|PEERS OR PARENTS?|
October 29, 1998
Judith Harris, answers questions about her book, The Nurture Assumption. It states that peers and genes have more influence over a child's personality than parents.
Child Development experts have long disagreed over Nature vs. Nuture. Is it genes or environment that decides if a child becomes a mathematician or a star soccer player, an introvert or an extrovert?
This ongoing debate was just turned on its head by a new book by Judith Harris, a writer of developmental psychology textbooks. The Nurture Assumption claims that the Nature vs. Nurture discussion has been misdirected by assuming that "Nurture" equals parents. According to Harris, parents influence their children with their genes, but have less importance later in life than peers do. This "group socialization theory" asserts that children's friends and other groups are dominant forces in the nurturing that helps shape personality and behavior.
Some have called her theory a turning point for child psychology. Others claim it goes too far in understating the role of parenting.
Issues open to discussion in this forum include: What does matter during a child's development? Peers? Parents? Siblings? Genes?
Judith Harris answers your questions.
H. Bartlett of Mercerville, NJ asks:
From memories of my own school days and observations of my daughters', I assert that the influence of one's peers is, on balance, strongly negative -- especially if children receive little or no discipline at home. While my wife has yet to agree, it is for this reason that I think home schooling is the best possible option for the development of intelligent, well-adjusted children. What say you?
Judith Harris responds:
People always seem to dwell upon the negative aspects of peer group influence and to ignore the positive aspects. I suppose that's because peer influence tends to be noticed only when it conflicts with what the parents want. When it doesn't conflict -- and often it doesn't -- it isn't noticed. There are peer groups that influence their members to do well in school and to avoid drugs and cigarettes. But they don't get the credit: the parents assume that if the kid is behaving all right, it must be THEIR doing! Children can do remarkable things when they get together. In The Nurture Assumption I tell the story of a group of deaf children in Nicaragua who came together for the first time in a newly created school for the deaf. These children created their own sign language in order to communicate with each other. Their teachers tried to teach them to read lips but the kids ignored them and developed, over a period of time, a rich new language, capable of transmitting complex ideas. It is unrelated both to spoken Spanish and to American Sign Language. As far as home schooling goes, it seems to work successfully if it involves several kids, not just one, and if the kids have occasional opportunities to spend time with other children of their age. Otherwise, there is a danger that you could end up producing misfits, poorly suited for the world in which they will someday have to live. Children who are confined at home due to chronic health problems, and prodigies who are educated privately because they have nothing in common with kids their own age, often have psychological problems.
So many families in today's societies are considered by the rest of us as "dysfunctional" and thus cause several problems among the children. If this is so, how can one argue that peers have more influence over a child's later development then parents?
Judith Harris responds:
The fact that "dysfunctional" families tend to produce problem kids is usually taken to mean that the home environment has harmed these kids. But evidence from adoption studies and from studies of twins raised together or apart suggests a different explanation: that these children have inherited some of their parents' dysfunctional personality characteristics. (Of course, not all the children of dysfunctional parents turn out to have problems, but neither do all the children of short parents turn out short.) There is a lot of evidence -- I discuss it in my book -- that suggests that parents do not have important long-term effects on their child's personality or mental health. Yet it is also clear that the genes cannot explain everything. So I looked for another way that the environment can shape a child's development. My theory -- the theory of group socialization -- is an attempt to fit together the findings from several different fields, including sociology and anthropology. The theory says: it's not what children learn at home that they bring with them to adulthood, it's what they learn outside the home. When they're outside the home, children try to behave in a way that is acceptable to their peers.
What is the next step? What research and "discoveries" do you think may follow your book?
Judith Harris responds:
For about fifty years, psychologists have focused most of their attention on the home. Now I come along and tell them: Hey, you've been wasting your time! As you can imagine, this is not a message they are happy to receive. I'd like psychologists and psychiatrists to recognize that children also have lives outside the home, and that what happens out there is extremely important to them. Let me give you an example. A mother wrote to me recently, thanking me for writing The Nurture Assumption and telling me about her son. He was born with a minor physical defect that the other kids noticed and teased him about. He was picked on and excluded, and he was bitterly unhappy at school. As an adolescent this boy became clinically depressed and suicidal. For several years he was under the care of psychiatrists. But the psychiatrists only wanted to talk about his relationship with his parents, and he felt that his relationship with his parents was fine. When the boy tried to tell his doctors about his problems with his peers, they weren't interested. They thought he was changing the subject. I think there is a lot we could do to improve children's lives outside the home. But first we have to do the research. In Appendix 2 of my book I make some suggestions about the kind of research I hope will be carried out in the future.
For almost all of human evolution children spent their day with their parents and the extended family. How would it affect your conclusions if our modern society returned to that paradigm?
Judith Harris responds:
Actually, that's a misconception -- a product of what I call "the nurture assumption." People think it's natural for children to spend most of their time with their parents or other adults. But in my book I describe the way children are reared in hunter-gatherer, tribal, and small village societies, and you might find it surprising. It's not true that children in these societies spend most of their time with their parents. It's true only of babies. In these societies, babies are carried around all the time and nursed whenever they whimper, but once the child is weaned and the next baby comes along, it's goodbye paradise. Typically, the 3-year-old in these societies is turned over to the care of an older sibling and she schleps him along when she goes out to play. He spends his days in a play group with other children -- his siblings, cousins, and younger aunts and uncles. It is in the play group that he learns to talk, because he didn't learn much during his tenure in his mother's arms. The mothers in most of these societies think it is pointless to talk to a baby, since he can't understand you anyway. When Dr. Greenspan said that children learn about language from their parents, he was probably thinking of the way American and European children are reared. In tribal societies, even after they learn to talk, children do very little conversing with their parents: most of their conversations are with other children. How would it affect my conclusions if our society returned to the traditional paradigm? Not at all. Parenting styles differ tremendously from one time or place to another -- children are treated harshly in some cultures, indulged in others. But the children's play group is basically the same the world around.
If peers may exert more influence than parents, is it a parent's main responsibility to assure that the peers who are part of the child's daily life are carefully chosen?
Judith Harris responds:
I think the parents' main responsibility is to provide the child with a happy home life. As for "choosing" the child's peers, there is a limit to how much a parent can do. All parents want to rear their children in a peaceful neighborhood and to send their children to a good school -- this is something parents have always believed was important. I agree: it is important. But once you've selected the neighborhood and the school, there isn't much more you can do. You can't determine which kids in the school or the neighborhood your child will choose to associate with.
We are the adoptive parents of three girls, ages 16, 14, and 12. We have been their parents for 6 years. Their biological home was very poor: lived in filthy trailer parks, had chronic lice, alcoholic parents, etc. Our home has been the opposite: clean, middle-class, church-going, no drinking, etc. Yet we notice that our children tend to choose as their friends other children that are in a similiar social class as they knew growing up. Why is this? These friends (peers) are not what we would choose as their friends. Our children realize they are living in a better environment now than when growing up, so why do they gravitate back?
Judith Harris responds:
Because children choose friends whom they perceive as being like themselves. The similarities can be of any sort: physical appearance (which is why children tend to choose friends of the same race), language or accent, social class, academic aptitude, an interest in a particular sport or activity. Once they've formed a group, any similarities among them tend to be perpetuated. Your daughters didn't model their behavior after you, because you're grownups and they're kids, and kids aren't supposed to behave like grownups. (If they did behave like grownups, they would be considered silly or impertinent.) Their models were their sisters and their friends at school -- the ones they identified with, the ones they thought were similar to themselves. Please don't think you've failed. You've done something wonderful: you've provided those girls with a safe, caring, stable home. You've given them a far better childhood than they would have had without you, and I'm sure their adulthood will also be better than it would have been if you hadn't come into their lives. If you were unable to mold them into the kind of people you hoped they'd turn into, that's something you'll have to accept. Perhaps you set your goals too high; perhaps your expectations were unrealistic. But that's probably true of all parents.
Ron Thomas from New York, NY writes:
I haven't done any studies -- I can only speak from my own experience. My parents never did much socializing. My family life and school life were quite separate. I had friends and peers at school, but I always viewed my parents as the most sensible people I knew. Sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously I emulated them. I'm definitely my parents' son. And, as the cliche goes, I'm becoming my father. Certainly, none of my peers were quite like him. And, whether my pers like it or not, I've never known anyone quite like me -- except my father.
Miller Bozeman from Houston, TX writes:
Ms. Harris' views are a welcome relief from the usual interpretations
of child development that filter down to parents. Her words connect
with my practical experiences of raising three children. I think the
degree of peer influence that a child experiences varies from child
to child and parents can greatly influence this to the extent that they
get effectively involved. The problem that many parents face is that
they don't realize how strong peer influence and institutional influences
can be until it is often a serious situation. Ms. Harris' work may hopefully
lead to more alertness on the part of parents regarding with whom their
children are spending a lot of time. Our institutions, especially schools,
tend to hinder parents in monitoring this aspect of their children's
Audrey Cermak from Nashville, TN says:
As a parent in a religious minority community, what Mrs. Harris is stating not only makes sense, but can be observed on a daily basis. I have seen parents who strictly control their children's lives at home, but if they are exposed to children outside of our community they become "Americanized". On the other hand, children who had a normal American childhood with no restrictions imposed by their parents, but who were returned to their parents' native country before age 14 show almost no effect of their American upbringing and assimilate their parents' values. Good luck to you, Mrs. Harris!
Cris Cote from Duxbury, VT writes:
Isn't "The Nurture Assumption" another prime example of the baby boomer slogan, "It's not my fault?" I believe that Newsweek magazine mentioned this idea in its review of the book and it certainly sounds accurate to me. Why did this theory have to wait until the baby boomers were wringing their hands about their children? Your view that parental influence on children's behavior is very recent development also sounds false to me. Doesn't "Spare the rod and spoil the child" sound like a clear statement that parents' are responsible? In retrospect, I see many ways in which I would have to say that my parents influenced me other than genes. In summation, I think that "The Nuture Assumption" is very likely another fine example of a piece of a puzzle being heralded as the full picture.
Jan Z from Branchville writes:
From my own experience, my parents had the total effect of my personality and how I responded to all situations until I moved out of the home at 19. Not until I was on my own, did I realize that the strength/kindness of my Mother guided me to where I am today. Those two qualities followed my way of personhood.