The Nurture Assumption

“The Nurture Assumption,” By Judith Rich Harris.

THE NURTURE ASSUMPTION: Why children turn out the way they do; parents matter less than you think and peers matter more, by Judith Rich Harris, Foreword by Steven Pinker.

This book appears to be very carefully put together. It’s not your usual genes vs. environment infotainment. The author, and the author of her foreword, seriously overplay the outsider autodidactic myth. Harris studied at a top graduate school, has co-written textbooks on psychology, thanks numerous colleagues in her Acknowledgments, and seems to know her material extremely well.

The book is persuasive, important, and entertaining. I come away convinced of the importance of genes and of peer groups in shaping a person, but also certain that Harris sometimes overstates her case against the environmental importance of parents.

The importance of Harris’ evidence for peer group influence can be seen in the example she gives of a classroom in which the teacher (who thus has some influence of her own) gets the students to unite and identify as a single group self-characterized by strong academic performance. These kids, unlike most kids given a Head Start, maintained that performance into adulthood.

If dividing a class into good and poor readers causes the first group to improve and the latter to get worse, because the poor readers decide to look down on reading skills, then one can only wonder how much longer we will go on putting misbehaving kids together with others like them, watching them get even worse, and calling this destruction a “correctional institution.”

I’d like to see every educator in the country read this book, but read it carefully. Harris admits that parents have environmental effects, but either characterizes these as inessential or complains that they are unpredictable. On p. 329 Harris says that parents may affect a person’s choice of profession or leisure activities, but on p. 330 denies that they can have any impact on “what sort of person” a child becomes. On p. 341 Harris makes the same point using the analogy of marriage:

“Marriage can change your opinions and influence your choice of a career or a religion. But it doesn’t change your personality, except in temporary, context-dependent ways.”

What REALLY MATTERS, I’m guessing, is the sort of stuff asked about on personality inventories. But does Harris believe that whether you are bold, shy, loving, trustful, humorous, or depressed is unconnected with such mere contexts as marriage, religion, career, and leisure activities – not to mention everything typically done with families rather than peers? What interest should I take in a personality that exists somewhere outside such realms?

Well, I’m not being entirely fair. Harris’ point that children may behave one way at home and another way with their friends is a good one. And she herself points out that personality tests vary with context. But, then, why dismiss personality changes as “temporary, context-dependent”? Aren’t all aspects of all personalities temporary and context-dependent?

I cannot change my opinions without changing my personality, and I doubt that anyone can. I resist playing different roles in different contexts (but recognize that this is problematic). I’ve changed on my own and by reading books since I passed the age at which Harris thinks people are fixed for life. And I’ve been changed by marriage.

When Harris is not dismissing parental influence as inessential, she is complaining that it is not predictable. The same parenting can have different effects on different kids. Well, yes. Parenting is an art, not a science. Nowhere in her book does Harris mention the fact that lasting effects of peer influences are also unpredictable.

Although Harris wants to maintain that certain aspects of a person are fixed by age 20 or 25, she also acknowledges that people change in significant ways after that time, not to mention before it. Yes, parents only affect how kids behave with parents, but peers affect how kids behave with peers. This can as easily be stated: Peers only affect how kids behave with that group of peers, but parents affect how they behave with their parents. Harris has added an insight, but is intent on making it into a conflict and a fight to the death.

I’m quibbling, as is my wont. But I recognize my own life and those of others in Harris’ descriptions of peer groups. I have never accepted my own parents’ view that their every move shaped my character. I’ve always attributed more influence to genes and peers, just never quite to the complete exclusion of parenting.

Parenting is, of course, important during the first couple of years, and in the ways that Harris acknowledges toward the end of her book. It also may have some effects that are slow to appear. When kids stop trying to be unlike adults (as Harris characterizes teenagerhood) they are likely to remember and observe anew how their parents behave.

When I have kids I intend to recognize the genetic presence of human beings, not blank slates. I intend to take into consideration the importance of peers and groups. I intend not to worry too much about molding my kids, since I probably won’t mold them much but may insult them by suggesting that I can. And I plan to make their childhoods as happy as possible and to do what I can to influence them in ways I see as beneficial and likely to be successful, based, if not on any studies, on my best guess given the details involved and the extreme incapacity of social science to analyze them all.

Indirect genetic effects (such as the love given to an especially attractive kid) are environmental, and everything environmental is filtered through genes. Only in large studies can genes and environment be separated, not in individuals.

Family environment is part of peer groups, and vice versa. Young children may allow more of their family lives to enter their peer activities. Teenagers may be teenagers because they have given more importance to their peer groups and allowed more of that world to enter their homes.

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