Why You Should Toss Your Parenting Books in the Trash

If Judith Rich Harris is right, there’s good news, and then there’s bad news. The good news is that there is not much you, as a parent, can do to screw up your kids. The bad news is that there’s also not much you can do to keep their peers from screwing them up.

“The nurture assumption” is the assumption (made by sociologists, psychologists, educators, criminologists, parents, non-parents, and the mass market parenting industry) that the way parents raise their children has a great deal of influence on how their children “turn out.” All of the parenting books we read promise to reveal to us the magical parenting style that will give us happier, gentler, smarter, more obedient children. If we could just figure out the right parenting style, the right method, the right plan, if we could just communicate the right values in the right way, our children would behave well and turn out great.

In The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Harris argues that this is hogwash. “Parenting has been oversold.” It “is a job in which sincerity and hard work do not guarantee success.” How children “turn out” (in terms of behavior, attitudes, personality, and professional and academic success) depends very little on mom and dad’s parenting style. Rather, it depends about 50% on genetics and about 50% on the influence of peers.

There are flaws in Harris’s overall thesis. For one, just about anything parental influence could appear to account for, she says genetics could also account for. Well, yes, genetics could account for it. That doesn’t mean genetics does account for it. She has only proven that those who maintain the “nurture assumption” have not proven (or even substantially supported) their case. But neither has she proven hers. Nevertheless, she makes a well written, thought provoking, and, at times, surprisingly funny argument.

To convince the reader of her thesis, Harris first tears down the evidence used to support the nurture assumption, and she does a rather good job of it. She then uses anecdotal evidence, coupled with logical reasoning, to support her own position. Culture, Harris argues, is not primarily transmitted from parent to child, but from slightly older child to slightly younger child. The “power of group socialization” is paramount. “What children learn from their parents about morality doesn’t go any further than the door of their home.” What you do at home affects how your child behaves at home and in your presence, but it doesn’t necessarily affect how he behaves in the outside world, among his peers. (She cites studies that show, for instance, that children who do not lie or cheat at home are no less likely than their peers to do so in school).

For example, as a parent, you could try to remove your child from the bad influence of television by throwing your TV out the window (or, as we have done, simply refusing to pay for cable). But it’s pretty much useless. “[A]s long as most of his peers watch it, the effect on the norms of an individual boy is the same, whether or not he watches it himself.” Children bring the outside world into the home, but they rarely bring the home into the outside world. The desire to be a part of the group is strong. This “peer pressure” is internal and not external. While there’s not much parents can do to leave a “permanent” negative mark on the personality, “low status in the peer group, if it continues for long,” can.

When it comes to socialization studies, making this distinction between peer and parental influence is rather like straining out a gnat. For most children, their peer group will be the children of their parents’ peer group, so whether it is the parents or the peers who are actually transmitting the culture, things will “turn out” about the same, with some minor modifications. What it does mean, however, is that if you take a kid who is growing up in a crime-ridden, culturally backwards area, and you transplant him to a nice suburb with good schools, he’ll probably “turn out” better than he would if he had remained where he was. This seems to me to be common sense, and it hardly requires 400 pages to defend. What people have a harder time processing, however, is Harris’s argument that (A) “bad” parenting styles do not have any permanent negative effect on a child and (B) “good” parenting styles do not have any permanent positive effect on a child.

We’re uncomfortable with rejecting idea (A) because that would mean placing the blame for our personal screw-ups either on our genetics (which we are absolutely hopeless to control) or on our own choices (which perhaps we’d rather not be held responsible for failing to control). Parents, myself included, are uncomfortable with idea (B), because it means that, basically, we have no control whatsoever over how our children “turn out.” We want to believe that if we just raise our kids with the right values, they won’t one day choose to be jerks or failures. “Raise up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” is a popular Biblical proverb. The problem is, of course, that we’ve all seen many a child depart from the way in which he was brought up, usually because the group of which he is a part (either at school, if a child, or at work, if an adult) does not hold those values.

So, does Harris believe that it doesn’t matter if you beat your kid, tell her she’s worthless, or teach her that lying and cheating are the best ways to get ahead in life? No. Parents probably are powerless to write the futures of their children, but they can affect their presents. They have great influence on their children’s quality of life at this moment, and on the quality of relationship that they, as parents, enjoy with their children. “We may not hold their tomorrows in our hands, but we surely hold their todays, and we have the power to make their todays very miserable.”

Harris does actually offer a few timid suggestions about what parents can do for their kids. Parents can impart knowledge, traditions, and religious beliefs to their children, and, provided they are not contradicted by the child’s peer group, they will probably stick. Things practiced or talked about primarily in the privacy of the home (cooking styles, for instance) are better able to withstand the tide of the peer group.

Parents can also, until a child is about ten, determine who his peer group is, at least outside of school. After ten, though, it’s rough sailing. You can try to forbid your kid to hang out with certain kids, but he can usually find a way to do so, whether during or after school, and usually by lying. Especially in the teenage years, it is very difficult to influence your child’s selection of peer group. “The adolescents who can be monitored are the ones who are willing to be monitored, and they are the ones who need it least. Parents have remarkably little power to maintain control over the adolescents who need it most.”

In extreme cases, she says, as a “draconian” measure, a parent can change schools or move to a different neighborhood or even homeschool, all of which may or may not help, depending upon whether the child is able to find a similar peer group in the new environment. I don’t find such methods draconian, myself, and I also think there’s another possibility the author doesn’t mention: you could immerse your children into regular participation in a religious (or other such) sub-community that shares your values, beginning at a young age, so that they form friendships that, one hopes, will last into adolescence, and so that participating in this community becomes a regular habit.

In the end, the main message of this book is simple and (for some) encouraging: lighten up! This whole modern business of parenting has us all so bent out of shape. You’d think no one had ever raised decent kids in any generation before ours! “Parents,” she says, “are meant to enjoy parenting. If you are not enjoying it, maybe you’re working too hard.” We try so hard to do what’s right, so sure it really matters that we get it right, that we end up running ourselves ragged. “The experience of previous generations show that it is possible to rear well-adjusted children without making them feel that they are the center of the universe.”