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
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.