The Frontal Cortex

Do Parents Matter?

Over at Mind Matters, I’ve got an interview with Judith Rich Harris, author of the influential and infamous The Nurture Assumption, which provocatively argued that parents aren’t particularly important when it comes to determining the behavior of their children, at least outside of the home. Instead, Harris argued that the most important variable was the child’s peer group. The Nurture Assumption has recently been reissued in an expanded version to celebrate its tenth anniversary.

LEHRER: Why do you think this is such a controversial idea? In other words, why are we so convinced that parents must matter?

HARRIS: It’s part of the culture. Questioning a cherished cultural myth is always risky. What most people don’t realize is that different cultures have different myths about the role of parents. The belief that parents have a great deal of power to determine how their children will turn out is actually a rather new idea. Not until the middle of the last century did ordinary parents start believing it. I was born in 1938, before the cultural change, and parenting had a very different job description back then. Parents didn’t feel they had to sacrifice their own convenience and comfort in order to gratify the desires of their children. They didn’t worry about boosting the self-esteem of their children. In fact, they often felt that too much attention and praise might spoil them and make them conceited. Physical punishment was used routinely for infractions of household rules. Fathers provided little or no child care; their chief role at home was to administer discipline.

All these things have changed dramatically in the past 70 years, but the changes haven’t had the expected effects. People are the same as ever. Despite the reduction in physical punishment, today’s adults are no less aggressive than their grandparents were. Despite the increase in praise and physical affection, they are not happier or more self-confident or in better mental health. It’s an interesting way to test a theory of child development: persuade millions of parents to rear their children in accordance with the theory, and then sit back and watch the results come in. Well, the results are in and they don’t support the theory!


  1. #1 Jim Thomerson
    April 9, 2009

    On the other hand, to quote my adult daugher, speaking to her mother and me, “It scares me to see how much of you guys there is in me.”

  2. #2 JDS
    April 9, 2009

    I tend to agree, but what about the role of parents in guiding their children in who they select to associate with? I.e., in determining what members of their peer group they spend time with?

  3. #3 Ward
    April 9, 2009

    And we generally spend time with people who are similar to us as do our parents and we probably choose our friends in a way that is similar to the way they choose their friends…so its obviously all genetic:)

  4. #4 Martha Farag
    April 10, 2009

    “Harris argued that the most important variable was the child’s peer group.”
    Parents also have the power to restrict that peer group.

  5. #5 Fia
    April 10, 2009

    Umm. I haven’t read her full argumentation, but I cannot really see how people did not change from 70 years ago until now. A lot of things did change. Think about racism, sexism, think about the acceptance of homosexuality.
    Human rights, the freedom of speech, a *lot* of things happened since then that radically changed our society.

  6. #6 albedo
    April 10, 2009

    “A lot of things did change. Think about racism, sexism, think about the acceptance of homosexuality.
    Human rights, the freedom of speech, a *lot* of things happened since then that radically changed our society.”

    Things that changed only on a superficial level:

    -sexism (homo-/heterosexual)
    -human rights
    -freedom of speech
    -food and water for everyone (this one’s got a lot worse)

    A lot of things happened, like tens of wars, we have a lot more nuclear bombs than 60 years ago, torturing of non-US citizens was OK, but only outside US territory of course and many more….

    But nothing has changed and surely not to the better, apart from almost no wars in Europe for the last decades.

    We have made amazing progress in weapons development, like unmanned drones, stealth bombers, “intelligent” mines, cluster bombs… you name it.

  7. #7 jb
    April 12, 2009

    About the hardest thing I ever did as spiritual practice or anything else, was to be a parent and stay home with our son until he entered first grade. You can read why I’m glad I did so under Jonah’s Investing In The Developing Brain post on 4/8. A child’s young years (pre 7) are when acquisition of language is crucial both in terms of communicating and thinking. The default mode network also matures about this time and is presumably involved. So you want to expose a young child pre-7 to as many interesting experiences as possible and help them talk about it. Forget about reading and writing and doing math until after 7.
    These early years are also important for the development of mental discipline. Mischel did his marshmallow experiment with 4 year olds and has Jonah recently said at a talk in DC, it’s important to teach your child to wait. The ability of a 4 year old to wait is the best predictor of how they will do later, emotionally, scholastically and professionally. Cognitive psychologists aren’t sure why but I suspect it has to do with the DMN maturing along with the ability to make moral decisons. I was asking a friend why it is that formal schooling doesn’t start until age 7 and she brought up the ‘age of reason’ which is 7 in the Catholic Church. Some pope decided that it was by this age that a child could tell right from wrong and therefore confess their sins and take communion. In other words they can think logically by age 7.
    And I recalled training to be a public school teacher and teaching Early Childhood Science Education. Piaget found that the transition from the Pre-operational Stage and the Concrete Operational Stage happens in children about age 7 on average. His research supports what I said above.
    So parents have great power to influence their child’s behavior scholastically, emotionally and professionally at this early age and although there are good schoolteachers out there they are not one-on-one with your child enough of the time. And who are your children with when at school or daycare if not spending quality time with an adult? they are with their peers who don’t speak very well and probably won’t teach waiting.

  8. #8 sondaze wybory demokracja
    April 14, 2009

    I can’t agree that parents are not important in creating their childrens behaviour. Just think about who is the first role model, who gives the first hints how to live, or even have an efect on children’s choosing life’s partner. As long as the influence is fading from childhood to adulthood (sooner or later) but it still exist. If you don’t believe – you are welcomed in some post-socialism countries. You can see on your own how it’s changing right now – people in their 40- and 50ties used to be very obedient to their parents but their children are much more ‘against’. Not to mention their grandchildren.

  9. #9 wowie
    July 12, 2011

    I strongly disagree. parents influence their children behavior in their own characteristics.

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