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THE NURTURE ASSUMPTION

This was first published in the Arizona Daily Star on September 20, 1998. I want my website readers to know about this book.

Who is Judith Rich Harris and why is her book getting so much national attention? Why are so many people from psychologists to preachers fuming and fussing at her ideas?

Harris, mother of two, grandmother of one, and the author of The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, lived in Tucson from age 2 to 6 then moved to New York until she was 12 when the family returned to Tucson for good.

She attended Mansfield Junior High School, graduated from Tucson High in 1955, and spent one year at the University of Arizona before transferring to college in the east. She received a B.A. Degree from Brandeis and master’s degree in psychology from Radcliffe (Harvard) in 1961.

She was dismissed from the PhD psychology program at Harvard because the faculty did not think she would contribute anything original or important to the field of psychology.

Harris is the author of a respectable, traditional college textbook on child development and was about to start on a new developmental textbook when she had the epiphany that led to The Nurture Assumption. Guess what? She no longer believed in the time-honored party line that parents are the only, or even major, influence on children and how they turn out.

She abandoned the text book and wrote a theoretical article attacking the very foundations of developmental psychology and offering a new theory of child development. Despite her lack of academic credentials–-she never got a PhD–or affiliations, her article was accepted in the prestigious Psychological Review and she won a major award from the American Psychological Association in 1997. The award was named after the Harvard professor who had signed the letter kicking Harris out of Harvard.

Because of a serious autoimmune disease, Harris is homebound and will not go the book tour route. But the book is, nonetheless, bringing her fame and, probably, fortune.

WHAT THE BOOK REALLY SAYS

The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris is a hoot to read. She is a witty and articulate writer who clearly and systematically explains her refutations of commonly held assumptions in social psychology and behavioral genetics. She turns the psychology establishment on its ear for many instances of inconclusive or downright bad science.

Although the nurture assumption has become part of the psychology and parenting literature, Harris is right to point out that the basis for this assumption is awfully weak. No one has been able to show that a particular child-rearing practice or style or family structure (day care vs stay-at-home mothering or gay parents vs traditional family) predicts how the child will turn out.

Harris does more than debunk. She propounds a new theory to explain how kids turn out. After showing that the nurture assumption exaggerates the importance of parents and reminding us that genes, though responsible for a good deal of personality and temperament, do not fully account for the kind of people children become, she fills in the gap with her “group socialization theory”.

The theory propounds that “children’s personalities are shaped and changed by the experiences they have while they are growing up.” Harris correctly says that children are born with certain genetically determined characteristics like personality. But, she claims, the environment can change them. Not the environment their parents provide but the one outside the home provided by peers.

I suspect that peers explain everything we didn’t get right when we thought parents did it all. There are likely other unknown environmental and/or inexplicable factors: luck, a teacher or mentor, a non-parent adult who meets a need.

A beautifully written 14-page appendix puts forever to rest one of the silliest bits of folklore-elevated-to-social-science we’ve suffered through: the importance of birth order to behavior. May it finally rest in peace!

I give this book two thumbs up–one from the professional me and one from the mother/grandmother me.

The Nurture Assumption is not a parenting book in the sense that it will teach you how to feed a baby or discipline a toddler. But it’s well worth a read for those parents who want to learn more about such diverse but related topics as genetics and anthropology while finding out how human beings are formed. A very readable, even entertaining book.

A MESSAGE TO PARENTS FROM HARRIS

“Lighten up!” said Harris in answer to my question, “If you were a pediatrician or a parenting educator what would you tell parents in this post-nurture assumption era?”

She worries that the nurture assumption has made parents “–act competitive as though they’re going to get graded in how their children turn out.”

“Relax! Enjoy! Give your child a kiss because you feel affectionate not because you think you’re supposed to.”

“Don’t worry so much!” Harris advises parents, hoping her book will give parents the message that they don’t have to fret about every little thing they did. One hit in anger won’t matter.

And not worrying about parenting will have a beneficial effect on family life.

Harris has done parents a great service. The Nature Assumption, by realistically clarifying the role of parents, may actually begin to chip away at this mountain of guilt and worry parents encase themselves in. Guilt and worry are exhausting emotions that undercut the joy of parenting.

AN UPDATE

Since I wrote this Judy Harris and I have become friends. We are email buddies and I try to visit her whenever I get to New York. She now has 4 grandchildren. A Tenth Anniversary Edition of The Nurture Assumption is available as well as another book, No Two Alike, which explores why identical twins who grow up together have different personalities. She remains active in her research and thinking.

Here are excerpts from my email interview:

How well did the book do? There are 15 foreign editions of The Nurture Assumption. Some of the translations – for example, Chinese, Dutch, and Hebrew – have done quite well. As for the American edition, it didn’t quite make the bestseller list but it has sold steadily over the years, due in part to college professors who assign it in their courses or include it on lists of suggested topics for term papers.

What has the impact of the book been? How well did your theories go over in those peer reviewed journals you were disagreeing with? Did you hear from any parents pro or con? The early reaction from the academic world was largely (and in some cases, strongly) negative. There are still a few academic types who are very angry at me, but most have been willing to listen to what I have to say, and to accept my papers for publication in their peer-reviewed journals. Nowadays my work is cited in many psychology textbooks. Though most developmental psychologists still believe in parental influence, they seem to

be a bit more defensive about their views and a bit more careful in their research methods. Maybe I haven’t yet succeeded in changing their minds, but at least they’re paying attention!

As for the parents themselves, I’ve heard from quite a few of them. Most of my mail is favorable. The mail I like best comes from parents who tell me that reading my book has made parenting a little easier for them, a little less anxiety-producing. One letter-writer even said that, thanks to me, he and his wife found rearing kids so enjoyable that they decided to have

another baby. It was a girl and they named her Lora Judith! But such families are exceptional. I don’t think I’ve had any impact at all on parenting in general. Parenting practices are part of a culture, and changing a culture takes time.

For more about Judith Harris go to her websit: http://xchar.home.att.net/tna/

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