All In The Family

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It's been a staple of parenting wisdom for years: What you do and say can have a profound influence on your children, particularly in the early years. But a new book is challenging this orthodoxy, saying kids are shaped by peers more than parents, and educators and child-development experts aren't happy about it.

Harris, who lives in Middletown, New Jersey, did her doctoral work in psychology at Harvard University in the early 1960s and wrote several psychology texts. In her new book, she reviews studies on child and adolescent behavior, but she also bases some of her conclusions on her own family's experiences. Both her children grew up in the same environment, but her biological daughter was a happy, well-behaved child who did well in school, Harris writes, while her adopted daughter was difficult to raise and eventually dropped out of high school.

The book, published in August by Free Press, has received considerable attention in national magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and the New Yorker. This coverage has created a stir among parents, and Harris' views have become the topic of conversation at day-care centers and schools across the country. "Parents are definitely chatting about it," says Cathy Wagener, director of the Crestwood Hills Cooperative Nursery School in Los Angeles. And some of the comments Wagener has heard trouble her. "They're saying, 'Finally we're being let off the hook,' " she says.

Harris' message runs counter to decades of child-development research and recent findings that early-childhood experts have tried to convey to parents, namely that the parental role is crucial to a child's emotional and intellectual development. Just last year, some of the same magazines that have featured Harris' book published special features about brain development and how important it is for children to have secure attachments to parents. In response to such research, states have launched a variety of early childhood programs, many of which include parent education.

But that's the very reason that Harris' book is so important, says John Bruer, president of the St. Louis-based James S. McDonnell Foundation, which funds research in cognitive science. Bruer, who has been critical of the links that many have made between neuroscience and early education, says The Nurture Assumption might help shatter what he sees as "the myth" that the earliest years--the period from birth to age 3--are the most critical in a person's development. He welcomes Harris' focus on how genetics determines behavior and how peers influence children later in life.

Bruer hopes the book relieves parents of some unnecessary stress. "Parenting need not be as difficult and as excruciating as experts say it is," he says.

But other education experts aren't putting much stock in Harris' contentions and are puzzled that the book has received so much media attention. "It must have been a slow news day out there," says Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. An expert on parent involvement, Epstein says she agrees that the influence of peers increases as children grow older. But that doesn't mean that parental influence decreases. According to Epstein, numerous studies--including the U.S. Department of Education's National Education Longitudinal Study, which began following some 25,000 8th graders in 1988--have shown that adolescents are very aware of their parents' influence as well as their efforts to supervise them.

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

Bruer agrees that schools should not back off from their efforts to involve parents, but he adds that Harris' theory presents schools with other challenges. Because most peer interaction occurs in schools, educators should pay more at- tention to school and classroom environments.

But it's peer groups outside of school that can be more destructive than constructive, says Michael Levine, a program officer at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which supports education initiatives nationwide. Harris, Levine says, presents a too-simple explanation of child development when it's actually a "complex web" of relationships that affects children.

Members of the psychology field have also criticized Harris' theories. Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University in Philadelphia, says her ideas are not new; moreover, they're overstated and wrong. "The truth of the matter is that kids are influenced by a lot of things," Steinberg says.

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

Barbara Willer, a spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association for the Education of Young Children, agrees. She says that the question of whether peers or parents have more influence "depends on whether you're talking about piercing your bellybutton or going off to college."

--Linda Jacobson

Vol. 10, Issue 3, Page 19

Published in Print: November 1, 1998, as All In The Family
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