Why Parents Still Matter

The Nurture Assumption, which was born to a glowing profile in The New Yorker and a Newsweek cover story, is commonly referred to as the Parents-Don’t-Matter book. Bluntly, it is Harris’s thesis that the only lasting influences on one’s personality are genes and peers–the peer groups of childhood and adolescence. Our common belief that what parents say and do to children will have a crucial effect on their lives is simply a mass delusion, nothing more than “a cherished cultural myth.”

Harris has an interesting history. Thrown out of Harvard’s graduate program in psychology as a non-conformist, and bedridden for much of her adulthood by an autoimmune disease, she became a writer of college psychology textbooks–work she could do from home. That work enrolled her in a running seminar on the latest research in developmental psychology, while her isolation encouraged her to see all that work with an outsider’s skepticism. Now a 60-year-old grandmother, she had a Road-to-Damascus experience one day (“It was January 20, 1994”) while reading a study of why adolescents so often break the law. It was, the researcher suggested, a bid for “mature status, with its consequent power and privilege.”

Wait, thought Harris; that can’t be right. Teenagers aren’t trying to be good grown-ups (“If teenagers wanted to be like adults they wouldn’t be shoplifting nailpolish from drug-stores or hanging off overpasses to spray I LOVE YOU LISA on the arch. They would be doing boring adult things like sorting the laundry and figuring out their income taxes”); no, they’re trying to be successful teenagers.

In this beginning, Harris found the germ of a theory that enabled her to explain away all the anomalies that had troubled her in the literature on parenting styles and child development: essentially, the fact that all the developmental psychology research in the world had failed to nail down any significant, predictable correlations between how parents treat their kids and how those kids turn out–any that could not instead be laid at the door of their genetic link, that is.

Harris believes, in keeping with the research of behavioral geneticists, that about 50 percent of any person’s fate is written by his or her genetic endowments. (And the way she lays out and explains this research is among the best services of her book.) But the other 50 percent, she now claims, is purely a function of the child’s education at the hands of peers. “The world that children share with their peers is what shapes their behavior and modifies the characteristics they were born with, and hence determines the sort of people they will be when they grow up.”

In other words, Harris writes, the Battle of Waterloo really was won on the playing fields of Eton: the one place the boys of England’s upper classes socialized only with their peers.

This is a fascinating, wildly entertaining, and in many ways persuasive book. Harris is a wonderful writer, who doesn’t stop at drawing research from fields as varied as behavioral psychology, ethnology, evolution and sociology; she also draws cultural allusion from sources as disparate as “Little House on the Prairie,” Darwin, and Dave Barry. She leads the reader with a sort of motherly asperity, and lards her theories with nice, dry observations. In writing, for example, about the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, she notes that this great preacher of the inherent goodness of the newborn “had no children of his own–that is, he reared none of his own. The babies born to his long-time mistress were deposited one by one, with his full knowledge, at the door of a foundling home. They may have been born good but they were not born lucky.”

But an author this clever is certainly canny enough to overstate her case for dramatic effect, and this is what I believe Harris has done. There is a great deal of value in her book (some of the most valuable material, in fact, has been the least noticed in much coverage of Harris’s work). You can’t help feeling the justice of her observation that parents of my generation have come to see childhood as the story of parenthood–a drama about us, and our nifty insights into what our children want and need. Harris’s contempt for modern parents’ conviction that our readings of “Good Night Moon” are all-important is, for the most part, a healthy corrective. And she has a true compassion for the parents on the opposite side of that coin: the parents of difficult children, men and woman who have done the world’s hardest job and been blamed for bad results that really aren’t any fault of theirs.

In support of her thesis, she does an impressive job of knocking down the studies that have simply assumed that home life is the primary, and formative, element in the child’s environment. Once she has led you through the available research, you’ll believe that divorce doesn’t cause children lasting harm–at least, not once you’ve taken into account the important ways that divorce affects children’s peer relationships, by impoverishing parents and often forcing them to move. You’ll grant a far greater latitude to the influence of genes on personality. You may have learned some respect for the inherent toughness and creativity of children amid their peers–not to mention some humility about your powers (and your gifts) as a parent. And you might even have come to believe that child-rearing, like real estate, is about one important thing: location, location, location. For the one key way in which Harris thinks parents can affect their children’s lives is by choosing neighborhoods and schools in which their peers are more likely to value books, learning, and society’s good opinion.

The first concerns the slippery subject of genes. In pointing up the huge extent to which genes determine personality, she also writes off as unaffected by parental behavior a large number of indirect genetic effects. It’s true, she grants, that nice, socially competent, peaceable parents tend to treat their children well and to produce nice, socially competent, peaceable children. But to a large extent, that may be because nice, etc. parents tend to have children who are nice, etc. to begin with, by virtue of their genes. So far so good. However, she goes too far in her next step: If there are some correlations between the way nice people treat their children and the way those children turn out, she says, it may also be because likable (nice, socially competent, peaceable) children have the “child-to-parent” effect of being easy to love. In other words, their parents will have “good” child-rearing styles because their children aren’t terribly challenging to raise. This is undoubtedly true. But Harris scores this, too, as a genetic effect–albeit an indirect one–and therefore discards the entire family as having nothing to tell us about the effects of family environment on children.

But in doing this, she’s throwing out a huge part of the relevant sample. Just because science can’t tease apart the difference between nature and nurture in such cases doesn’t mean that they’re not both in there; it only means that science, in its current state, can’t tell us everything we need to know.

Which is also the lesson of her rhetorical over-reach. What she really succeeds in showing is, as she writes at one point, that “parents have no predictable effects on their children.” Regard the loophole closely: it suggests that parents may have unpredictable effects on their children. In an example she gives, it is possible that if two siblings have dour, undemonstrative parents, one could imagine them reacting in opposite ways: one might become dour and undemonstrative, and the other might become lively and effervescent in compensation for her gloomy home. Harris is so gleeful at having proven that the scientists can’t predict which way a child will go that she glides right past what she’s just conceded: that whichever way the children react, the parents have had an effect.

When Harris speaks of children who become “competent” and “successful” adults, one has to credit her conclusion that there is no correlation between the subject’s competence and success–none, anyway, that can’t be attributed to genes–and the way their parents raised them. But I know competent and successful adults–people who function, people who excel, even people who are nice–whose lives I wouldn’t wish on a dog because of the way they are trammeled by old griefs and unseen legacies; in short, by neurosis. Don’t we all?

This is where Harris’s book is least satisfactory. You only think that your mother’s emotional parsimony made you needy, You only believe that trying to measure up to the exacting standards of your distant father made you anxious and ambitious. We only assume that Bill Clinton has made a mess of his presidency for reasons that reach back, in part, to his father’s death and his mother’s ways of coping and his stepfather’s alcoholism. Harris seems never to consider the possibility that much of the marginal but rich human drama that occupies a huge portion of our emotional and intellectual energy might simply elude the tools with which scientists regard human life. I found suspect her very curt explanation of why we come out of childhood believing in the weight of our parents’ influence: The part of the brain that processes relationships, she asserts, is accessible to our conscious mind, while the part that is socialized by peers works largely by unconscious means. Really? Who says so?

Finally, Harris fails to notice an important contradiction in her own work. Parents can’t make their children love books by reading aloud to them every night; they can only throw them in the way of peer groups in which reading is valued, or at least not derided. But where do you find such peer groups? Why, in communities of other like-minded parents who read aloud to their children every night. Harris grants that children’s cultures will adapt a good deal from their parents’ cultures, absent some compelling kid-reason not to, but she won’t admit that those parental cultures can be reduced, at some point, to lots of individual parents making those supposedly-useless individual choices in their homes.

That said, Harris offers a wealth of information about peers’ influence on children that should be read by every parent–and perhaps by every policymaker. The crux of her argument about how peers’ behavior shapes a child relies on the evolution of group behavior: primates, she writes, have for millennia built social groups which define themselves in opposition to other groups. Group A shares certain characteristics, group B another set; and in order to understand themselves and create group loyalty, the two groups then exaggerate the characteristics that first defined them.

Harris believes that this explains everything from the way little boys and gifts choose their toys to the reasons academic achievement is seen as “acting white” by African Americans in many city schools. (If this point seems obvious, I am doing violence to the breadth of Harris’s review of these theories, including her wonderful summary of the experiments sociologists have done showing how easily student-subjects can be induced, by the power of suggestion, to identify with a wholly invented group.) If gifts do less well at math, it is not because boys shout them down and sexist teachers don’t call on them; it is because “group contrast effects” have worked away, since pre-school, on their self-concepts.

If Harris is right about all this, her work challenges some important orthodoxies in education. The liberal emphasis in today’s schools on diversity, for example, may underscore rather than combat children’s sense of belonging to their own ethnic “group.” And the more homogeneous the classroom, Harris writes, the less likely children are to splinter into groups that assign the characteristic of academic achievement to only one or two of the groups; if true, this would suggest that racial integration in the class-room is an even more impossible dream than we already knew. Curiously, not much research has been done into such questions as how these classroom splits can be prevented, and whether the norms of children’s groups can be deliberately influenced from the outside.

No one reading the passion with which Harris tackles these issues could come away from her book with the message that has, unfairly, been attributed to her–that it doesn’t matter how you treat your children. Of course it does, Harris writes, for the same reason it matters how you treat your spouse: because they are human, and because the way you behave certainly will affect your relationships with those people. The paragraph with which I opened this review was, in fact, mostly facetious. Go to your child in the middle of the night, Harris would say, and comfort her; not because it will make her emotionally secure 20 years from now, or because she is forming a template for every relationship she will ever have, but because she is frightened and she is small, and it is in your power to make her feel better.

And when you really think about it, this is a more humane reason to treat your child well than the grandiose assumption that your every action will have some power over her future. The “nurture assumption” that Harris attacks is almost by definition a narcissistic one–even if it’s narcissism with a bit of masochism thrown in. In closing, Harris writes that “The nurture assumption has turned children into objects of anxiety … Not only have [parents] become servants to their children: They have been declared unsatisfactory servants, because the standards set by the promulgators of the nurture assumption are so high that no one can meet them.” So take Harris’s book as an eye-opening chance to deepen your appreciation of your children’s complexity–and to leaven, a little bit, your load. Mix it with the evidence of your senses. And as my mother used to say, while wending her trackless way through my childhood: eat what you like and leave the rest.