Margaret G. Alter
Do Parents Matter?
In August of 1998 a college textbook writer, Judith Rich Harris, received an award from the American Psychological Association (APA) for work that questioned a central tenet of current popular psychology and of much clinical theory written since World War II. Harris aimed her Molotov cocktail at the idea that parents are the primary shapers of human character, and, therefore, are responsible for enormous suffering. She offered instead a new theory of personality development: group socialization theory, asserting that peers shape human character and that this is essential for continuation of the species. Children need skills to live in their own generation, not that of their parents. The award Harris received bears the name of George Miller, a much-honored scholar and the very man who advised her to leave the Harvard doctoral program 37 years ago because, he said, she lacked originality.
The paradoxes here are of biblical proportions, worthy of Jesus' own use of parables. One Graduate Theological Union doctoral student, herself the mother of two teenaged boys, first heard of Judith Harris's challenge to psychology while standing in a grocery line. A couple in their seventies, just ahead of her, read aloud an inflammatory Newsweek headline: "Do Parents Matter? A New Heated Debate About How Kids Develop."
"There it is," the older woman remarked cheerfully. "It's not our fault after all."
"It isn't?" the doctoral student exclaimed. "Then why am I bothering?"
Client after client carried the same edition of Newsweek into my office from my waiting room, in case there was a pause in our session, I suppose, or to ask me what I thought of Harris's radical proposal. And The Nurture Assumption, the book expanding the argument laid out in her prize-winning article, quickly landed on the bestseller list. Harris certainly hit a nerve.
That parents are responsible for their children's lives, character, and misery is an article of faith that has dominated popular culture as well as much of the psychology world for 30 or 40 years. It has served us well. According to this logic, there was a time when we were wonderful and innocent, with practically unlimited potential, but our parents and society ruined our lives. Moreover, this dogma guarantees that, if parents do their job right, it is possible to raise perfect children who become perfectly happy and productive adults (a notion that many Christian parents have found seductive—and never mind original sin). If a child is in trouble, we know who is to blame.
No mystery here; everything is predictable. But it is precisely this outlook that Jesus challenged regularly. His parables were frequently designed to disrupt the pretensions of human-controlled holiness, which traps both the accuser and the accused. Perhaps there is something of the Spirit in Judith Rich Harris's persuasive argument. She knows too much to be brushed aside easily. In this she offers us painfully needed grace.
Academics have been quick to point out that she has no credentials: she holds no Ph.D., and she is not a tenure-track professor at any university, let alone a prestigious one. She is, however, not that easy to dismiss. As a former doctoral student and a writer of college texts, she understands research well, and since she is not embroiled in any particular area of research that would demand her exclusive focus, she has read widely in clinical, social, and educational psychology, behaviorism, cultural anthropology, and primate studies. Harris envisions and describes a child far more active, observant, intelligent, resilient, and flexible than the more passive, acted-upon infant we are accustomed to meeting in the psychology of popular culture. And Harris is also a mother, thus representative of many voices rarely heard in the academic literature.
The Nurture Assumption is accompanied on psychology bookshelves by another, written by two women: pioneer brain researcher Marion Diamond and science writer Janet Hopson. Their book, Magic Trees of the Mind: How to Nurture Your Child's Intelligence, Creativity, and Healthy Emotions from Birth Through Adolescence, has not received the media attention devoted to Harris's book but is very much worthy of attention from parents and childcare workers.
Diamond herself is a revolutionary figure. She describes with warmth and enthusiasm her participation with the Berkeley team that discovered that rats' brains actually grew in size through enriched experiences: toys in their cages and other rats for company. She did this work around raising four children. In 1964, Diamond presented her first paper on these radical findings. When she stood before a mostly male audience, "scared to death," and presented the results, a man rose in the back of the room and said, "Young lady, that brain cannot change!"
Diamond, a favorite with university students for her teaching, writes with immense clarity, describing the research process and the discovery of brain changes. Known as a careful scientist, she has been slow to generalize from animal research to human beings. Jepson fills in the gap through wide reading in other brain research.
The book moves from the Diamond group's animal research to a description of the human brain and its functions, including its ability to repair itself and to recreate functions that are missing at birth or destroyed.One provocative section deals with research on the effects of abuse on a child's developing brain, citing work by Bruce Perry, a child psychiatrist and developmental neurobiologist. Perry's clinic treated the surviving children from David Koresh's Branch Davidian cult. The children had been so dominated, Perry asserts, that the part of their brain controlling decision making had not developed normally.
The authors' account of Perry's research is marked by a heavy determinism, in reaction to which I recalled a story earlier in the book: a brain, incomplete at birth, adapted its functions by using other parts. Could not these children's brains also repair themselves?
Diamond and Hopson readily acknowledge the difficulty in research on human brains: people don't relinquish chunks of their brains at regular intervals for laboratory examination!
(It would, of course, be monstrous to deprive one group of children and enrich another to determine if such treatment permanently affects the brain. For any direct examination of a human brain, researchers have to make do with the few human brains that are donated to science. There is, however, increasing use of MRI and EEG.) Still, despite their caution and good sense, Diamond and Hopson transmit all too uncritically the popular cultural assumption that parental influence is practically godly in its power. Although I found their book fascinating, passing it on to friends with infants and small children, I was struck by the oversimplified emphasis on parental influence, and I returned with interest to Judith Harris's alternative view.
Harris's prize-winning article, "Where Is the Child's Environment? A Group Socialization Theory of Development," published in Psychological Review in 1995, outlines the theory formally in clear, readable prose. Harris writes to be understood. She is a scholar supporting her case with research and care but without jargon. The Nurture Assumption, on the other hand, is a very personal book, full of wit, sarcasm, and footnoted personal asides. I found myself laughing out loud at times and easily reaching for the book again when my reading was interrupted.
"This book has two purposes," Harris writes: "first, to dissuade you of the notion that a child's personality—what used to be called 'character'—is shaped or modified by the child's parents; and second, to give you an alternative view of how the child's personality is shaped." Where there is good evidence to indicate the influence of heredity on personality, she asserts, there is almost no evidence to demonstrate the influence of nurture.
To support her thesis, Harris cites a wide range of studies. For example, Eleanor McCoby and John Martin's overview of socialization research, reviewing the effects of Authoritarian, Permissive, and Authoritative parenting styles, found that style of parenting made very little difference in determining the personality of the child. Harris also cites twin studies concluding that twins raised together with their own parents are neither more alike nor more different from one another than are twins raised separately in adoptive homes. In other words, heredity significantly affects character, but nurture does not.
In contrast, Harris contends, research clearly demonstrates the significance of peers. Baby monkeys raised together in a cage without mothers were unhappy infants, but relatively normal adults, choosing mates and establishing their own families within the tribe. An infant monkey, however, raised with its mother but without peers, was happy as an infant but did not develop into an adult. In the same vein, Harris includes a story from Anna Freud. Six children, ages three and four, survivors of a Nazi death camp, had been cared for by a succession of adults, none of whom survived. The children cared nothing for adults, but only for each other. By age 40 they had careers and were married with families of their own.
At the heart of Harris's theory of group socialization is a dynamic of "groupness," the impulse to form a group, to develop an identity, and to prefer one's own group over another. Children, she notes, do not want to be like adults; they want to be like other children. In addition, in most societies, children who act like adults are considered impertinent. Thus children are socialized by other children—a logical process, since they must be prepared to coexist with their own generation.
Harris cites social psychologist Muzafer Sherif's 1954 study of 11-year-old boys' grouping experience in Robbers Cave State Park, Oklahoma. Two groups of white Protestant boys, sociologically identical and randomly divided into the groups, were taken in separate buses to a camp. They were not told about the existence of the other group for about a week, but they each had been given a reason for their group placement. The boys named their groups and began to form a group identity, later strengthened by knowledge of the existence of the other group. When the groups met for an athletic competition, one group swore a lot, so the other group decided that they would not. One group decided that they were tough and preferred that; the other decided that they were more righteous and preferred that.
Harris asserts that groups of children have always been the primary socializing force in human development. In traditional societies, toddlers at about two and a half are displaced by a new baby and placed in the care of an older sibling in a multiage play group. Within this group children learn how to behave according to the expectations of their culture. In places where there are many children, they group themselves by age and sex. In schooled cultures like ours, children are divided into age groups. With so many children, they will further divide into cliques. Contrary to popular assumption, which emphasizes parental formation of children's notion of gender, children's groups stereotype gender differences. Thus, a girl whose mother is a doctor might readily select a nursing outfit at age six and say that boys are doctors. Or a boy who has seen his father change many diapers may say that changing a doll's diaper is the worst thing that ever happened to him.
The cumulative weight of the evidence amassed by Harris simply overpowers widely held notions of parental responsibility and child passivity. Autism, once blamed on maternal coldness, is now understood as a genetic brain dysfunction. Schizophrenia, allegedly caused by maternal invasiveness in a "schizophrenogenic family," is now understood as primarily biochemical in origin.
Nevertheless, many condemnations of parents remain unquestioned. Eating disorders are widely blamed on "overinvolved" mothers, although researchers White and White report that the girls in their study trusted and loved their mothers. Narcissism is blamed on narcissistic mothers, and flagging self-esteem is blamed on lack of secure bonding in early infancy. Myths die hard.
What is most inspiring about Harris's book is her emphasis on the resilience of children. Such flexibility, she asserts, is a necessary survival skill for the continuation of the species. Joyce A. Ladner, an African American sociologist, reached the same conclusion in her assessment of young black women who develop skills to survive and to thrive in adverse conditions.
As a clinician, I too have questioned the reigning paradigm of parental influence on child development for some time. It does not fit what I see. Many of my clients love their parents, are comfortable with them as adults, and also have areas of suffering they wish to address. Some clients become mired in the popular paradigm, confessing their membership in a dysfunctional family and expressing hopelessness. I welcome Judith Harris's frontal attack on popular psychology as a step of freedom. She destroys for us one more idol of human control, introduces ambiguity, and thereby opens the conversation wider than it has been in years. We can reconsider more realistically how parents influence their children. That is grace indeed.
I do not agree with Harris entirely because my clinical practice raises other issues. I have seen scarily wayward teenagers return to the family and adopt its values in their midtwenties. Even the little girl who at six said doctors' work is for boys could well be working on her medical degree today, and the boy who said changing a doll's diaper was yucky may be readily changing his children's diapers.
A second clinical observation has to do with how human beings make sense of experience. Neither we, nor our parents, nor our children can confidently assess how we individually interpret our experience and how that interpretation will influence our lives.
These observations aside, Harris offers us wisdom and corrects our focus. What more can we ask of a book?
Margaret G. Alter is a practicing clinical psychologist.
Copyright © 1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine. For reprint information call 630-260-6200 or e-mail bceditor@BooksAndCulture.com.