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The Nurture Assumption

by Judith Rich Harris


Have you heard about the book that claims parents do not matter? The Nurture Assumption is not that book, but Judith Rich Harris does argue that parental actions have almost no direct influence on adult personality unless a parent physically damages the brain. Harris blasts fretful, immersion parenting. Except for catastrophes, the everyday things parents do when children are three have little influence on thirty-year-olds.


Harris argues inherited traits and non-parental social groups have the most influence on personality. Her mildly vague concept of personality covers style, popularity, criminality, intelligence, mannerisms, social adroitness, the big five, and psychological health--including impulsiveness, perseverance, and choice of response to boredom. A researcher working to eliminate guinea worm could have the same score on a personality test as a salesperson hawking herbal remedies, yet something very, very different between these two individuals exists, much more important than their tendencies to giggle. The difference is character.


Harris splendidly argues that heredity accounts for about half of personality variation and environment the other half. Twin studies suggest none of the environmental half results from everyday parental practices. Identical twins in separate homes have personalities as similar as twins raised in the same home.


She writes that researchers mean both direct and indirect genetic effects. Unattractive persons get treated poorly, which causes them to respond in ways that change their personalities, an indirect effect.


Effects of differing genes and environments are often drastic. In one culture, the worst crowd murders. In another culture, the worst crowd refuses to clean the bedroom.


In the home, a place where parents can and do influence children, parents and children mutually create child-rearing practices. The home environment is not merely a matter of parents imposing conditions. But once children are out of parental sight, parents have little influence.


Harris champions social context. Humans follow group norms, especially young humans, often in the worst ways. Leaders of peer groups are among the most powerful moralizers. “Group socialization theory” is her phrase for it. As a result, moral adults should vigorously create and influence childrens' cultures. These childhood cultures should not be designed by CEOs preoccupied with profitability.


Beliefs often travel from individual adults to adult groups, to childrens' peer leaders, and finally to individual children. Joe Camel, for example, travels from an ad exec throughout an ad agency, to older teens, then to younger teens.


Joe Chemo travels from writer to magazine editor, to a handful of readers because parodies of major corporations are rare in mass media.


Children adapt to environments because children who always obey parents head for trouble. The interests of parents and children conflict. Children must often learn to avoid parental actions, for example, playing with matches.


Research suggests that peer, teacher, and community cultures of achievement affect academic performance. Cultures emphasizing the belief that we can control our lives through our efforts, that we are responsible for what happens in this world.


Harris uses an elementary school teacher so popular years later adults, who were never her students, claimed to have been her students as an example of an adult who changed the ideals and actions of groups of young people. (Research psychologist Jean Twenge alleges elsewhere that anxiety levels of children aged nine to 17 in the 1980s and 1990s were higher than the levels of 1950s psychiatric patients. Weaknesses in social relationships and perceptions of risks of war, HIV, and environmental problems are potential causes.)


Harris leaves open the ideas that parents can:

·        Teach technical, educational, and philosophical skills.

·        Choose neighborhoods, peer groups, and larger environment while children are young. Parents should think about big picture influences on children, avoiding worry about damage from ordinary mistakes. If a parent joins a cult and moves to Rangoon, the new environment affects children.

·        Influence choices of careers and hobbies, politics and religions.

·        Form a family group with an us-against-the-world-mentality. Only strong, determined parents need apply.

·        Influence in home love, respect, happiness, and behavior.

·        Parents can influence the group norms that end up influencing their children.


The Nurture Assumption does not let parents off the hook. It changes the hook. If a 16-year-old has serious problems, what the parent does now may have little affect (parents should still try to help, of course). But major environmental decisions made while the child was young or spousal decisions made before the child was born matter big time. Those who marry ex-convicts should not be surprised at the behavior of their children.


Also on the hook are other adults, especially those in powerful positions. They influence children, and they influence the groups that influence children. The details of how this should be done Harris leaves for someone else.


One point Harris should have made more explicitly: modifiability. For example, most variation in hair color results from heredity, yet hair color is easily modified by the environment, that is, a dye rich environment. Individuals should avoid fatalistic beliefs. Harris also makes some unhelpful appeals to the expertise and traditions of hunter-gatherers.


Harris trashes Frank Sulloway’s birth-order-matters book. Not merely a rhetorical trashing, Harris delivers a logical trashing. She destroys the idea of being born first, second, or whatever affecting adult personality.


When I first saw this book, I thought it would be like almost every other book on book-of-the-year lists: Overrated. I was wrong. Highly recommended.


J.T. Fournier, last updated July 26, 2009


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