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!