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  • The Parent Trap

  •   National Close-Up
    Do Parents Matter?

    Judith Harris
    (Shonna Valeska Newsweek)

    Online Chat with Judith Harris

    Wednesday, Sept. 30, 1998

    What makes children turn out the way they do? Nature and nurture, right? "Wrong!" says Judith Rich Harris, in her controversial new book, The Nurture Assumption.

    Parents have much less influence on their children than conventional wisdom has led us to believe.

    Judith Rich Harris was online. Her responses to your questions are below.

    Alexandria, VA: I know that my parents have passed along some problem traits to all of their five children - my mother's depression, my father's stubbornness, negativity and trouble with authority. My father also has a very high IQ. Some of these traits are present in me and my siblings, but not all, and those that are come in varying degrees. Should I be watching for all of these traits in my own two children, or only those I think I have inherited?

    Judith Rich Harris: You have asked a good question but it is a question about "nature" -- heredity. Despite what you might have seen posted on the washingtonpost website, my book is not about nature -- it is not about heredity. To me, the interesting question is: how does the ENVIRONMENT influence the child?
    Most people assume that "the child's environment" means "the child's home" and that the most important part of the child's environment is the child's parents -- how the parents raise the child. I believe this assumption is wrong. According to my theory of child development, the most important part of the child's environment is OUTSIDE the home.

    Germantown, MD: I have not read The Nurture Assumption yet, but I plan on doing so very soon. From all the articles I've read about it though, I do have a few questions: Did you consider the studies concerning first and later-born children? Or perhaps that your second daughter did not want the same things as your first daughter? And what about children who act so differently from their siblings, yet they're all born from the same parents; how does nature play such an important role then?

    Judith Rich Harris: Yes, I have looked very carefully at studies concerning first and later-born children -- studies of birth order. In fact, I devote a whole appendix of my book (Appendix 1) to the subject of birth order. Birth order has much less effect on personality than most people believe: in fact, in most studies of birth order -- particularly the large, recent, well-done studies -- birth order has NO effects on personality. It is found to have effects only when people are asked to describe the personalities of their siblings or children. Then you do get birth order effects: older children are described (by their parents and siblings) as more responsible and bossy, younger ones as more carefree. But according to my theory, this is how they act only when they are at home or in the presence of their parents and their siblings. When they are outside the home, there is no good evidence that birth order plays a role in how people behave. Nor is there any evidence that the personality of an only child differs from that of a child with siblings. These findings are part of the evidence that led me to believe that the conventional picture of child development -- which is based on what I call "the nurture assumption" -- is wrong.

    Arlington, VA: In a nutshell, what do you consider to be the greatest influence on they way a child turns out?

    Judith Rich Harris: There are two great influences on the way children turn out and the first one, of course, is the way they are born -- their genes. But we know that the environment is equally important and that children can change a lot over the course of their childhood. I believe that the way the environment influences the child is through the child's identification with, and adaptation to, a GROUP. According to my theory, which is based in part on the principles of evolutionary psychology, humans were designed by evolution to adapt to a group. In modern day societies, this is usually a group of other children, because the peer group is the group that children tend to see as being most "like me". In other circumstances -- for example, for a child growing up on an isolated farm -- the group could be the family. But that is rare nowadays.

    Hopkins, MI: Why do you believe your statements have inspired such intense controversy among other professionals who have contrary views ?

    Judith Rich Harris: Most of developmental psychology and clinical psychology is based on the premise inherited from Freud: that it is the parents who play the primary role in determining how the child will turn out. That if the child turns out badly, it is probably the parents fault. These psychologists have spent the past 50 years looking for evidence of their belief -- trying to find out HOW parents influence their children. And now I'm saying: Hey, you were looking in the wrong place! You've wasted fifty years -- fifty years that you could have been doing something useful. Do you expect them to be pleased?
    But many psychologists think I may be right -- they think I may be onto something. Some of them are social psychologists. Some of them are writers of textbooks in introductory psychology -- people, who, like me, have had an opportunity to look at the larger picture, to see psychology as a whole inside of focusing on a narrow area of it.

    Damascus, Maryland: Since you have absolutely no legitimate credentials concerning your subject matter, why would any educated individual take your work as anything more than a personal justification and vindication for your own poor parenting and failure as both a natural and adoptive mother?

    Judith Rich Harris: I'm glad you asked that. I think it is precisely my "lack of credentials" that permitted me to see things from a new point of view. Because I didn't go through the usual program of education (I learned what I had to on my own) I escaped being indoctrinated. I have no commitment to the status quo. I am free to say (as someone within the academic world is not free to say): hey, the emperor isn't wearing any clothes!
    As for my own efforts in child-rearing, they were quite successful, judging from the outcome: two fine young women of whom I'm very proud. It is not true that I based my theory on my experiences with my own children. My theory is based on my reading of the literature in developmental psychology, social psychology, anthropology, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary psychology. It is based on scientific evidence: it is an effort to reconcile seemingly contradictory evidence coming from different fields.

    Vienna, VA: I have fraternal eight year old twins and I can certainly attest to the fact despite coming from the same home, they are very different children. However, their social environment is also very static in the sense they maintain the same circle of friends and general activity interests. Are then, their differences strictly genetic in origin?

    Judith Rich Harris: Some of the differences between them are no doubt genetic. But the experiences a child has outside the home can exaggerate genetic differences in some cases (and diminish them in others). If your children are members of the same peer group, as twins usually are at the age of 8, then they could be getting stereotyped (or "typecast") by their peers in different ways. One might be typed as an athlete, for example, and the other as a brain. And these typecastings can stamp in or exaggerate the differences between the twins.

    Kensington, MD: Our 7-year-old son throws tantrums for us on a regular basis, although he is the model of good behavior in school. The other night he gave us eight in a two-hour period. Reasoning with him at these times is very nearly an impossible task, and I am left feeling inadequate, guilty, and furious after these episodes. His younger 5-year-old brother imitates to a much smaller degree. As parents, we do try to be fair, but also not to give in to these tactics. How normal is our situation?

    Judith Rich Harris: Very normal. I hear it all too often. I don't believe that "parents don't matter": they matter very much. They have a very strong influence on how their children behave at home. And one of the unfortunate consequences of the nurture assumption is that parents have become timid and uncertain in their child-rearing methods, because they are so worried about doing the wrong thing. Worried that if they make one mistake their child will turn out badly and it will be all their fault!
    Parents should not be so afraid of exerting their authority. Nature meant parents to be in charge!

    Alexandria VA: The "blank slate" theory allowed us to believe that human betterment was possible through the ongoing cultivation of individual minds. If important personality traits are inborn, rather than acquired, can we still hope that human nature itself can progress?

    Judith Rich Harris: NO, important personality traits are not inborn!!!! The
    environment is just as important. Yes, human nature can
    progress -- look at how much it has progressed even in the past two or three hundred years! But if we want to make progress, we have to find out what really matters. That is what I attempt to do in my book. For example, I look at the transmission of culture. The culture does matter,
    but it isn't passed on the way you thought it was, from parents to children. I believe the culture affects children directly, through the peer group, and this is where we can make a difference.

    virginia , burke:

    Judith Rich Harris: Human relationships are very important -- no question about it -- and among our most important relationships are those with parents and children. But the assumption that what we learn from one relationship is carried over to other relationships is, I believe, wrong. Each of our important relationships is independent: the child who learns that his mother will come running when he cries does not assume that his brother or his friends will react the same way.

    Because human relationships are so important to us, they fill up a lot of our conscious minds, and that is why people think that I must be wrong when I say that their parents didn't have much influence on their personality.
    But the kinds of things my book is about -- the way people adapt their behavior to that of whatever group they are in at the moment -- those things usually go on without our awareness. They leave few or no traces in our memory.

    Joshua Tree, CA: What is your opinion of the theory that maternal environment (conditions in the womb) constitute an important part of a person's development?

    Judith Rich Harris: It is possible that conditions in the womb play some role but the evidence that I've seen so far doesn't make me think that they play an important role. However, I think prenatal conditions may play a more important role in abnormalities such as schizophrenia.

    madison, wisconsin: Does this theory help to explain the random violence from children such as the shooting in schools? Or is it that we still know so little about the causes of behavior that parents and teachers are unable to guide and influence to the degree that would allow us to alter dangerous behaviors?

    Judith Rich Harris: No, I'm afraid it doesn't. I do note, however, that many of these children were rejected by their peers. We really don't know nearly enough about the lives children lead outside the home, because so much of the research effort has been focused on the home. I believe teachers are extremely important, because they have the power to influence whole groups of kids, in the environment where they will spend the rest of their lives -- the environment outside the home.

    Chet Rhodes, We are roughly half-way through this live online discussion with Judith Harris, author of the controversial book, The Nurture Assumption.

    Send your questions by clicking on the Submit Question hyperlink.

    Arlington, VA: How has the book been received by the press and academic communities?

    Judith Rich Harris: I gather that it is being talked about quite a lot in the academic community and that people are either strong for it or strongly against it. I think this can lead to very healthy changes in the field of psychology and I fervently hope it does.
    The press, unfortunately, has tried to boil my book down to a soundbite -- a most misleading soundbite: "Parents don't matter." Then I get attacked for saying that, but that is not what I say! I wish people would read the book instead of depending on what they read in newspapers and magazines, because much of what it says in newspapers and magazines is wrong. My theory is much more subtle and much more interesting than you have been led to believe!

    Arlington, VA: In the Newsweek story you were quoted as saying people should live in the right neighborhood as a way to help their children. Is that an accurate quote? What are some other ways people can influence their child's environment?

    Judith Rich Harris: Parents have always believed that it is important to raise their children in a "good" neighborhood and to send them to the "right" school. I'm not saying anything new here. What I'm saying is this: parents have been told that X, Y, and Z are important in determining how their children will turn out. They are wrong about X and Y but they are right about Z.
    What you do to your kids at home will play a crucial role in how happy your home life will be, how much your kids will love and respect you, and how they will behave at home. But it is what happens to them outside of the home that will determine how they will behave outside of the home. You have limited power to determine what happens to your kids outside the home, but your power isn't zero. You can, at least when your kids are little, determine who their peers will be.

    Kensington MD: We have a wonderful,curious aggressively playful 6 yr. old boy. When acting up, I find myself saying "Where did you learn this behavior? I didn't raise you to behave so poorly!" Thank you for helping me understand that the love and guidance he receives will benefit his life in many ways, But are we only background noises compared to the "present-time" joys and influences of all the hundreds of people who will make him who he will be?

    Judith Rich Harris: Your child is only 6. You still would like to feel that you have an important role in determining how he will turn out. But when I say, "Your role is limited," I am hoping to DECREASE the anxiety you bring to your child-rearing efforts. Stop worrying about how he's turning out: just enjoy him for what he is today!
    Most parents of older children are relieved to hear that they are not to blame for how their kids turned out. And by then many parents have come to a similar conclusion.

    Washington DC: My 6 year old son has Pervasive Developmental Disorder, which greatly affects language skills, attention, and social/emotional skills. We have a choice of two classrooms settings: a general education classroom with a 1:1 aide, or a special education classroom specifically targeting his disability. Which classroom setting do you think would benefit him the most and why?

    Judith Rich Harris: A very good question -- I wish I had the knowledge to answer it. I don't think we have enough information yet.
    It is very clear that children adapt their behavior to the group they find themselves in. For example, children who move from the South to the North soon lose their southern accents and, within a few months, are speaking like their new friends. (And they bring their new accent home with them!) So I would suspect that a child in a class for special children might adapt his behavior to that of the other kids in his class -- which could be bad. On the other hand, if you put him in a class of academic achievers, with children who do not have any social or emotional problems, they might reject him, which would also not be good. It is a very difficult problem and much more research is needed. In the meantime, I wish you and your son good luck!

    Washington, DC: My son does not listen to or pay attention to Females. Neither I nor his father has taught him this. Needless to say, he has behavioral problems with his Female teacher. He is in the 1st grade. What can I do to stop this?

    Judith Rich Harris: Nothing. It is something his teacher will have to cope with.

    Washington, DC: What about children in the same family, raised by the same parents yet so completely different in terms of their accomplishments, interests, relationships, level of responsibility and commitment, so different that they could be considered completely unrelated?

    Judith Rich Harris: Children in the same family often are very different, and this is true in biological families as well as families in which one or more of the kids were adopted. In fact, this is an important clue to the influence (or lack of influence, as I claim) of the family environment. If the family really was having an effect -- if outgoing parents, for example, had the power to make their children more outgoing -- then we should see some statistical tendency for the children reared in a home with outgoing parents to be, on the average, more outgoing. We do not find this. Identical twins reared in the same home are no more alike in personality than twins separated at birth and reared in separate homes. And the interesting thing is: neither set of twins is identical in personality! Something, aside from their genes, is influencing their personality! What is it? If it is not the home, what is it? That is the question my book, The Nurture Assumption, attempts to answer.

    Chet Rhodes, We're out of time now so let's bring this online chat to a close. Judith Harris, author of The Nurture Assumption has answered your questions. Thanks to all for participating.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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