Newsweek; U.S. Edition - August 24, 1998

SOCIETY


WHO NEEDS PARENTS?

BY SHARON BEGLEY WITH ERIKA CHECK

IT'S NOT THAT JUDITH RICH Harris thinks you should beat your children. And she's not
arguing that you should ignore the little tykes, or tell them they are lazy idiots when they fail in
school, or give in to the tantrums they throw in the grocery store. But Harris, a New Jersey
grandmother and writer of psychology textbooks, does claim that nothing you do or fail to do
will make a whit of difference to the kind of adult your kid becomes--not in temperament,
character, personality or intelligence.

When Harris's new book, The Nurture Assumption (480 pages. Free Press. $25), lands in
stores next month, it will likely trigger the biggest storm in psychology since ``The Bell
Curve'' argued that blacks are inherently inferior in intelligence. It is already provoking
passionate debate among scientists and therapists because it argues that parents make only a
single lasting contribution to their children's future: their genes. Behavioral genetics--the field
that examines how much heredity shapes personality--finds that genes account for maybe half
of the differences among people in such traits as timidity, impulsivity, thrill-seeking and
amiability. The other half comes from ``environment,'' which includes things like a loyal
friend or a humiliating high-school year. Most scientists also include, under environment, how
parents treated the kid. Not Harris. The idea ``that what influences children's development . . .
is the way their parents bring them up,'' she contends, ``is wrong.'' A peer group, not
parents, ``determines the sort of people [children] will be.'' Her conclusion rests on her
analysis of other scientists' research, especially studies of twins. Identical twins reared in the
same home, for instance, are no more alike than those reared apart. And two children adopted
by the same parents turn out no more alike than a duo raised separately.

The implications of Harris's theory are profound: a parent's love and affection does not make a
child self-confident and friendly; reading her bedtime stories does not instill a love of books;
getting divorced does not make a child insecure; giving in to a child's tantrums does not
reinforce his explosive temper. Not even making a child miserable has long-term consequences
(except in how much he loves you), argues Harris, who has no academic affiliation and no
Ph.D. Her idea will be welcome news to guilt-ridden parents convinced that missing one round
of ``Goodnight Moon'' will scar a child forever. ``Through no fault of their own,'' she says,
``good parents sometimes have bad kids.''

This offer of absolution worries child-development experts. Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, professor
of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and best-selling author, argues that ``the basis for all
learning, social and cognitive, is laid down by parents in the first years of a child's life.'' That
foundation helps a child forge an identity, which guides his choice of friends. But Harris
doesn't buy that. No wonder linguist Steven Pinker of MIT predicts that ``The Nurture
Assumption'' ``will come to be seen as a turning point in the history of psychology.'' Let the
debate begin.