Why Parents (Still) Don't Matter

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Dangerous. Misguided. Untenable. Those were just some of the criticisms leveled at amateur psychologist Judith Rich Harris and the conclusions in her controversial book The Nurture Assumption when it was first published a decade ago. In it, Harris argues it's not what parents do or say that determines who their children become — what really matters is the influence of peers. (See pictures of Americans at home.)

Ten years on, however, with parents seeming to worry more than ever about what it takes to raising a smart, decent kid, Harris's message may even sound reassuring. The 10th anniversary edition of her book hits bookstores Feb. 24. TIME's Kathleen Kingsbury caught up with the New Jersey grandma to discuss whether parents still don't matter, why her theory didn't catch on in 1999 and the future of helicopter parenting and the kids it produces.

How strongly do you believe The Nurture Assumption's assertions hold up a decade on?
They've held up quite well. I took an extreme position: that parents have no important long-term effects on their children's personalities. By doing this, I was making myself an easy target, inviting developmental psychologists in the academic world to shoot me down. But their attacks have been surprisingly ineffectual. One traditional developmental [psychologist]even admitted, not long ago, that they still can't prove that parents have any long-term effects on children. She continues to hope, however, that someday they will find the proof they are looking for — proof that can stand up to the scrutiny of skeptics like me. (See the best and worst moms of all time.)

You distinguish between moral attitudes and personality traits in terms of the extent each are molded by influences outside the home. What sets them apart?
It hinges on the distinction between socialization and personality development. The strongest influence on morality is the local culture or subculture. But this influence may be different in different situations. For example, according to the local culture, it might be okay to cheat on a test in school but not okay to cheat in sports. Socialization adapts children to their culture — they learn to behave in the manner approved by their culture.

Personality development, on the other hand, is not about conformity. Differences in personality don't go away during childhood and adolescence — they may even widen. Explaining why this happens, and why even identical twins reared in the same home have different personalities, is a challenge.

Where does genetics come in?
Genetic influences account for a little less than half of the variation in personality within a given population. Some of the variation may be due to random biological processes: just as identical twins don't have exactly the same freckles, they don't have exactly the same brain. Some small amount may be due to socialization — for example, some cultures foster a more aggressive personality. The remainder depends on the experiences people have over the course of childhood and adolescence — experiences they have outside the home, often in the presence of their peers.

One of the things children have to do while they're growing up is to find out what kind of people they are. Am I smart or dull? Pretty or plain? Strong or weak? They find out the answers by comparing themselves to their peers. And they put this knowledge to good use. They find out what they're good at and concentrate on that, and give up competing in contests they are sure to lose. They try out for leadership, for example, by finding out whether other kids are willing to follow them. Research has shown that boys who are taller than their peers in adolescence tend to have more dominant, self-assured personalities in adulthood. On average, they earn higher salaries in adulthood, even though the others may have caught up to them in height. (See 9 kid foods to avoid.)

So if they can't influence the adults their children become, then what, if any, steps can parents take to help ensure their kids succeed? Or become "good" people?
I believe the most important function of parents is to give their children a happy home — not because it will make them more likely to succeed but because everyone has a right to a happy home life. Aside from that, there are other things parents can do, such as providing training in music or sports. Parents have some ability to decide where they will live and where their children will go to school. Some schools have an atmosphere that is more favorable to academic achievement.

As for making them into "good" people, the evidence shows that parents cannot do this. A child who is well behaved at home — who doesn't lie or steal, for instance — may lie or cheat in school if that's what all the other kids are doing. It works the other way, too: some kids are terrible troublemakers at home but little angels in school.

Research now suggests that much of the achievement gap in the U.S. is in place before children even reach kindergarten, suggesting parents play a huge role in their kids' academic success. How does those conclusions fit into your own research?
Adoption studies show that being raised in an intellectually rich environment can give a temporary boost to a child's intelligence and knowledge. The reason it's temporary is that bright children raised in less advantageous environments eventually catch up. But there's another factor here: subculture. A child raised in a subculture that values intellectual activities and takes schoolwork seriously has an advantage that doesn't go away. So even if the early achievement gap is due to deficiencies in the children's homes, the later achievement gap may be due to subcultural attitudes toward schoolwork and learning.

Once peers form personalities, can those effects be reversed? For instance, if a child changes friends or classmates or teachers, how much will his personality evolve with those shifts?
I wouldn't say that personalities are formed by peers. I would say that experiences with peers are one of the influences on personality. Can these influences be reversed? Depends in part on the age of the individual. Also, in some cases the new environment may turn out to be not very different from the old one. For example, a child who is well-liked by her peers in first grade is likely to be popular in second grade as well, even with an entirely new set of classmates. So the peers may be reacting to characteristics the child already has, rather than influencing these characteristics.

How do so called "helicopter" parents fit into your conclusions?
Parenting practices are a product of the culture. Just in my lifetime, the philosophy of parenting has undergone a complete reversal. I was born in 1938, and my parents didn't worry about my self-esteem: they worried that too much praise or attention would "spoil" me and make me conceited! Parents showed very little interest in their children's schoolwork in those days — that was the teacher's business, not theirs. And of course, physical punishment was used routinely. Despite these sweeping changes, personality traits have not changed — people today are no nicer than the people in earlier generations. But it does no good to tell that to the helicopter parents. They are convinced that they are playing an essential role in their child's life. Perhaps their children will look back at these efforts with amusement someday.

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