Newsweek; U.S. Edition - September 7, 1998

SOCIETY

THE PARENT TRAP DO THIS! DO THAT!
A HISTORY OFADVICE TO PARENTS BORN TO WIN--
WITH A LITTLE HELP


A NEW HEATED DEBATE ABOUT HOW KIDS DEVELOP:
DO PARENTS MATTER?


BY SHARON BEGLEY WITH ERIKA CHECK RESEARCH BY BRET BEGUN

Did you think that the way parents treat their children influences how they turn out? Think
again, argues a controversial new book, which contends that parents matter a whole lot less
than scientists believe.

SURELY THERE IS NO MORE CHERISHED, YET HUMBLING, idea than the conviction
that parents hold in their hands the power to shape their child's tomorrows. And the evidence
for it is as impossible to ignore as the toddler throwing a tantrum in the grocery store when
Daddy refuses to buy him M&Ms: setting reasonable, but firm, limits teaches children
self-control and good behavior, but being either too permissive or too dictatorial breeds little
brats. Giving your little girl a big hug when she skins her knee makes her feel loved and
secure, which enables her to form trusting relationships when she blooms into a young
woman. Reading and talking to children fosters a love of reading; divorce puts them at risk of
depression and academic failure. Physical abuse makes them aggressive, but patience and
kindness, as shown by the parents who soothe their child's frustration at not being able to play
a favorite piano piece rather than belittling him, leaves a child better able to handle distress both
in youth and in adulthood. Right?

Wrong, wrong and wrong again, contends Judith Rich Harris. In a new book, ``The Nurture
Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do; Parents Matter Less Than You Think
and Peers Matter More''
(462 pages. Free Press. $26), Harris is igniting a bonfire of
controversy for her central claim: the belief ``that what influences children's development . . .
is the way their parents bring them up . . . is wrong.'' After parents contribute an egg or a
sperm filled with DNA, she argues, virtually nothing they do or say--no kind words or hugs,
slaps or tirades; neither permissiveness nor authoritarianism; neither encouragement nor
scorn--makes a smidgen of difference to what kind of adult the child becomes. Nothing parents
do will affect his behavior, mental health, ability to form relationships, sense of self-worth,
intelligence or personality. What genes don't do, peers do.

Although Harris's book lists some 750 scientific papers, articles and books as references,
maybe all she really had to do to reach this conclusion was keep good notes about the
goings-on in her own suburban New Jersey colonial. Harris and her husband, Charles, had
one daughter, Nomi, on New Year's Day, 1966, and adopted a second, Elaine, almost four
years later. The girls grew up in the same home ``filled to overflowing with books and
magazines, where classical music was played, where jokes were told,'' recalls Harris. Both
girls took ballet lessons; both learned the crawl at Mrs. Dee's Swim School. Both were read
books by their parents and both delighted in birthday parties with homemade cake. Both
experienced the sorrow and stress of a sick mother (Harris developed a mysterious
autoimmune illness, part lupus and part systemic sclerosis, when Elaine was 6 and Nomi 10,
and was often confined to bed). Yet Nomi was a well-behaved child who ``didn't want to do
anything we didn't want her to do,'' says Harris over iced tea in her kitchen. Elaine, adopted at
2 months, was defiant by the age of 11. She angrily announced to her parents that she didn't
have to listen to them. When they grounded her once, at 15, she left for school the next
morning--and didn't come back that night. Nomi was a model student; Elaine dropped out of
high school.

It made Harris wonder. Why was she having about as much influence on Elaine as the
fluttering wings of a butterfly do on the path of a hurricane? And it made her mad. ``All of
these studies that supposedly show an influence of parents on children--they don't prove what
they purport to,'' she fumes. Having floated this idea in the scientific journal Psychological
Review in 1995, she has now turned it into a book that is becoming the publishing phenom of
the season. This week Harris is scheduled for morning television shows, radio interviews and
network magazine shows. The Free Press has gone back for a third printing after an initial run
of 15,000, and her publicists say every author's dream--Oprah--may be in her future.

This petite, gray-haired grandmother hardly seems the type to be lobbing Molotov cocktails at
one of the most dearly held ideas in all of child development. Harris, 60, has no academic
affiliation and no Ph.D. In 1961, she was thrown out of Harvard University's graduate
department of psychology because her professors believed she showed no ability to do
important original research. She got a job writing psych textbooks. Yet in August, Harris
shared a $500 prize from the American Psychological Association, for the paper that best
integrates disparate fields of psychology. And she has some big guns on her side.
Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University says her book is ``based on solid
science.'' John Bruer, president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, which funds
education programs, praises it as ``a needed corrective to this belief that early experiences
between the child and parents have a deterministic, lifelong effect.'' And linguist Steven Pinker
of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology predicts that ``The Nurture Assumption'' ``will
come to be seen as a turning point in the history of psychology.''

So far, though, that's a minority view, and many scientists are nothing short of scathing. ``I
am embarrassed for psychology,'' says Harvard's Jerome Kagan, arguably one of the deans
of child development. ``She's all wrong,'' says psychologist Frank Farley of Temple
University, president of the APA division that honored Harris. ``She's taking an extreme
position based on a limited set of data. Her thesis is absurd on its face, but consider what
might happen if parents believe this stuff! Will it free some to mistreat their kids, since `it
doesn't matter'? Will it tell parents who are tired after a long day that they needn't bother even
paying any attention to their kid since `it doesn't matter'?'' Psychologist Wendy Williams of
Cornell University, who studies how environment affects IQ, argues that ``there are many,
many good studies that show parents can affect how children turn out in both cognitive abilities
and behavior. By taking such an extreme position, Harris does a tremendous disservice.''

In fact, neither scholars nor parents have always believed that parents matter. Sure, today rows
upon rows of parent-advice books fill stores, parenting magazines clog newsstands, and new
parents know the names Penelope Leach and T. Berry Brazelton better than they do their
newborns'. But a leading tome on child development published in 1934 didn't even include a
chapter on parents. It was only in the 1950s that researchers began to seek the causes of
differences among children in the ways that parents raised them (time line). Now Harris is part
of a growing backlash against the idea that parents can mold their child like Play-Doh.

With an impish wit and a chatty style, Harris spins a persuasive argument that the 1934 book
got it right. Her starting point is behavioral genetics. This field examines how much of the
differences between people reflect heredity, the genes they inherit from their parents. Over the
years, researchers have concluded that variations in traits like impulsivity, aggression,
thrill-seeking, neuroticism, intelligence, amiability and shyness are partly due to genes.
``Partly'' means anywhere from 20 to 70 percent. The other 30 to 80 percent reflects
``environment.'' ``Environment'' means influences like an encounter with a bully, a
best-friendship that lasts decades, an inspiring math teacher. It also includes, you'd think, how
your parents reared you. But Harris argues that ``environment'' includes a parental
contribution of precisely zero (unless you count Mom and Dad's decision about which
neighborhood to live in, which we'll get to later). When she says parents don't ``matter,'' she
means they do not leave a lasting effect--into adulthood.
(She accepts that how parents treat a
child affects how that child behaves at home, as well as whether the grown child regards the
parents with love, resentment or anger.)

To reach her parents-don't-matter conclusion, Harris first demolishes some truly lousy studies
that have become part of the scientific canon. A lot of research, for instance, concludes that
divorce puts kids at greater risk of academic failure and problem behavior like drug use and
drinking. Other studies claim to show that parents who treat their kids with love and respect,
and who get along well with others, have children who also have successful personal
relationships. Yet neither sort of study ``proves the power of nurture at all,'' Harris says
emphatically. Why? They do not take into account genetics. Maybe the reason some parents are
loving or competent or prone to divorce or whatever is genetic. After all, being impulsive and
aggressive makes you more likely to divorce; both tendencies are partly genetic, so maybe you
passed them on to your kids. Then it's their genes, and not seeing their parents' marriage fail,
that explain the kids' troubles, Harris claims. And if being patient and agreeable makes you
more likely to be a loving and patient parent, and if you pass that nice DNA to your kids, then
again it is the genes and not the parenting that made the kids nice.

Do your own eyes tell you that being a just-right disciplinarian--not too strict, not too
easy--teaches children limits and self-control? Not so fast. Harris points out that children,
through their innate temperament, can elicit a particular parenting style.
For example, a little
hellion will likely make her parents first impatient and then angry and then resigned. It isn't
parental anger and resignation that made the kid, say, a runaway and a dropout. Rather, the
child's natural, genetic tendencies made her parents behave a certain way; those same
tendencies made her a runaway and a dropout. Again, argues Harris, not the parents' fault. By
this logic, of course, parents don't get credit, either. You think reading to your toddler made
her an academic star? Uh-uh, says Harris. Maybe kids get read to more if they like to get read
to. If so, liking books is also what makes them good in school, not listening to ``Goodnight
Moon.''

Studies of twins seem to support Harris's demotion of parents. ``[I]dentical twins reared in the
same home,'' says Harris, ``. . . are no more alike than identical twins separated in infancy
and reared in different homes.'' Apparently, being reared by the same parents did nothing to
increase twins' alikeness. Same with siblings. ``[B]eing reared by the same parents [has] little
or no effect on [their] adult personalities,'' writes Harris. ``The genes they share can entirely
account for any resemblances between them; there are no leftover similarities for the shared
environment to explain.'' By ``shared environment,'' she means things like parents' working
outside the home, battling constantly, being dour or affectionate. A son might be a cold fish
like Dad, or react against him and become a warm puppy. ``If children can go either way,
turning out like their parents or going in the opposite direction,'' says Harris, ``then what you
are saying is that parents have no predictable effects on their children. You are saying that this
parenting style does not produce this trait in the adult.''

What Harris offers in place of this ``nurture assumption'' is the idea that peer groups teach
children how to behave out in the world.
A second-grade girl identifies with second-grade girls
and adopts the behavioral norms of that group. Kids model themselves on other kids, ``taking
on [the group's] attitudes, behaviors, speech, and styles of dress and adornment,'' Harris
says. Later, a child gravitates toward the studious kids or the mischief makers or whomever.
Because people try to become more similar to members of their group and more distinct from
members of other groups, innate differences get magnified. The jock becomes jockier, the
good student more studious. This all begins in elementary school. Harris's bottom line: ``The
world that children share with their peers determines the sort of people they will be when they
grow up.''

Is there no way parents can shape their children? Harris offers this: have enough money to live
in a good neighborhood so your children associate with only the ``right'' peers. Dress your
sons and daughters in the fashions of the moment so they are not ostracized. If their
appearance is so odd that they are in danger of being shunned, spring for orthodontia. Or,
Harris writes, ``if you can afford it, or your health insurance will cover it, plastic surgery.''

No one denies that there is some truth to her argument. Even her detractors like the way she's
blown the lid off dumb studies that can't tell the difference between parents' influencing their
kids through genes and influencing them through actions. And they applaud her for pointing
out that children of divorce are not necessarily ruined for life, notes psychologist Robert Emery
of the University of Virginia. But many of the nation's leading scholars of child development
accuse Harris of screwy logic, of misunderstanding behavioral genetics and of ignoring studies
that do not fit her thesis. Exhibit A: the work of Harvard's Kagan. He has shown how
different parenting styles can shape a timid, shy child who perceives the world as a threat.
Kagan measured babies at 4 months and at school age. The fearful children whose parents
(over)protected them were still timid. Those whose parents pushed them to try new
things--``get into that sandbox and play with the other kids, dammit!''--lost their shyness. A
genetic legacy of timidity was shaped by parental behavior, says Kagan, ``and these kids
became far less fearful.''

``Intervention'' studies--where a scientist gets a parent to act differently--also undercut Harris.
``These show that if you change the behavior of the parents you change the behavior of the
kids, with effects outside the home,'' says John Gottman of the University of Washington.
Programs that teach parents how to deal with little monsters produce effects that last for years.
``When parents learn how to talk to and listen to kids with the worst aggression and behavior
problems, and to deal with the kids' emotions,'' says Gottman, ``the kid becomes less
impulsive, less aggressive, and does better in school.'' Maybe such effects aren't picked up in
the studies Harris cites because such motivated--dare we say saintly?--parents are so rare.
Gottman studies children at the age of 4, and then at 8. Some have parents who learned to be
good ``emotion coaches.'' They're sensitive, they validate the child's emotion (``I understand,
sweetie''), they help her verbalize what she's feeling, they patiently involve her in solving the
problem (``What should we do?''). Other parents didn't learn these tough skills. The
8-year-olds of emotionally adept parents can focus their attention better and relate better to
other kids. ``There is a very strong relationship between parenting style and the social
competence of their children,'' says Gottman. Since the parents learned to be emotion coaches,
and the kids changed over the years, the result cannot be easily dismissed as genetic
(emotionally intelligent parents pass on emotional-IQ genes).

Critics also slam Harris's interpretation of twins studies. From this research she concludes that
``parents do not make siblings any more alike than their genes already made them . . .
[P]arenting has no influence.'' But some of the leaders in the field say their measurements
cannot support that. ``The sample sizes we use are so small that you can't detect a 10 percent
or even a 20 percent effect of the family environment,'' says Dr. Kenneth Kendler of the
Medical College of Virginia.
And as Kagan points out, the vast majority of such studies rely on
questionnaires to assess personality, recollections of childhood and descriptions of what goes
on in the home. ``Questionnaires are totally suspect,'' Kagan says. ``The correlation between
reality and what people say is just 30 or 40 percent.'' Such flaws could be why twins studies
fail to detect an influence of parents on kids.

Finally, some researchers take issue with Harris's logic. This one is tricky, but crucial. Harris
says studies of twins and siblings find no effect of ``shared environment.'' True. But even
children who grow up with the same parents do not have an identical environment. The
firstborn does not have the same ``environment'' as her baby brother: she has younger, less
experienced parents, and no midget competitors. Also, parents treat children differently, as
Harris admits: she monitored Elaine's homework but not Nomi's. Children, through their
innate temperament, elicit different behaviors from their parents; thus they do not share this
environment called ``parents.'' Parents, then, arguably belong in the category called
``unshared environment''--which behavioral genetics suggests accounts for about half the
differences among people. And besides, even what seems like an identical parenting style may
be received differently by different children. One may conform, the other rebel. That does not
mean that parents did not influence what their children became. It means that we are not smart
enough to figure out how parents shape their child. Says psychologist Theodore Wachs of
Purdue University, ``The data do show that the same [parenting] does not have the same effect
on kids. But that doesn't mean there is no effect.''


In person, Harris backs off a bit from her absolutist stance. ``I do think there is something to
the possibility that parents determine their child's peer group, and children do learn things at
home which they take to the peer group,'' she told NEWSWEEK. She allows that children can
retain many of the values and other lessons parents teach despite peer influences. ``If the group
doesn't care about plans for the future, then the child can retain those ideas from home,'' she
says. ``And if things like an interior life aren't discussed by peers, then that wouldn't be
affected by the group either.'' Might different children experience the same parenting
differently, and be influenced by it? Harris pauses a few seconds. ``I can't eliminate that as a
possibility,'' she says. As for her own daughter, yes, Elaine was a handful and a heartache.
But she is now married, a mother and a nurse in New Jersey--and close to her parents.

If ``The Nurture Assumption'' acts as a corrective to the hectoring message of so many books
on child rearing, then it will have served a noble function. It lands at a time when many parents
are terrified that failing to lock eyes with their newborn or not playing Mozart in the nursery
or--God forbid--losing it when their kid misbehaves will ruin him for life. One of Harris's
``primary motivations for writing the book,'' she says in an e-mail, was ``to lighten the burden
of guilt and blame placed on the parents of `problem' children.'' Her timing is perfect: millions
of baby boomers, having blamed Mom and Dad for all that ails them, can now be absolved of
blame for how their own children turn out. Harris is already receiving their thanks. As one
mother wrote, ``We parents of the difficult children need all the support and understanding we
can get.'' Clearly, the idea that actions have consequences, that behavior matters and that there
is such a thing as personal responsibility to those who trust you is fighting for its life. Near the
end of ``The Nurture Assumption,'' Harris bemoans the ``tendency to carry things to
extremes, to push ideas beyond their logical limits.'' Everyone who cares about children can
only hope that readers bring the same skepticism.