Thursday Book: Stop blaming Mum and Dad

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The Independent Culture
TORMENTED BY a belief that our parents messed us up, and fearful of the damage we will inflict on the next generation, Western adults have long needed a saviour. Someone who can relieve us of Philip Larkin's worrying burden: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad./ They may not mean to, but they do./ They fill you with the faults they had/ And add some extra, just for you."

Judith Rich Harris is a fiery iconoclast who offers relief. If you accept the central thesis of the "nurture assumption", you can at last relax about raising your children. You can stop berating yourself about not giving them enough attention. When they end up drop-outs, drug addicts or simply difficult, you need no longer wonder where you went wrong. Because, if Harris is right, there was not much you could have done in any case.

Far from being a lasting influence in child development, she says, parental upbringing is less important than genes and peers. If you want your children to turn out well, worry about who your partner is and who your children's mates are. But don't fret about spending too long at work and too little time reading with them. And, while you are chucking out the wisdom of today's child advisers, give your own parents a ring and let them off the hook. You are not their fault.

It is easy to understand why Harris's work is controversial. It plunges into emotive politics, using overblown language that has raised her voice above the general din in this field. Her book can be read as a manifesto for day care. It provides a coherent, guilt-reducing ideology for those who cannot or will not spend much time with their children. So it will be given an extensive examination by the opinion-forming classes, desperate to rationalise their overworked lives.

It will also depress many. It strikes a chord with a culture that offers little respect for those who are involved in the skilled and demanding job of raising children. It also undermines the latest generation of aspirational fathers, a group who may in the coming decade inject fresh status into caring for children. If parenting is inconsequential, then fathers don't matter much either, so the new generation of men must be wasting its energy.

There is a lot at stake. Let's stick to the important question: is Harris right in saying that parents do not matter much in building their children's character? Her crucial allies are the behavioural geneticists, who have demonstrated that there are few predictable similarities between siblings reared together, and amazing similarities between identical twins raised in very different homes. She takes this observation to mean that parental nurturing is not influential.

However, Harris is not a genetic determinist. Heredity, she says, accounts for only about 50 per cent of variation in personality traits. If parents are not responsible for the rest of human personality, who is? The peer group, she answers. Look at the children of non-English-speaking immigrants. Despite their parents' inadequacies, they turn into Americans. Likewise, observe the children of deaf parents. They learn to speak, even though in their early years they do not hear much language. These examples, she says, vividly demonstrate how much more important is the outside world in child development.

This is too short a summary to do full justice to Harris's arguments, which are based on a vast survey of the available literature. Her book is worth reading if only for the pleasure of watching an acknowledged outsider taking on the conventional wisdom with such chutzpah. But I find some serious flaws in her approach. For a start, her theory of personality development seems to rely too heavily on a theory of language development. It is, therefore, far from proven. I can't help feeling that she started out by assuming her conclusion that peers are, on the nurture side, all- important in creating character. It is a shame that she has not questioned her own theories with the same intensity she focuses on others'.

Second, Harris is disingenuous in the way she writes about parents. The facts are all there, but some of the important ones are deeply buried. If you read closely you will discover that she accepts the importance of early relationships, up to age four. She agrees that parents inhabit our thoughts for life, and that they can make the difference between a happy and a miserable childhood. And, of course, they are highly influential in determining the child's peer group.

That is quite a lot, for someone who is selling her book on the basis that parents do not really matter. I salute Judith Rich Harris's intellectual tenacity. But, as a journalist, I can spot a sensationalist and an ideologue dressed up as a scientist. This book has encouraged me to relax a bit as a parent, for which I am thankful. But I still think, if only by reading between the lines, that what I do as a father matters a great deal.

Jack O'Sullivan