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, Free Press, $26.00, 1998, 480 pp.


Reviewed by John A. Speyrer


"As for what's wrong with you:
don't blame it on your parents."

-- The Author

In the French speaking area of Louisiana, where I spent my childhood, there were at least two different types of French spoken: the regular Cajun patois and the melodic Creole French dialect spoken primarily by the blacks. One expression used by the black creoles was, Dis-moin qui to laim, m'a dit toi qui to yť.

Not considering the implication of the truths inherent in that expression is the major error which the author of The Nurture Assumption has made. The truth expressed in that bit of folklore is a truism, being, Tell me what you like, and I'll tell you what you are. The operation of another bit of folk wisdom explains why the author has overemphasized the influence of a child's peers. Harris has not considered that "birds of a feather flock together."

It is natural for children to seek as companions those who are of like-minded spirit. It is more usual for children to who want to be with members of their peer group who have similar interests and background. Abused children will seek to be their peers others who were also abused. Here's what Dr. Arthur Janov writes about this tendency, "It's not because our son Joe hangs out with the wrong people that he's begun to take heroin. On the contrary, he hangs out with those in his same predicament." (The Biology of Love, p. 148)

Harris adamantly insists that it is not ". . . the way their parents bring them up" that makes their children differ from others. And she does not quote quaint folk sayings, but instead, relies on many hundreds of scientific papers to back up her position of the power of children's peers to influence their behavior.

Some who have studied The Nurture Assumption have decided that the author takes an extreme position based on a limited set of data. Others have said that the implications of the author's thesis could increase the incidence of child abuse. Yet some who disagree with her conclusions have praised her demolishing of established yet poor studies on the influence of parents on their children.

Harris seems certain that parents are helpless in influencing their children after contributing their genes. There is really nothing the helpless parents can do to influence the kid's behavior. Encouragement won't work; nor will hugs or slaps. She writes that learned behavior is from the peer group: "Children bring their outside-the-home behaviors home; they do not ordinarily bring their home behaviors out with them."

The author had two daughters, one a birth daughter and the other an adoptee. The surroundings were identical, the author writes, and she treated them alike, yet the adopted daughter was defiant and troublesome. This made the author, a writer of psychology textbooks, wonder why there was a difference? All the author would have had to have done is read Nancy Verrier's The Primal Wound which well explains this anomaly.

[Verrier explained that the newly adopted baby often goes through a period of grief or mourning because of the lost relationship with its biological mother. After grieving, the baby becomes numb and seemingly rejects its new adoptive parents. The baby has difficulty in bonding with the new parents since it feels it must protect itself against the pain of rejection by rejecting the new parents before it be rejected for the second time! This is the source of many behavorial patterns, such as, fear of intimacy, defiance, etc., which are manifested by the adopted child. This would presuppose that the fetus inutero is a sentient being. Many regressive therapists believe that this is so, among of them, Alice Rose, Ph.D., Ludwig Janus, M.D., William R. Emerson, Ph.D., and Thomas Verny, M.D.]

Harris published a paper in Psychological Review explaining her views. This was an accomplishment for an author without the usual experience and doctorate academic credentials. The article was the forerunner of The Nurture Assumption. The academic world has taken sides, with some praising Harris' book while other lambasting it.

Steven Pinker, a professor of Psychology at M.I.T. writes in the book's Preface: "Being among the first to read this electrifying book has been one of the high points of my career as a psychologist. One seldom sees a work that is at once scholarly, revolutionary, insightful, and wonderfully clear and witty. . . . I predict it will come to be seen as a turning point in the history of psychology."

The thesis of Harris is that differences are explained either by heredity or by the "(e)xperiences in childhood and adolescent peer groups. . . (which). . . modify children's personalities in ways they will carry with them to adulthood. You could even substitute parents for other parents and the results would be the same. So, then, what do children get from parents? With the exception of genetic influences, the author says, not much. Things that were learned at home are brought to their peer group. "This makes it look" she writes, "as through the parents are the conveyers of the culture, but they are not; the peer group is."

The author writes that birth order does not explain differences. It is known, she writes, that parents treat the first born differently from later borns, but that it really doesn't make any difference. You can expect the same results. Being an only child doesn't make any difference either, as there is no meaningful difference between only children and those with siblings. She has a very broad definition of "good enough" parenting and it even seems to include "bad" parenting! But, if a child is beaten every day and suffers from gross abuse, then it will make a difference, she writes. The kids in such a "terrible" environment will be hurt. At last, a concession.

But with more normal "bad" parenting or "excellent" parenting, well then, it's all the same according to Harris! She must believe that children have a normal resistance to abuse! Perhaps she defines abuse differently from others. And identical twins reared apart are not that different either, she writes. Harris does concede other points to the opposition, such as the benefits of living in a good neighborhood. But even then, she holds that it is the parent's choice of neighborhood or ability to afford a good neighborhood which makes the difference - not the parents themselves.

I could not find any references to the effects of trauma in her book. She seems to have left out the most critical factor which psychologists and psychiatrists feel produces maladjusted and unhappy children: the absence of parental love.

Furthermore, Harris has no inkling that the time spent in the womb and during and right after birth and early in the nursery are where personality is determined. This is where many maladaptive behaviors are formed and psychiatric conditions begin to germinate.

By the time a child has relationships with peer groups the die had long before been cast and efforts to influence behavior will usually be fruitless. Exceptions to this general rule can occur under certain conditions but does not change the underlying repressed pain of traumas which occured much, much earlier in the person's life.

Harris' book leads the reader back to the time when it was believed by practically everyone that heredity was of primary importance. Will this book become a "paradigm shifter" as predicted by Professor David T. Lykken of the University of Minnesota or the last gasp of a dying model touting the harmlessness of being an unloving parent to a young infant and child? Time will tell.


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