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Lessons Learned, Lessons Missed

Why Parents Matter

September, 1998

            Given a choice between a child psychologist and a grandmother for parenting advice, the smart money is generally on Grandma.  Judith Rich Harris, however, proves that even the smart money loses sometimes.

            In her book “The Nurture Assumption,” the New Jersey grandmother contends that the long-term effect of parental guidance is “zero.”  Harris believes that the only significant contribution a parent makes is their genes.  Peers, she writes, do the job of socialization.  Nothing a parent can do, besides finding a neighborhood with better peers, has much effect one way or another.

            Harris’ ideas came of personal experience.  Her birth daughter Nomi and adopted daughter Elaine were raised, she says, in a loving environment “filled to overflowing with books and magazines, where classical music was played, where jokes were told.”   Both were challenged with lessons and activities, and were raised with love, structure, and values.

            But while Nomi flourished, Elaine rebelled.  She fell in with the proverbial bad crowd, became increasingly defiant, and eventually dropped out of school.  Harris believes that the love and nurturing she and her husband poured on Elaine amounted to squat.  Peers and genes, she maintains, were the only influences that mattered. 

            Like Harris, I too have an adopted child and a “biological child,” as the politically correct terminology goes – though I resist the notion that either are biologically anything but children.  I was also raised with a sister whom I am proud to acknowledge as my biological sibling, though I would have argued the point in our youth.

            What I’ve observed from these experiences is that children raised in similar environments can be very different, with or without the same birth parents.  Some nuts are simply tougher to crack, and I don’t doubt the role of genetics.  But I’ve also come to believe that persistence is a parent’s greatest weapon, that many a child who goes astray in their youth comes back to the teaching of their home as an adult. 

This is hardly original thinking on my part: no less than King Solomon advised “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”

Despite its absolutist stance and slashing criticism from most professional circles, the book has attracted enormous attention, including a cover story in Newsweek.  Harris has no advanced degrees, but is something of a psychologist wannabe: Newsweek reports that she was dismissed from Harvard’s graduate psychology program in 1961 for showing “no ability to do important original research.”  This has not prevented her from publishing several articles and books over the years, none of which have made much of a splash until now.

Harris first floated her premise in 1995 to the collective yawn of the public and the derision of most researchers.  That a book by one so lightly qualified, with a premise so broadly refuted, has now achieved this much notice is likely of greater importance than Harris’ theories themselves.

            With the shaky stature of personal responsibility in 1998 America, it just may be that we find her proposition liberating.  Have a tough kid?  Quit knocking yourself out over the quaint idea that you can do anything about it.  It’s not your fault.

            Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything in the long run.  The daughter who gave Harris fits as a child is now a nurse, married, a mother, and enjoys a close relationship with her parents.  The damaging influence of peers has long since faded, while the lasting gifts of a loving home remain.  The parental perseverance that Ms. Harris denounces so roundly has paid off.

In the end, the main thing Harris proves in “The Nurture Assumption” is that her professors at Harvard were right.  After failing to learn the lessons of her own experience, it’s hard to see what she has to peddle to the rest of us.  Whatever it is, let’s hope there are few takers.






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© 2002 Brent Morrison