‘There is no “right way” to rear a child’

On the tenth anniversary of the publication of her provocative book The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris talks to the spiked review of books about prescriptive parenting, playground bullies and grandmotherly advice.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Books

Like many people, I first heard of Judith Rich Harris 10 years ago after the publication of her most influential book, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. My husband handed me the New York Times Book Review across the breakfast table. I skimmed and announced my verdict, ‘Peers, not parents, eh? Interesting’, and went back to my toast.

Six years and two children later, the question of parents’ influence took on far more urgency for me, so I finally read Harris’s work. It wasn’t simply the fact of having children, but of having them when I did – at a time when what parents do seemed more important than ever before. In addition to the now oddly quaint Freudian notions about how we moms and dads might ‘Fuck them up’, the authoritative voice of neuroscience added the spectre of brain development, too.

It is now possible, apparently, to screw up our children in ways that previous generations could have scarcely imagined. We might ‘hardwire’ our children in infancy, condemning them to a life of emotional maladjustment, insecurity and ADHD simply by letting them ‘cry it out’, neglecting to read to them or – worst of all – allowing television before the age of two. It was in the midst of this maelstrom of parental fear, loathing, judgment and guilt that I got round to actually reading Harris’s books.

It was like drawing back the curtains in a dark room. Her books are not just well argued, irreverent and scientifically rigorous. They are also funny and playful. I found myself laughing out loud and sometimes sighing with relief as she cheerfully reduced the sacred cows of developmental psychology (and modern parenting) to hamburger. Perhaps most heartening of all was her general perspective on children, which regarded them not merely as the passive recipients of their parents’ influence but as autonomous beings in their own right, unique individuals shaped by their dynamic engagement with the world.

Not everyone has welcomed the notion that parents don’t have a lasting influence on how their children turn out, or have even understood what Harris was trying to say. Ten years on, as The Nurture Assumption goes into its second edition, I Harris to clear up some of the common misconceptions about her theories and to weigh in on some of the hottest issues in contemporary childrearing today.

Judith Rich Harris: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clear up some misunderstandings. First of all, some people have the erroneous idea that my theory is based on my own personal experiences or motivations. The truth is that, while I was raising my own kids, my beliefs were entirely conventional. Like everyone else, I believed in the power of nurture. I didn’t realise that there was anything wrong with the traditional view of development until long after my kids had left the nest. What changed my mind was a long, hard look at the research evidence. I spent a year reading the research literature in a variety of fields, including anthropology, social psychology, evolutionary psychology, and behavioral genetics. The more I read, the more I noticed that there were things that didn’t fit into the traditional story. One day it all came together in my head. I described that epiphany in Chapter 12 of The Nurture Assumption.

Another misunderstanding occurred when the media compressed my message into three little words, ‘Parents Don’t Matter’. What I actually said was that parents have no long-term effects on their children’s personalities or on the way they behave when they’re outside the home. That doesn’t mean that parents don’t matter – they have other roles to play in their children’s lives. If I convinced you that you can’t modify your husband’s personality, would you conclude that Wives Don’t Matter?

A third misunderstanding can’t be blamed on the media – it was my entirely my own fault. My vague and inconsistent use of the term ‘peer group’ led many people to assume I was referring to a bunch of teenagers who hang around together. Well, a bunch of teenagers who hang around together is a peer group, but my theory is not just about teenagers. It’s not about something that happens to older kids but not to younger ones. It’s not about something that happens nowadays but didn’t happen in the good old days. And it’s not about friendship. What’s confusing is that I used the word ‘group’ in two different ways: sometimes to refer to an actual bunch of kids, like the children’s play groups in traditional societies, and sometimes to refer to a social category such as ‘girls’.

A child can identify with the social category ‘girls’ even if she’s never seen more than two or three other girls together in one place. She can categorise herself as a ‘girl’ even if the other girls don’t like her and don’t want to play with her. Social categories such as girls, boys, men and women exist in every human society, and in every society people are expected to behave in a way that’s appropriate for their own social category. Children are socialised – that is, they socialise themselves – by figuring out which social category they belong in and tailoring their behaviour to that of their own social category.

Nancy McDermott: It’s noticeable how many of the group experiences you refer to are unavailable to children growing up today. Institutions like schools and activity camps seem almost systematically structured to prevent kids from negotiating play arrangements or resolving tensions within the group. Parents and adults who work with children and young people feel obliged to facilitate their activities, while other adults seem reluctant to have anything to do with them at all. What are your thoughts on these changes and their implications for children?

JRH: Interesting question. In traditional, preliterate societies, children spent most of their waking hours in the local playgroup. The children managed their own conflicts, and they generally managed them pretty well, with a minimum of outright fighting. But if things got out of hand, any adult in the society could intervene.

There are two reasons why this traditional pattern no longer works. First, in traditional small village or tribal societies, everyone was related to everyone else. Those adults who intervened weren’t strangers: they were aunts or uncles or cousins or grandparents. Second, one reason there was not much fighting in the children’s playgroups was that the older children were allowed – indeed, expected – to dominate the younger ones. You can see the same result in a flock of chickens. Once a ‘pecking order’ has been established, there is very little outright fighting: the smaller, weaker bird simply gives way to the stronger one. But in the children’s playgroups of traditional societies, being dominated was a temporary condition. Children started out as the youngest members of their playgroup, bossed around by the older ones. But as time went by, the older members graduated out of the group and the younger ones moved up in the hierarchy. Eventually each child got a turn to boss the others around.

It doesn’t work that way in modern, urbanised societies. Where population densities are higher, and children are divided up into same-age groups, those who are small for their age don’t have the opportunity to move up in the pecking order. Children who are smaller or weaker than their age-mates are likely to remain that way all through their school years, putting themselves in danger of becoming perennial victims. Bullying is a problem in all developed societies, and in this case, adult intervention – not by strangers but by trained, authorised adults – can be useful. Just as parents have the power to influence children’s behaviour at home, teachers have the power to influence children’s behaviour outside the home. Anti-bullying programmes have been shown to be effective in reducing victimisation on the playground.

Nevertheless, as you point out, children in developed societies do miss out on some of the experiences that used to be taken for granted. In particular, they don’t have the opportunity to move up in the hierarchy, progressing from the role of follower to that of leader. Is it harmful for children to miss out on such experiences? One might just as well ask whether it was harmful for the children in traditional societies to miss out on many of the things that modern children experience: going to school, reading books, using computers and cell phones, and so on. Cultures differ, and one of the jobs of childhood is to adapt to the culture one is reared in. Children do this remarkably well.

NM: One of the most important new trends to emerge since the publication of The Nurture Assumption is the emphasis on early childhood. New discoveries in neuroscience seem to confirm its importance and the Obama administration has made it the focus of its education policy. What are your thoughts both on the intense focus on early learning and why these programmes do or don’t succeed?

JRH: Let me start by summarising the evidence that favours the focus on the early years. First, research on kittens and monkeys has shown that early visual deprivation – for example, the temporary loss of vision in one eye – can permanently affect brain development. When the animal is permitted to see out of that eye again, the brain is no longer able to make use of the incoming signals. Second, research on human children born profoundly deaf has shown that early introduction to a language, either by exposing the child to a sign language or by using cochlear implants to restore some hearing, produces better results. Deaf children whose exposure to a signed or spoken language comes late after the age of five or six never become as fluent as the early learners. Third, children whose parents talked to them a lot in the early years, using a wide assortment of words, tend to have larger vocabularies than children from less advantaged homes.

Sounds pretty convincing, doesn’t it? But now let me give you the other side of the story. The animal deprivation work, and the evidence from profoundly deaf children, shows that total deprivation of certain kinds of stimulation can have lasting effects on brain development. But the fact that zero stimulation is harmful doesn’t mean that the more you get, the better off you are. Once the brain’s minimum requirements are met, there is no evidence that additional stimulation produces better results.

As for the children whose parents talk to them a lot and use big words, yes, these children do have an early advantage in terms of vocabulary. A young child who has never heard the word ‘eloquent’ can’t possibly know what it means. But the advantage is temporary, because a child who doesn’t hear this word at home will, sooner or later, hear it somewhere else. We know this from studies of adopted children: some adoptive parents are apparently able to give their children an early boost, but the effects diminish during childhood and are gone by late adolescence, as the children reared in less advantaged homes catch up. Notice that we have to use adopted children in order to figure out what’s really going on. Studies involving children reared by their biological parents can’t distinguish between genetic and environmental influences on the children’s development. If intelligent parents tend to have intelligent children, is it because of the vocabulary they use or is it simply that intelligence is, to some extent, heritable? Adoption studies favour the latter explanation.

Don’t get me wrong, though – I’m not claiming that early education programmes are worthless. They may still have some beneficial effects, especially for children growing up in severely disadvantaged circumstances. But in the long run, the effects are likely to be modest. We shouldn’t expect too much from these programmes.

NM: On a more practical note, since the publication of The Nurture Assumption you’ve become a grandmother three more times. What’s your best grandmotherly advice for parents today?

JRH: What I’ve learned from watching my daughters rear their own children is that giving grandmotherly advice is a waste of breath! People don’t rear their children the way they themselves were reared and they aren’t influenced by what their parents tell them. Child-rearing practices are a product of the culture. Since cultures keep changing, child-rearing practices change, too. People rear their children the way their friends and neighbours rear theirs, which might be quite different from the way they themselves were reared.

And yet in every generation, people believe that there is only one right way to rear a child! They strive to conform to the practices approved by their culture and feel guilty about any deviations. Nowadays a parent feels guilty if she loses her temper and gives her child a smack on the bottom. In the 1940s, when I was young, parents felt guilty if they failed to administer a spanking when a child misbehaved. That’s where we got the saying, ‘This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you’. It meant, ‘I don’t really want to give you this spanking but, according to the rules of my culture, I have to do it’.

The best advice I can give to parents is to read some anthropology and social history, in order to become aware of the tremendous variation in child-rearing practices from place to place and from time to time. The lesson is that there is no ‘right way’ to rear a child: there are countless ways, and no convincing evidence that one produces better results than another. My generation, born before the Second World War, was reared by parents who felt that too much attention or affection would ‘spoil’ a child and make her conceited. They paid little attention to their children’s schoolwork – that was the teacher’s job. Physical punishment, as I mentioned, was used routinely, and fathers were seen as dispensers of discipline rather than providers of care and affection.

Despite the dramatic changes in child-rearing practices that have occurred since then, people haven’t changed. Despite the reduction in the use of physical punishment, people are not less aggressive. Despite the substantial increase in physical affection and verbal praise, children are not happier or more self-confident.

One of my goals in writing The Nurture Assumption was to make parenting a little easier and more enjoyable. I hoped that parents would feel less guilty about every little thing they do, and that they would be more spontaneous and natural. At present there are no signs that this is happening. But, one way or the other, things will be different by the time my grandchildren become parents. My grandchildren will not rear their children the way their parents reared them.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, by Judith Rich Harris, is published by Free Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)


To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today