All you know about kids is wrong

Children are formed by peers, not parents, claims Judith Harris, entirely at odds with mainstream thinking.

Angela Neustatter
Monday 07 September 1998 23:02

As Judith Rich Harris waited for the publication of her book, The Nurture Assumption, in New York last week, she anticipated "that some of the elders in the field of psychology are going to go out of their way to try and savage this".

On the face of it, this is grandiosity. Harris's career has been spent writing textbooks and there's not a PhD to her name - added to which she is a grandmother with a seriously debilitating illness working and living far from New York's highbrow life in New Jersey. It's not exactly the usual profile of an author who whips up serious intellectual storms. What on earth can psychologists have to fear from her?

But the core question in her book is one that overturns the cornerstone of current child development theory. Harris asks: Do parents matter? Her stated purpose is to "dissuade you of the notion that a child's personality is shaped or modified by the parents".

So far Harris has received only accolades for her work which began as an article outlining the theory that the defining influence on children comes from their peers. It was published by the prestigious and extremely choosy US journal Psycholgical Review and went on to win the American Psychological Association's prize.

Praise and comments ahead of publication from influential social scientists indicated how seriously Harris's ideas were being taken. Supporters included Steven Pinker, the professor of psychology and director of the center for cognitive neuroscience at the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, who said: "The most promising hypotheses, I suspect, will come from recognising that childhood is a jungle and that the first problem children face is how to hold their own among siblings and peers."

But whatever they may be saying the other side of the Atlantic, many child development experts over here share the view of Sebastian Kramer, a consultant psychiatrist at London's Tavistock Centre, who says: "Harris has some very interesting ideas but she seems to have overlooked the massive literature showing the absolute importance of what goes on between parents and their young before the children are able to go out and relate to peers."

So what led Harris to come up with her theory? Her epiphany came, she says, while reading a paper on juvenile delinquency that suggested that teenagers whose rebellion takes the form of acting "grown up" - smoking, drinking, stealing cars to drive, insisting on staying out late - did so because they wanted mature status. But in a moment of clarity it seemed to Harris that the author had got it all wrong.

What adolescents were trying to do was contrast themselves with adults, not emulate them. She says: "From that grew the idea that if adolescents didn't want to be like adults, they wanted to be like other adolescents. Children were identifying and learning from other children. It was as if a light had gone on in the sky. In a minute or two I had the germ of a theory and in 10 minutes I had enough of it to see that it was important."

Harris pulls together a wealth of studies - notably several studies of twins showing that parental input makes very little difference - which appear to demonstrate that it is the genetic inheritance of children that makes them similar to parents, even when it appears to be environment

In Robert Plomin's seven-year Colorado Adoption Project a group of 245 adopted children were given a variety of personality and intelligence tests throughout their childhood, and similar tests were given to the adoptive parents. These were replicated with a matched control group where the children were with biological parents.

In this last group a number of personality and behavioural similarities were picked up between parents and children, but absolutely none of significance between the adopted children and their parents, even though they had been nurtured from a very young age by these adoptive mothers and fathers. In other words, the Colorado study concluded that it was the genes that created the similarities in the natural families and that the environment counted for virtually nothing.

Even when it seems very clear that parental behaviour has been a formative influence, it may simply be genes, Harris says. She takes as her example nice parents who manifest this by being cuddly and kind with their children who in turn are assumed to be nice because of their nurture. In fact they may simply be nice children because of the parental gene.

Parents also react to the genetic baggage children bring into the world, Harris argues, so they will treat a highly-strung demanding child one way and a benign and rewarding child another, and children will respond to what is done to them. But the parents are reacting to who the child is, not shaping its personality.

She then asks us to look at studies where very young children have grouped themselves together and behaved in a way their parents did not want and other studies where children, from the moment they meet, take their cues from each other. She cites a large study comparing the behaviour of poor inner-city kids from intact families to the behaviour of those living only with their mothers and found that the loss of the father did not seem to be significant and that the peer group was the decisive factor in whether they were anti-social or not.

In saying all this, Harris is joining "a huge Western shift to deny how utterly fundamental early bonding and nurture are", says Adam Jukes, a psychotherapist and a member of the steering committee of the International Attachment Network set up to bring us back to the importance of attachment theories of the kind John Bowlby so influentially introduced in the Fifties.

Is Harris saying, he asks, that all those experts who concluded that the boys who murdered James Bulger had been influenced by their home lives were wrong? Is he wrong when he sees clear links between the pathology of the violent men he works with and what happened to them in their very early years at the hands of their parents? And, Sebastian Kramer adds, are all those professionals working with children from teachers and play leaders to psychologists and psychiatrists wrong when they talk of the parental influence they see so clearly acted out in children?

And what of the massive research that shows children are far more likely to divorce if their parents do, or to abuse if they have been abused - is Harris suggesting these are genetic personality traits?

However, Kramer agrees that Harris is correct to stress the importance of peers in our children's lives - as Professor William A Cosaro, a pioneer in the ethnography of early childhood at Indiana University, says: "Kids teach each other how to be social." And he adds: "Children go on being more and more influenced by the peers they mix with. But the point is that their ability to be able to relate to peers is a direct result of how secure and safe they are made to feel through their very early nurture.

"That beginning in the home provides a template for how the child goes on to deal with the world whether in a positive or negative way. Harris appears to simply ignore the first social relationship which is not with other children but with a parent in the first year. Reading what she has to say it is as though childhood starts at two and a half."

Charlie Lewis, who leads major studies on children and families at Lancaster University, is interested by how Harris has brought together behavioural genetics and a new slant on the social influences, but he is "cynical" about how new her peer group theory really sounds

"Sociologists of childhood have been plugging away at the influence of peer group since the Twenties, for example Yblomsky, who looked at the gang as an entity, and the British critical criminologists of the Sixties and Seventies, such as Stan Cohen and Jock Young," he says.

"The real flaw is that Harris has wiped out the complexity of what influences and moulds children, and I imagine she has done this in order to create a straightforward and radical thesis because that's what gets published and sells."

What Harris has identified here, in the view of Julia Vellacott, a psychotherapist who has written on the relationship between mother and child, is the importance for children of differentiating themselves from their parents: "There is this eternal redefining by the younger generation of itself, and, in psychoanalytic terms, it's anti-incestuous, a turning away from parents to whom you were once so desperately bound and still may be in the unconscious. But to say that a child's personality is in no way shaped by parents is absurd. What Harris is doing is offering a way out of the enormous angst and guilt today's parents suffer. But it's not good enough to do it by denying the importance of children's need of early attachment and their on-going need of their parents."

The Nurture Assumption is not likely to be embraced by Tony Blair and his lot, at a time when they are building a Parenting Institution designed to focus parents on the importance of their role. And while the idea of a book that reduces parental guilt may be a good thing, the next stage on, if we accept what Harris says about not being all that important for our children, could be giving up responsibility.

The Nurture Assumption, in which Harris suggests blithely that it makes no difference whether you spend two hours or 10 with your child, whether they virtually live with a nanny or are sent to boarding school, could lead yet more parents to be irresponsible or more casual about bothering to find time for their kids, and if Harris is wrong - as many believe passionately that she is - those kids will pay the price.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in