On Psychology

Jewish World Review Dec. 22, 1998 /4 Teves, 5759


Dr. Wade Horn

Silly, Dangerous Ideas
About Child Rearing

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

I'VE BEEN RESISTING WRITING THIS COLUMN for several months now, out of fear that I would only be providing additional publicity for what I consider to be the silliest book published in recent memory. But it looks like that book is not going away. If anything, it's only garnering increasing attention -- even serious attention -- in the mainstream press. The book? The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris.

The premise of the book is this: Parents needn't worry if they are too busy pursuing their own careers and interests to spend any time with their children because parents don't really matter all that much when it comes to building character in kids. The only two things that really matter are genes and peers.

In case you think I'm exaggerating, here are Ms. Harris' words from the book itself: "This book has two purposes: first, to dissuade you of the notion that a child's personality --- what used to be called 'character' --- is shaped or modified by parents; and second, to give you an alternative view of how the child's personality is shaped." That alternative view? It's not what kids learn in the home that matters, but what they learn outside the home through their interaction with peers.

This idea seems to be resonating with at least some cultural elites. Malcolm Gladwell, for example, described Ms. Harris' argument in an article in The New Yorker as "... graceful, lucid, and utterly persuasive." The American Psychological Association even honored her "contribution" this past August by presenting her with the George A. Miller Award at its annual national convention in San Francisco.

But does this argument really make sense?

In a word: no. In fact, its utter nonsense. For what Ms. Harris actually does in her book is self-servingly construct a "straw man" which she then proceeds methodically to knock down. The straw man? That there are actually developmental psychologist who believe it is only parents who "shape or modify" a child's personality.

The fact is that every developmental psychologist I know, or whose work I have read, says that a child's personality is shaped by three forces: biology, parents, and the extra- familial environment, including peers. All are important, and each interacts with the other.

For example, human infants are born "hardwired" by their biology to learn language. That's why even babies of deaf parents start to babble at the same age, and in much the same way, as infants of hearing parents. But what language a baby eventually learns --- whether english, german or chinese --- is determined entirely by the child's environment.

Similarly, the impact of peers on children can not be separated entirely from the influence of one's parents. It is certainly true that peers can have an enormous influence on the behavior of kids. Running around in a deviant peer group can -- and does -- promote deviant behavior.

But what peer group a child is involved in is not completely independent of parental influence. If, for example, parents consistently bring their kids to church and encourage them to participate in church youth activities, the peer experience of their children will be very different compared to parents who don't. Conversely, when parents are neglectful or overly harsh in their childrearing, their kids may purposely choose a deviant peer group out of anger at their parents.

Given that parents influence their children's choice of peers, where exactly do parental effects end and peer effects begin? Ms. Harris view that it is all peer influence is simply too, well, simplistic.

This is not to say that there are no reasonable arguments to be found in her book. She describes, for example, something she calls "child-to-parent" effects in which the in-born temperament of children influences the behavior of parents.

There is, in fact, a good deal of research indicating that children with difficult, hard-to-get-along-with, in-born temperaments elicit more negative parental behaviors, including more criticism, physical punishment, and harshness, than children with more easy-going temperaments. She correctly points out that attributing every correlation between parenting style and child behavior to the effects of the parent on the child (instead of the other way around) defies both logic and science.

But this is nothing new. Developmental psychologists have been pointing this out since at least the early 1960's. As a writer of developmental psychology textbooks, Ms. Harris should know this. To suggest that somehow this is a new idea is to ignore the last 40 years of psychological research.

So why is this argument resonating with so many elites? The answer, I believe, is found in this quote attributed to Ms. Harris that appeared in The New Yorker: "A lot of people who should be contributing to our society, who could be contributing very useful and fine children, are reluctant to do it... If they knew that it was OK to have a child and let it be reared by a nanny or put it in a day-care center, or even to send it to a boarding school, maybe they'd believe that it would be OK to have a kid."

In other words, Ms. Harris' book is resonating with busy writers and academics precisely because it takes them off-the-hook when it comes to spending time with their own children. Now these cultural elites don't even have to worry about spending "quality time" with their kids.

The reason I find this book so troubling is not that some cultural elites might believe it, but that the broader culture will. If so, everyday parents may come to accept that there is little they can do to influence their kids' decisions to engage in such high risk behavior as smoking cigarettes, using illegal drugs, or engaging in teen sex.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. According to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, the largest national survey of its kind ever undertaken, the biggest influence on a teenager's decision to engage or not to engage in high-risk behaviors is not peers, but parents! When teens have a good relationship with their parents, and report they can communicate with them easily, they are far less likely to smoke, drink alcohol, do drugs, or become sexually active than those that don't. Parents don't develop good relationships with their kids by ignoring them; they develop those relationships by spending time with them.

That's why this book is not just silly, but dangerous. We've just reared a generation or two of kids on the idea that "quality time" could substitute for quantity time, and have seen every index of child well-being decline because of it. I hate to think of how much worse things will be for kids if we start to embrace the idea that parents don't need any time with them at all.


JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR

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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn