successful breeding and polite characters. She also extols the virtues of finding a school with "smart, hard working kids" (1998, p. 336). Harris' advises that even if the implanted child is of a different social category (e.g. financial), and is teased or harassed, this harm may leave permanent scars, but it doesn't keep a kid from being socialized" (p. 336). For older adolescents who are out of control Harris offers that parents should move to a new neighborhood and/or a new school. If all else fails, she makes home schooling an option. Harris warns that without a variety of other children in the mix, this could produce social "misfits" (p. 337).
Harris does try to reestablish the uselessness of parents in this chapter. She says that ultimately, the parent's relationship with their child will not affect their personality. Rather, the parent's actions will only alter the way children react (1998, p. 341). This goes back to her earlier idea of reverse influence. Children are not good because they get hugs. Rather, good children get hugged (p. 27).
Harris often rails against the superficial anecdotes that people use to support the nurture assumption. She is actually guilty of using more anecdotes than psychological studies herself. Her book is replete with vague references to statistics that prove this, or studies that show that, but rarely offers names of the researchers, or cites references that one can use for confirmation. Several of those she does name are not widely explored in contemporary textbooks, and many well known psychological researchers are never acknowledged.
One luminary academic researcher Harris does mention is B. F. Skinner. Skinner's most notable theory is that of operant conditioning; the learner is consciously operating on their environment. He believed that the consequences of one's actions has more impact on behavior than the events leading up to the action. The consequences can be in the form of positive or negative reinforcement; a reward/reinforcer, or a the removal of an undesired consequence. He also theorized that there are primary (basic needs such as food and rest) and secondary (non-survival influences such as praise and status) reinforcers. When these two reinforcers are properly paired then the learner finds motivation through the influence of the controlling agent, such as a parent (Eggen & Kauchak, 1992, pp. 263-268).
Harris' primary difficulty with Skinner's theory is that he studied "organisms" in isolation. Skinner looked at the reinforcement history of individual pigeons responding to stimuli in a box. He did not look at the impact of group dynamics on the choices of those pigeons. Harris also faults Skinner for extrapolating the results of animal experiments to humans (1998, p. 136-138). As an aside, Skinner was a prominent professor in Harris' Harvard psychology department in 1961.
Piaget is another leading psychological researcher to whom Harris makes a quick reference. She states that infants as young as three months can categorize. Therefore, she concludes that Piaget underestimated the cognitive ability of young children. We have to assume that Harris was referring to Piaget's preoperational stage where children at age two are supposedly able to start classifying.
It seems that in one way Harris would concur with Piaget's theories. He at least believed that our stages of development are predetermined by genetic programing: ages birth-2 are sensorimotor, ages 2-7 are preoperational, ages 7-11 are concrete operational, ages 11- adult are formal operational. Regardless of environmental influence, the socialized child does not succeed the egocentric child until she reaches the chronological age of 7 or 8. There is no way for parents, or anyone else, to encourage selfless thought until that time. Obviously, with Harris socialization never occurs, only social categorization and groupness, but at least Piaget endorses the idea of genetic influence (Eggen & Kauchak, 1992, pp. 45-52).
Harris also makes reference to Diana Baumrind, a developmentalist who studies styles of parenting. The three styles she describes are authoritarian, permissive and authoritative. Authoritarian parents do not engage in dialog, they value conformity, remain detached and do not explain the rules. Permissive parents give their children total freedom and make few demands or expectations. Authoritative parents are firm but caring, consistent, explain their reasons and have high expectations (Eggen & Kauchak, 1992, pp. 105-106). Harris disputes these styles because she believes that parents change their styles with different siblings and in different circumstances. Only if the children are consistent do the parenting styles stay consistent. Harris bases this, and many of her anecdotal theories, on her experiences with her two daughters. One is biological and was a model child. The other was adopted and had a rebellious and difficult adolescence. Harris reasons that "If parents adjust their child-rearing style to fit the child's characteristics, then Baumrind and her colleagues might be measuring child-to-parent effects rather than parent-to-child effects" (Harris, 1998, p. 48). Harris goes on to insist that Baumrind is measuring genetic effects because "It's not that good parenting produces good children, its that good parents produce good children."
There are several noteworthy thinkers that could have been a positive reference for Harris but did not make the cut into her book. Bruner would have made a good choice to support her views on peer directed activities. Bruner was an avid proponent of student autonomy. With the teacher as a lesser influence, students have to rely on each other to become active learners (Eggen & Kauchak, 1992, p. 416). This is similar to theories put forth by Glasser and Kagan, although Kagan vehemently disagrees with Harris' case (see page 22). When children are empowered through group process and student centered activities they can understand and apply concepts thoroughly. Spencer Kagan said:
"Typically, the teacher consults with the groups, suggesting ideas or possibilities to be explored. The teacher must ensure an equitable and reasonable division of labor in the groups, but this is often done by asking a question of a group rather than by taking over the decision making (Slavin et. al., 1985, p. 89)."
Glasser describes his group process using a sports analogy:
"Weak players do not relax and let the better players carry them, and the better players do not resent the fact that the weaker ones are not as good as they are. In fact they tend to encourage and help them. And when a weak player finally gets to play and scores not only is his contribution cheered, but his points are as much a part of the final score as anyone else's. On a well-coached team, all players experience not only power but also a strong sense of belonging, and it would not be amiss to say that there is love for both each other and the coach (Glasser, 1986, p. 74-75)."
Teachers are the wild card in these examples. Harris rarely acknowledges teachers as having any role in the education or socialization of children. Harris does state that "A teacher's job is to unite students by giving them a common goal" (1998, p. 263). This could encompass the ideas of Glasser, Bruner and Kagan. Without teachers taking some active role in providing direction, socialization and education for children, schools would resemble a baby sitting service. Since parents have no influence over their children, and other adults (teachers) have little, if any more influence, then why bother with the formalities. Schools should become a huge peer gathering place with adults simply trying to keep everyone safe. Teachers would be little more than prison guards and students the eight hour inmates. Harris does make this analogy between prisoners and children on pages 198-199. "A child's goal is not to become a successful adult, any more that a prisoner's goal is to become a successful guard."
Erik Erikson would be an object of criticism for Harris. He actively acknowledges parents and other adult society members as having influence on the social development of children. His first stage of trust versus mistrust, birth to 1 year, describes the predicability of parent's care as establishing a sense of trust. The studies of Klaus and Kennell in 1982 also showed that bonding, or social attachment, was directly influenced by the consistency of care givers, primarily parents (Eggen & Kauchak, 1992, p. 65). Autonomy versus shame and doubt, ages 1-3, is Erikson's next stage. He believes that children build confidence by being afforded opportunities to do things on their own. Rather than parents putting on the child's shoes they should encourage her to do it on her own. Harris would probably respond that this is the role of an older sibling or peer, not a parent. In initiative versus guilt, ages 3-6, children need to be encouraged to explore their new autonomy. "Parents who criticize or punish initiative cause children to feel guilty about their self-initiated activities" (Eggen & Kauchak, 1992, p. 65). Harris would see no harm in criticism or punishment because the parent has no lasting impact on the character or personality of a child. Teachers and peers play a large role in industry versus inferiority, ages 6-12. Without opportunities for success and accomplishment, with both academics and peers, children may develop a sense of inferiority. Harris believes that rejection is all part of the game and that an environment of hard working peers is always the solution. "If it were up to me, I would take the risk that my child might be rejected and put her or him in to the best school I could find" (Harris, 1998, p. 336). Identity versus confusion, adolescence, is the time where teenagers go through what Erikson termed an identity crisis. This parallels Harris' theory on the whole of childhood. Adolescents are at the same time trying to rebel against authority and belong to a social group. Erikson believes that adolescents that have a basic sense of trust, developed in infancy, will be able to competently navigate through feelings of uncertainty and confusion. Harris, on the other hand, sees adolescents as having to struggle through these times on their own because nothing that parents or adults do, or have done, will have any impact on their adult actualization.
Vygotsky believed in social context; everything in the child's environment that has been influenced by a culture. There are three levels of impact: a) the immediate interactive level, b) the social structural level (e.g. families, school, peers), and c) the the general cultural or social level (e.g. language, number systems, politics, religion). All of these diverse factors influence the cognitive and social development of a child. Bodrova and Leong elaborate on this through the Russian researcher, Sloutsky, 1991, who "...found that children raised in orphanages did not have the same level of planning and self-regulatory skills as children raised in families" (1996, pp. 9-10). In Harris' model these orphaned children should be doing great. They are surrounded by peers of the same social context and groupness. It must be their genes.
Harris does tend to select researchers and studies that neatly support her position, or ones that she can chastise for their blind obedience to the nurture assumption. This is not unusual, most scientists do the same selective referencing. The problems arise when we analyze her essential claims. For instance, if genetics is only a partial determining factor to the development of children, 50 percent, then socialization must come from an outside force. Which force? Harris insists peers, but how can she completely disregard all parental influences and still allow for socialization to be a factor, for who socialized the peers. It may be possible to account for a century of peer socialization, in the case of British baronets, but how do we justify thousands of years of diverse human cultures and their transformations? Have parents meant nothing in all cases? It is difficult to establish such a universal claim because there are so many individual variables and refuting examples. Piaget's immovable stages are similarly inconsistent due to the myriad of childhood experiences that are not easily categorized. If a theory is true then it must be viable in all circumstances.
Harris wavered on her assertions with the chapter called "What parents can do." These were discussed earlier in the section called "Solutions." If in fact parents can alter a child's environment by manipulating their school and social structure, then they have also altered their personality development. It is not a matter of if parents can be an influence, but rather if they choose to be an influence. There are a few more deviations buried within Harris' book that also call into question the strength of her position.
In the case of immigrant children Harris acknowledges communities of Hasidic Jews and Canadian Hutterites. In both of these cases the children of immigrants have not assimilated to the dominant culture. The reason is that both of these groups exist as separate social entities within the greater society. They mandate cultural conformity in things like dress and have schools with consistent expectations to the smaller social category. The adults do not mandate compliance, children can leave the community or attend outside schools, but many do not choose to leave (Harris, 1998, p. 190). This may be due to the groupness of their religious culture, but it is not the peers that control the dissemination of tradition. Instead, it is the elders and the parents that pass on the beliefs and social expectations. Maybe there is a religion gene but Harris has not demonstrated it.
Similarly, Harris looses her consistency on the issue of parent peer groups. She modifies her stand by saying that parents as a whole influence children as a whole, group to group, not an individual parent to an individual child. Still, one paragraph later Harris states that "The children's culture is a variant of the adult culture, and the adult culture they know best is the one they were exposed to at home" (1998, p. 210). If home parental culture does have an affect on children, and parental group culture also has an affect, then peers are not the only environmental influence on the development and character of children. Because these influences are variable to circumstance it is difficult to concretely gauge their degree of impact. Who is really more important, parents, adults or peers? The answer changes from place to place. Just as Harris said, "...learned behavior is not carried along like a backpack from one place to the another..." (p. 356). Likewise, peer influences are brought into every social context (e.g. church services, symphony concerts, family meals, job interviews). Further down this logical progression, if peers are not the end all socializers, then neither can genetics be the end all predeterminer. Earlier, when Harris referred to degrees of cordiality, she insisted that environmental influence could not be statistically guaranteed. For that reason she said genetics "could account for all of it" (p. 24). By the same reasoning, if genetics accounts for only 50% of influence then it can not be statistically guaranteed in all character traits, thereby environment could account for all of it.
We should not fall into this same trap. It is egomaniacal to assume that one position is correct to the total admonishment of its opposite. In all things there are gray areas of crossover. To state that all knives are bad because they can be used as weapons negates their positive aspects like bread cutting. It comes back to what we choose to do with our options. If, for the sake of argument, environment does indeed have a .50 influence, and peers account for another .25, then there is still room to alter our reality in the gray area of that final .25.
Fate or free will? Do we throw up our hands and aqueous to the heredity of hunter gathers, or do we persevere to change our world like the deist Thomas Paine. Paine said: "I believe in the equality of man; and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy." He insisted that our actions do count and that we do have an impact on those around us. To choose not to act is to abandon our responsibility to human kind, and more importantly the most vulnerable around us, the children.
There are many among us today that are thankful for the relief from responsibility and Harris has provided their forgiveness. More over, there are many psychologists, educators and reviewers who encourage more parents and societal adults to walk away from their opportunity to make a difference. This is a list of reviews that support Harris. Note their careers and social standing:
"The Nurture Assumption is a hoot. She is a witty and articulate writer who clearly and systematically explains her refutations of commonly held assumptions. ... She turns the psychology establishment on its ear." -- Marilyn Heins, M.D., Tucson pediatrician and parenting educator, Arizona Daily Star, Sept. 20 1998
"Harris writes beautifully, in a tone both persuasive and conversational. ... Some critics may pounce on her for not having a Ph.D. ... but they cannot fault her scholarship. ... She draws on research from behavior genetics (the study of genetic contributions to personality), social psychology, child development, ethology, evolution and culture. Lively anecdotes about real children suffuse this book, but Harris never confuses anecdotes with data." --Carol Tavris, New York Times Book Review, September 13 1998
"I do recommend that parents and professionals read the book. No summary will suffice to capture all of the valuable information and challenging ideas that are found in this very readable summary of research and theory about what determines our personalities. ... [Harris] appropriately stresses how much children, from conception on, influence parents. It is very much a two-way process. In summary, I believe that we should take Harris very seriously when she makes the point that parents are only a partial influence on how our children turn out as adults." --Kalman M. Heller, PhD (psychologist, expert on child development, ADHD, parenting, and marriage), ParenTalk, October 1998
"[Harris's] major contribution is her demonstration that there is no research support for any theory suggesting that any type of parenting is a cause of any aspect of the child's adult personality." --Milton Spett, Ph.D., licensed psychologist with a private practice in Cranford, NJ, in NJ-ACT Newsletter (NJ Assoc. of Cognitive- Behavioral Therapists), March 1999 (Harris, 1999).
These reviews are from very influential people with regards to parents, teachers, and society. Some offer the moderated perspective that parents do have some role, but smaller that we previously thought. In actuality, Harris' essential assertion is that parents have no role. Her intention is not to offer a balanced perspective on the socialization of children. She quite clearly states that genetics and peers are the only determining factors in socialization.
What is missing from most discussions on parenting and education is an inclusive perspective. There is a great deal of evidence that supports genetic, peer, teacher and parent influences on socialization. The problem is that many researchers try to stake out a singular position to establish themselves for ego gratification, power consolidation, grant funding, tenure protection, and numerous other reasons. Reasons other than the core of our work: the children. What ideas, efforts and positions will help create a sustainable and enjoyable world for future generations. Many American Indian nations share a philosophy called the seventh generation. What we do affects our posterity for seven generations. That is indeed a responsibility.
Today's society is more concerned with immediate self gratification. The effort to escape our responsibilities and consequences is patently obvious from presidents to peons. There are many who do still try to make a difference whether it is to stop ozone depletion, protect human rights, smile at cashiers, teach young children or conscientiously parent children. Even if the scenario is less than a .25 statistical impact on the outcome selfless people endeavor to be available. Some of these people who will not give up have also reviewed Harris' work:
"I have indeed dutifully looked at Harris' book several times in stores, but quite frankly, I found it too rambling, anecdotal and contradictory to purchase or take seriously. ... My understanding of the formation of adult personae comes from wide-ranging sources, such as Sir James George Frazer's survey of tribal rites of passage in 'The Golden Bough'; Freud's conflict-based analysis of the psychodynamics of 'family romance' in bourgeois society; and even Babylonian astrology." --Camille Paglia, Salon Magazine, Sept. 23 1998
"[Harris'] thesis is absurd on its face, but consider what might happen if parents believe this stuff! Will it free some to mistreat their kids, since it doesn't matter? Will it tell parents who are tired after a long day that they needn't bother even paying any attention to their kid since it doesn't matter'?" --Frank Farley, PhD, quoted in Newsweek, Sept. 7 1998
"Harris' proposal could conceivably hurt our most innocent and vulnerable -- our children. If you're an overwhelmed parent looking to lighten your load, then reduce your time spent on the kids' behavior, emotional life, achievement and skills, and go party. If you've got anger-control problems, let it all out, because it doesn't matter." --op-ed by Frank Farley, PhD, Philadelphia Daily News, Oct. 15 1998 (also in Los Angeles Parent, Nov. 1998)
"Harris's book is well-written, toughly argued, filled with telling anecdotes and biting wit. ... Harris has collected an impressive set of examples and findings to fortify a position that is indeed novel in empirical investigations of 'human socialization. '... However, in my view, Harris's thesis is overstated, misleading, and potentially harmful. ... Undoubtedly, psychological researchers inspired by Harris's book will seek evidence bearing on her thesis. We will learn from these studies; and some of us who have taken skeptical positions in this debate may have to acknowledge influences we hadn't sufficiently recognized." --Howard Gardner (psychology professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education), New York Review of Books, 11/5/98
"There are thousands of studies that show parents' impact on children, Kagan says. Indeed, Harris spends a good portion of her book trying to debunk them, arguing that they mistake cause for effect, fail to take genetics into account, or fall prey to various methodological blunders. But she fails to persuade Kagan, who compares her conclusions to a once-ballyhooed discovery in physics that fizzled. 'It's like cold fusion, remember that, a few years ago?' he asks. 'There is no cold fusion, and this book is wrong.' " --Paula Span in Washington Post 10/28/98 (Harris, 1999).
What would happen if we all took Harris' advice? Children would be placed in schools from birth to improve their peer interactions and brain development. After all, parents need not try anymore. The only thing that is important is to maintain a child's basic needs like food, clothes and shelter, in a good neighborhood of course. Kind of like pets. Prospective lovers would compare their genome cards for compatibility and negative genetic predispositions. Heck, employers, insurance companies and law enforcement should track genome cards as well. If a person has a .50 percent predisposition to laziness, illness or crime we should know about it ahead of time. Better yet, if we can alter the genes of embryos then we could avoid any problems at all.
Scary, but the first part of this picture has come to pass, and Harris is providing retroactive forgiveness for guilty feeling parents. This is not to blame parents. Many are hit with the burden of an ever widening economic gap in social class, or the difficult reality of broken homes and single parenting. The answer is not to give up, but to creatively search for better solutions. Some of these solutions may reside in the ideas that Harris puts forth. For instance, a genetic understanding of a child's learning disabilities can help both parents and teachers provide direction and skills. Peers are indeed a powerful and relevant motivation in children's lives. If parents provide monitored play dates in early childhood then children can try out their social skills and parent can determine appropriate companions. Teachers can use peer interactions to motivate self reliant learning, cooperative encouragement, and idea generation. There are very few absolutes in this world, so why, for the sake of Harris' argument, play games with our future by artificially removing one of a child's greatest assets, their parents.
Bodrova, E. & Leong, D. J. (1996). Tools of the mind. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Simon & Schuster.
Eggen, P. D. & Kauchak, D. (1992). Educational Psychology. New York: Macmillan Publishing.
Glasser M.D., William (1986). Choice theory in the classroom. New York: Harper & Row.
Harris, Judith Rich (1998). The Nurture Assumption. New York: The Free Press.
Harris, Judith Rich (1999). Nurture reviews. [Online]. Available: http://home.att.net/~xchar/tna/prevquot.htm [1999, December 3].
Slavin, R., Sharan, S., Kagan, S., Hertz-Lazarowitz, R., Webb, C., Schmuck, R. (Eds.). (1985). Learning to cooperate, cooperating to learn. New York. Plenum Press.
A paper in partial fulfillment of the course Theories of Human Development and Learning, MLS 654 G, Course Consultant is Natalie Eilam, REGIS UNIVERSITY, December 8, 1999
Regis Papers Page
Justin's Home Page
e-mail me firstname.lastname@example.org