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Book Forum: Childhood   |    
The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do
Am J Psychiatry 2000;157:1355-1356. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.157.8.1355
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Berkeley, Calif.

By Judith Rich Harris. New York, Free Press, 1998, 450 pp., $25.50; $15.00 (paper, published 1999 by Simon & Schuster).

This book has a second subtitle: "Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More." Since the days of David and Goliath, we all have loved the cheeky underdog. Harris, who writes with clarity, elegance, and irreverent ironic humor, dispatches to the dustbin many of the studies that show the lasting importance of mother and father on the psychological fate of the child. Most of us who do research in child development—and also those who don’t—believe that parents have an abiding power to influence children for better or for worse. That is the gospel of psychiatry, psychoanalysis, academic psychology, and educational psychology, but there should always be room for contrary thinking. Harris doesn’t endorse the conclusion that parents are so powerful and ridicules, or at least disparages, those who do (or did), like the behaviorist J. Watson and the analyst S. Freud. The two large forces that can obliterate parental effects on the child are summarized by two small words: genes and peers.

Genes, inheritance, or "nature" have been shown to account for 50% of the variation among children. They account for the similarity between a child and his or her parents in physical appearance, temperament, IQ, and emotional health. Genes also determine many of the prominent traits and behaviors of a child that tend to elicit repetitive responses from the parents and from other adults. A sweet, beautiful baby gets kisses, smiles, and candy. An ugly, nasty child gets curses and beatings. Harris cites research showing that genetic components of child behaviors can be readily transported from one context (e.g., the home) to another (e.g., the school) but that behaviors reinforced by parental nurture tend to be more context dependent. If a father punishes a child for lateness, the child may be on time for dinner but late in handing in homework at school.

The child’s environment, i.e., nurture, is also responsible for 50% of the variation among children. For Harris, however, nurture equals peer group pressures—forget about adults and teachers. She cites research showing that humans, like other primates, have been blindly designed through evolution to be group animals and learn the best behaviors to assure survival through imitation and modeling of behavior. So the developing child’s peer group and the child’s intense longing for high status in that group (play group, gang, classroom, sport, gender) decisively shape his or her adult personality and characteristic behaviors. Once away from home, children want to be like other children they know well and unlike their parents and other adults. If the parents have any influence at all, their cultural standards and important values are transmitted to their children through the influence of adult public social and community groups interacting with groups of local children.

Harris concedes that perhaps religion and methods of food preparation are private matters and may possibly be transmitted within family constellations. She buttresses her conclusion that peer pressure far exceeds parental effects by extensive reviews of child development research, a summary of celebrated experiments with adolescents placed into group settings, and the use of examples from other cultures as described by historians and anthropologists.

Three generalizations from developmental psychology that have been fairly well accepted by academics during the past three decades permeate Harris’ interpretation of a vast body of data: 1) Child development tends to be discontinuous. 2) A child who begins to fail and flounder in development compared with peers is propelled downward, but a child who displays mastery and high achievement is pushed upward with magnification of earlier successes; reversal of this snowballing effect requires a lot of intervention or environmental change. 3) There is no such thing as a potent unified dominant self-organization in the human personality that remains constant in all or most situations. If one accepts these assertions, then quite a large number of inferences follow.

Cinderella, who behaved like a humble servant at home, could turn into a confident princess at the ball. The girl who is an angel at home to please her family turns into a monster under peer pressure at school. If a child has become an ugly duckling in school, failing many courses and lacking the companionship of children similar in ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or religion, he or she will tend to do worse and worse unless transplanted to another learning environment. High self-esteem exists only as long as children are doing something that elicits approval or admiration of their peer group. Bad parents have bad children either because their genes are passed on to their offspring or because the bad parents fall economically downward to bad neighborhoods with poverty, crime, social chaos, and drugs. This unfavorable surrounding in turn damages their children even more. Head Start programs will fail because they target parents more than children. Bilingual education programs will fail because children cannot learn the language of the dominant high-prestige peer group quickly enough. Placing students in tracks according to intellectual achievement will make smart kids smarter and dumb kids dumber. Diversity (racial, economic, IQ, religious) in the classroom is counterproductive to learning because groups of winners and losers inevitably will emerge. An individual child who has traits that are different from those of the dominant peer group in this situation suffers the most psychic harm if there are insufficient similar children. For a deviant child to prosper, there have to be enough "birds of a feather" to "flock together."

The book gives many fascinating examples from the history of childhood in other countries demonstrating that culture, not parenting, is paramount in determining the behavior and temperament of adolescents. A nineteenth-century German girl was treated with leeches and forced to hang each day from a horizontal bar because her society feared back crookedness. Yanomamo boys in the Amazon rain forest tied their foreskins to a string around the waist in order to transition to manhood. Harris cites Margaret Mead’s research, which found that the Arapesh tribe’s members were kind and gentle, in contrast to the Mungamor, who were hostile and warlike, independent of individual parenting values and wishes.

Harris’ definition and conceptualization of the term "culture" adhere to those of Mead and appear simplistic, old-fashioned, and naive in the light of contemporary thinking in the area of cultural anthropology. Also, the reader must decide if Harris’ examples in which culture and customs control adolescent behaviors are relevant to contemporary life in the United States. Probably they are not.

The issue of relevance comes up in regard to other examples as well. Do the sociological experiments of group conformity by Solomon Asch and the boys’ gang formation in the Robbers Cave experiment of Muzafer Sherif et al. have a bearing on the balance between parental influence and peer pressure in shaping the personality of children in Berkeley, Calif.? Do the primate studies of Jane Goodall help us to predict the behavior of young adults in Fountain, Colo., the latest typical U.S. town? No, not without the presentation of many more conceptual and evidential links.

The book has more serious deficits. Although it is a wonderful layman’s guide to child development research, Harris too often writes more like a journalist than a bench researcher. She sounds more like a dry-dock sailor than a seasoned salt. In a debate between Harris and Jerome Kagan broadcast by KQED Public Radio in San Francisco in 1999, Kagan noted that much of her material comes from questionnaire data studies that have limited value, rather than from more valid direct observation of children. Kagan observed that Harris relied heavily on easily measured aspects of child development like language acquisition while neglecting harder to quantify but crucial personality configurations such as temperament, aggressivity, and self-confidence.

Except perhaps in the use of data describing the adolescent phase of development, Harris exaggerates the importance of peer group pressure on the behavior of children. The nuances and distinctions that characterize a specific child age category are rarely discussed in connection with a specific research group finding. There are vast distinctions between 7-year-old girls, 10-year-old boys, and 19-year-old young adults. Also, the common observation that individual children choose, drift, or migrate to peer groups that best mirror and echo their parentally influenced inner characters, values, and needs is ignored. Finally, Harris is unwilling to credit the autonomy and inner life of children that has been depicted in so many autobiographies of creative adults. The power of this factor has been repeatedly shown even in narratives of children surrounded by terrible or chaotic environments.

A story is told of a soldier who, while marching in a triumphal victory parade dominated by the loud sounds of the military band, was out of step and marching to a different drummer. When questioned why the great occasion and the music failed to dominate the nature of his movement he replied, "I was musing and this provided me with special strength." This anecdote suggests that although it may be true that every person harbors many selves that are context dependent, choices of attitudes and behaviors that ignore peer group pressures are often made. The ethnic characteristics of the two rival gangs in the musical play West Side Story appeared to dominate peer behaviors in the opening scenes but were surmounted by the love of the teen-age boy and girl, which ultimately asserted the power of individual psychology and individual relationships. I think that the relative invincibility shown by a child who thrives in spite of desperate social circumstances or personal physical fragility derives largely from parent-child relationships or from the ameliorating influence of other adults (1).

Studies that show the effect of an individual child with inner strengths on a group are not to be found in the meta-analysis of Harris’ research review. It is valuable to consider the sources of emotional strength of the young African Americans who risked their lives to begin school integration in Alabama and Mississippi during the Civil Rights movement in the South. Children (even better than soldiers) can travel through their developmental lives affected by many more emotional and cognitive rhythms than just those offered by their peer group. It seems plausible that their parents have written some of the music by which they limp or dance through life.

Werner E, Smith R: Vulnerable but Invincible. New York, Adams, Bannister, and Cox, 1982


Werner E, Smith R: Vulnerable but Invincible. New York, Adams, Bannister, and Cox, 1982

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