Tag Archives: nature-nurture

The Parental Limit

Birth order and parental influence matter much less than a child’s peer group when it comes to determining behaviour, according to Judith Rich Harris‘ polarising book, The Nurture Assumption.

In the ten years since the book’s publication her ideas have gained support from prominent developmental psychologists (notably, Steven Pinker), and now Jonah Lehrer interviews Harris, asking ‘Do parents matter?’

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 […] before the cultural change, and [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.

[…] I’ve put together a lot of evidence showing that children learn at home how to behave at home, and they learn outside the home how to behave outside the home. So if you want to improve the way children behave in school—for instance, by making them more diligent and less disruptive in the classroom—then improving their home environment is not the way to do it. What you need is a school-based intervention.

For the Gladwell-obsessed, you may recall his ’98 New Yorker column looking at Harris’ theories.