Judith Rich Harris - The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

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The Nurture Assumption: My kids' behavior isn't my fault!

Aug 27, 2001 (Updated Aug 30, 2001)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Intriguing book that takes parents off the hook for bad behaviors.

Cons:Ignores some important research.

The Bottom Line: Frustrated with certain behaviors in children? This book will probably interest you. I don't buy 100% of it, but challenging some closely held assumptions is good for us.

~=~ Define Parenting ~=~

Recently, some friends and I got in a heated discussion about parenting. I'm sure those of you interested in how parenting influences future citizens have given this issue some thought. How many times have you heard a tragic news story about children's misdeeds and wondered what kind of parents they have? It seems that after the Columbine shooting, there was intense interest in what kind of parents raised the 2 teen perpetrators. The parents must have been negligent to raise conscience free boys, right?

These kinds of thoughts are based on the assumption that the type of parenting children experience shapes their future behavior. But what if parenting is largely irrelevant? Assuming basic care and lack of abuse, imagine that children will turn into the adults they are meant to be, regardless of their parents.

~=~ The Nurture Assumption ~=~

That's the controversial position taken by Judith Rich Harris in her 1998 book, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do: Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More. Not a psychologist (Harris was dumped by Harvard's program for lack of original research in 1961), what led this text book author to pen these shocking theories?

The short answer is Harris' own family experiences. She has a birth daughter, Nomi, and an adopted daughter, Elaine who is 4 years younger than Nomi. Raised by the same parents, their response to the parenting given was extremely different. Nomi was highly compliant, Elaine rebellious. All Harris' best efforts seemed to have little effect on Elaine. (both daughters are now productive adults)

Harris published her theory about parenting in the Psychological Review in 1995, then turned it into this 480 page book. What do other researchers say about her work? Robert Sapolsky of Stanford says she has based it on solid science. Linguist Steven Pinker of MIT also supports Harris. Jerome Kagan, PhD at Harvard is on the other side, saying he's embarrassed for psychology. Psychologist Frank Farley says the data is too limited and could cause harm if parents act on it.

~=~ When did parents start to matter? ~=~

Remember the days when the rich had nursemaids and nannies raise their children? It's still somewhat popular among the super rich and royalty. Parents often had the children in for a kiss goodnight after the cocktail hour. When I was young, I don't remember parents talking about quality time with their children. Those at work came home and read the paper before dinner. Children were often to be seen and not heard. (No, I'm not super old, but my Mom's from a strict southern family)

Perhaps it was Dr. Spock's revolutionary books that turned parenthood into a profession. All the sudden, parents were quoting the good doctor about what were best practices in their child raising jobs. Now, it's difficult to turn on a talk show or a news program without hearing about the importance of parents in early childhood development.

Now, parenthood as a calling has achieved grandiose stature. It is talked about with fervor, passion, almost as though it were a religion. Attachment style parenting? Ferberizing your children? If you haven't heard these terms, you haven't been frequenting parenting discussion groups. There are times when talk about breastfeeding vs formula and circumcision decisions can reach the pre-brawl stages.

~=~ Exactly what does Harris postulate? ~=~

Judith Rich Harris believes that parents matter in a couple of areas. The peer groups that a child is thrust into are a direct result of parental location choices. She believes that you should buy a house in the best possible neighborhood and make sure your children don't stand out. Dress them within norms and have any deformities fixed. By removing things that make other children pick on your children, they have better peer experiences.

She also points out that how a parent treats a child determines future attitudes of the child toward the parent. If you want your children to bring your grandchildren around, treat them respectfully when young.

Also, children's behavior at home is influenced heavily by parents' modeling of acceptable behaviors. However, Harris reasons that part of the reason children may appear to model their parents is through genetics. Kind parents may be more likely to give birth to kind children. Thrill seeking parents may be more likely to give birth to thrill seeking children. Research has shown many personality traits to be strongly genetically linked. Also, a child can elicit a certain type of parenting, just through their personality traits. Maybe children who like having books read to them get read to more often because they appreciate it.

Peers are king in Harris' theories. She goes into the phenomenon of people trying to be more similar to those in their peer group and distinct from other groups. So if your child is in the chess club, you can expect differences in their behavior than if they joined the skydiving club.

~=~ What does the research say? ~=~

There are intriguing studies about identical twins, raised apart. They come to adulthood with some startlingly similar traits, despite different upbringings. The sample size is (thankfully for the twins) very small. So statistical correlations aren't necessarily meaningful. Siblings raised in the same home may not be very similar as adults. Any similarities between them can usually be explained through genetics, leaving the environment blameless.

From my personal experience, I've heard people say, "Of course I smoke. My parents always did." You may hear their sibling say, "I'd never smoke. My parents did and I hated it." Thus the same environment is given credit for the completely opposite outcomes.

Important research that Harris ignores was done by Harvard's Jerome Kagan, PhD. He published a study of parental influence on timid, shy babies. Measured at 4 months, then again at school age, those whose parents were protective were still timid. Those whose parents pushed them to try new things were more outgoing.

Also, John Gottman of the University of Washington has done parenting interventions. Parents are taught new techniques, then practice them on children. Having a small sample size with statistical reliability problems, Gottman's study has measured improvements in schoolwork and aggression control, due to these parenting lessons.

~=~ Why does it matter to me? ~=~

I was told about this book by one of my oldest son's teachers. She could see my frustrations with his mood swings, caused by hypoglycemia. She wanted me to realize that some of my son's actions don't have much to do with me or how I treat him. He has responsibility to keep himself under control. I can model it, but he has choices too. I read this book at her recommendation when it first came out. It was fascinating to me since we had just adopted our second son. The arguments about nurture and nature would be played out for high stakes, right in my very household.

When my friends were recently discussing how much of our children's behavior we could mold, I pulled this book out again. It's still interesting to me. I see it's flaws clearly. Yet it has merits, if for no other reason than getting discussions started.

~=~ Bottom Line ~=~

While I don't think Judith Rich Harris got it 100% right, I still recommend that those interested in parenting read this book. Maybe we should calm down some over decisions parents need to make. Maybe responsibility for children's behavior problems need not lie 100% with the parents. The Nurture Assumption has enough controversy to get people thinking about some important issues. And thinking parents are a good thing, even if they are irrelevant!

~=~ Details ~=~

Paperback - 480 pages 1 edition (September 1, 1999 Touchstone Books; ISBN: 0684857073 ; Dimensions (in inches): 1.17 x 9.19 x 6.10

Some of the research studies mentioned above I learned about through a Newsweek Magazine article, Sept. 7, 1998, Newsweek, Boulder, Co.

Recommend this product? Yes

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