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Margaret G. Alter

Do Parents Matter?

It's not the hand that rocks the cradle, but the one that turns the jump rope that rules the world.

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 ...

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