Child Experts Doubt Theory Behind Book Questioning Parents' Influence

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Educators and child-development experts have worked hard to convince parents that what they do and say, particularly during a child's early years, can have a profound influence on the rest of that child's life.

That's why many of them are unhappy about a new book and its much-talked-about theory asserting that a child's personality is shaped more by peers than by parents.

In The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do; Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More, author Judith Rich Harris asserts that parents really have very little influence on their sons and daughters.

And if children happen to pick up the traits of their parents, it's because of genetics, she contends, not because of anything the parents did.

The Middletown, N.J.-based author did doctoral work in psychology at Harvard University in the early 1960s and has written psychology textbooks. In The Nurture Assumption, she reviews a variety of studies on child and adolescent behavior, but she also bases some of her conclusions on her own family's experiences. While both of her children grew up in the same environment, her biological daughter was a happy, well-behaved child who succeeded in school, Ms. Harris writes, while her adopted daughter was very difficult to raise and eventually dropped out of high school.

The book has received considerable attention in national magazines, making the covers of both Time and Newsweek earlier this month.

Such coverage has created a stir among parents, and Ms. Harris' views have become the topic of conversation at day-care centers and schools across the country.

"Parents are definitely chatting about it," said Cathy Wagener, the director of the Crestwood Hills Cooperative Nursery School, a Los Angeles preschool that also offers a parent-toddler program.

Some of the comments Ms. Wagener has heard from parents deeply concern her. "They're saying, 'Finally we're being let off the hook,'" she said.

A Birth-to-3 Myth?

Ms. Harris' message runs counter to decades of child-development research--and more recent findings that early-childhood experts have strived to communicate to parents.

How parents interact with their children, especially during the first three years of life, was one of the main topics of a White House conference last year on brain development.

Child-care and early-childhood experts also have tried to grab parents' attention through "I Am Your Child," a massive public-engagement campaign involving actor and director Rob Reiner, as well as a long list of nonprofit organizations, foundations, and corporations. ("Awareness Campaign Puts Spotlight on Importance of Ages 0-3," April 23, 1997.)

And it was just last year that some of the same magazines that have featured Ms. Harris' book published special features about how a child's brain develops and the importance of secure attachments to parents.

States in recent years have responded to such child-development research with a variety of new early-childhood programs, many of which include parent education.

But that's the very reason that Ms. Harris' book is timely and important, said John T. Bruer, the president of the St. Louis-based James S. McDonnell Foundation, which funds research in cognitive science.

Mr. Bruer, who has been critical of the links that many have made between neuroscience and early education, said The Nurture Assumption, published last month by Free Press, might help shatter what he sees as the "myth of birth to 3"--the widely held view that the earliest years are the most critical in a person's development. He welcomed Ms. Harris' focus, instead, on how behavior is determined by genetics and how children are influenced later in life by their peers.

The book might also serve a purpose by relieving parents of some unnecessary stress, Mr. Bruer said. "Parenting need not be as difficult and as excruciating as experts say it is."

And he disputed the suggestion that Ms. Harris' views could lead to an increase in child abuse and neglect, as some critics have charged.

School Settings

But many education experts--especially those who value and research parents' role in their children's schooling--aren't putting much stock in Ms. Harris' contentions and are puzzled that the book has received so much media attention.

"It must have been a slow news day out there," said Joyce Epstein, the director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

An expert on parent involvement, Ms. Epstein said she agrees that the influence of peers increases as children grow older. But that doesn't mean that parental influence decreases, she said.

Numerous studies, such as the U.S. Department of Education's National Education Longitudinal Study, which surveyed 25,000 8th graders in more than 1,000 schools in 1988 and has included follow-up studies, have shown that adolescents are very aware of their parents' influence as well as their efforts to supervise them, Ms. Epstein said.

While parent participation drops off at each school transition point, it is the schools' responsibility, Ms. Epstein said, to keep sharing information with parents as children progress through the grades.

Mr. Bruer agreed that schools should not back off from their efforts to involve parents, but he added that Ms. Harris' theory presents schools with other challenges.

Because most peer interaction occurs in schools, educators should pay more attention to school and classroom environments, he said.

Parents, he added, probably should respond to The Nurture Assumption by exerting more influence over their children's peer groups.

It's outside of school, though, where peer groups can be more destructive than constructive, said Michael Levine, a program officer at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which supports early-childhood and education initiatives throughout the country.

Ms. Harris, he said, is trying to present a simple explanation of child development when, in reality, there is a "complex web" of relationships affecting children.

Members of the psychology field are also disagreeing with Ms. Harris' theory. Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, said her work is not new, it's overstated, and it's wrong.

"The truth of the matter is that kids are influenced by a lot of things," he said.

In fact, he and some of his colleagues are considering writing a response to the book that would be directed to other psychologists.

Tim Urdan, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University in California, who has also studied adolescent peer groups, said that while peers influence "fashionable tastes," such as clothing and music, parents have a greater impact on shaping children's values.

And both professors agree that children pick peers who have similar values.

Barbara Willer, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children, said she believes there is a need for balance on the issue.

Whether peers or parents have more influence "depends on whether you're talking about piercing your belly button or going off to college," she said.

In the early-childhood field, she said, "we talk a lot about how it's not 'either-or,' it's 'both-and.' What a perfect example of how it's both-and."

Vol. 18, Issue 4, Pages 1, 11

Published in Print: September 30, 1998, as Child Experts Doubt Theory Behind Book Questioning Parents' Influence
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