No one denies that there is some truth to her argument. Even her detractors like the way she's blown the lid off dumb studies that can't tell the difference between parents' influencing their kids through genes and influencing them through actions. And they applaud her for pointing out that children of divorce are not necessarily ruined for life, notes psychologist Robert Emery of the University of Virginia. But many of the nation's leading scholars of child development accuse Harris of screwy logic, of misunderstanding behavioral genetics and of ignoring studies that do not fit her thesis. Exhibit A: the work of Harvard's Kagan. He has shown how different parenting styles can shape a timid, shy child who perceives the world as a threat. Kagan measured babies at 4 months and at school age. The fearful children whose parents (over)protected them were still timid. Those whose parents pushed them to try new things--"get into that sandbox and play with the other kids, dammit!"--lost their shyness. A genetic legacy of timidity was shaped by parental behavior, says Kagan, "and these kids became far less fearful."
Critics also slam Harris's interpretation of twins studies. From this research she concludes that "parents do not make siblings any more alike than their genes already made them... [P]arenting has no influence." But some of the leaders in the field say their measurements cannot support that. "The sample sizes we use are so small that you can't detect a 10 percent or even a 20 percent effect of the family environment," says Dr. Kenneth Kendler of the Medical College of Virginia. And as Kagan points out, the vast majority of such studies rely on questionnaires to assess personality, recollections of childhood and descriptions of what goes on in the home. "Questionnaires are totally suspect," Kagan says. "The correlation between reality and what people say is just 30 or 40 percent." Such flaws could be why twins studies fail to detect an influence of parents on kids.
Finally, some researchers take issue with Harris's logic. This one is tricky, but crucial. Harris says studies of twins and siblings find no effect of "shared environment." True. But even children who grow up with the same parents do not have an identical environment. The firstborn does not have the same "environment" as her baby brother: she has younger, less experienced parents, and no midget competitors. Also, parents treat children differently, as Harris admits: she monitored Elaine's homework but not Nomi's. Children, through their innate temperament, elicit different behaviors from their parents; thus they do not share this environment called "parents." Parents, then, arguably belong in the category called "unshared environment"--which behavioral genetics suggests accounts for about half the differences among people. And besides, even what seems like an identical parenting style may be received differently by different children. One may conform, the other rebel. That does not mean that parents did not influence what their children became. It means that we are not smart enough to figure out how parents shape their child. Says psychologist Theodore Wachs of Purdue University, "The data do show that the same [parenting] does not have the same effect on kids. But that doesn't mean there is no effect."
In person, Harris backs off a bit from her absolutist stance. "I do think there is something to the possibility that parents determine their child's peer group, and children do learn things at home which they take to the peer group," she told NEWSWEEK. She allows that children can retain many of the values and other lessons parents teach despite peer influences. "If the group doesn't care about plans for the future, then the child can retain those ideas from home," she says. "And if things like an interior life aren't discussed by peers, then that wouldn't be affected by the group either." Might different children experience the same parenting differently, and be influenced by it? Harris pauses a few seconds. "I can't eliminate that as a possibility," she says. As for her own daughter, yes, Elaine was a handful and a heartache. But she is now married, a mother and a nurse in New Jersey--and close to her parents.
If "The Nurture Assumption" acts as a corrective to the hectoring message of so many books on child rearing, then it will have served a noble function. It lands at a time when many parents are terrified that failing to lock eyes with their newborn or not playing Mozart in the nursery or--God forbid--losing it when their kid misbehaves will ruin him for life. One of Harris's "primary motivations for writing the book," she says in an e-mail, was "to lighten the burden of guilt and blame placed on the parents of 'problem' children." Her timing is perfect: millions of baby boomers, having blamed Mom and Dad for all that ails them, can now be absolved of blame for how their own children turn out. Harris is already receiving their thanks. As one mother wrote, "We parents of the difficult children need all the support and understanding we can get." Clearly, the idea that actions have consequences, that behavior matters and that there is such a thing as personal responsibility to those who trust you is fighting for its life. Near the end of "The Nurture Assumption," Harris bemoans the "tendency to carry things to extremes, to push ideas beyond their logical limits." Everyone who cares about children can only hope that readers bring the same skepticism.
With Erika Check
© 1998 by Newsweek, Inc.