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A startling new theory says peers mold children's personalities more than their parents do

September 27, 1998

Forget what Sigmund Freud advised, Judith Rich Harris said. Children aren't blank slates waiting for mother to drag her fingernail across. Throw out the pop-psychology child-care books. Offspring aren't clay-babies waiting for mom and dad to mold them into concert pianists and industrial titans.

Forget, basically, everything we've come to believe about the role of the parent, because in Ms. Harris' view, the folks who are shaping children aren't the ones who've walked the floor when a child was up with a fever.

The people who mold your children don't lose sleep over bad grades or youthful misbehavior. They may even encourage it. They have an almost sociopathic lack of commitment to your child's future.

They are other children. The peer group, Ms. Harris said.

Are you thinking, perhaps, that you'd be better off handing your children to wolves?

Peers shape children, not parents, Ms. Harris writes, and she marshals an impressive amount of scientific research to make her point in a book released this month: The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do.

The book is raising ripples of discussion from parents groups to psychologists' gatherings. Ms. Harris was recently awarded a major national prize in psychology for her 1995 article in the American Psychological Review advancing the ideas she develops in her book.

To some, her notions are absolute heresy. A call to child neglect. A negation of parental responsibilities.

To others, it's about time.

``This is exciting stuff,'' said Dr. Christopher C. Layne, a Toledo clinical psychologist.

``It's another nail in the coffin of Sigmund Freud. For half a century, we blamed the mother. If Jeffrey Dahmer chopped up bodies, it was his mother's fault. Everything that a child did was the mother's fault. Heaven forbid she should walk by in a nightgown. This would ruin the child's life,'' he said.

``We started looking more closely at these assumptions - instead of just speculating about ridiculous theories - and several rivulets, several streams of data suggest Freud was way off base.''

Dr. Layne points to studies that showed children raised in orphanages where they were starved and neglected are indistinguishable from pampered children if removed from the orphanage by 18 months of age. Children whose parents die when they are young fare no worse - and sometimes a little better - than children with two surviving parents. Siblings raised in the same home share few common character traits.

``If I know your personality, that doesn't tell me anything about the personality of your siblings who grew up in the same household you did. I know no more about your siblings than I do about your coworkers. Which brings us to the stunning conclusion that it doesn't make any difference what house you grew up in. If parents are so powerful at shaping their children, why aren't my brothers and sisters more like me?'' Dr. Layne said.

Ms. Harris says it's because siblings aren't shaped by the parents they hold in common, but by their age-mates, even when their age-mates reject them.

In a way, Ms. Harris takes the old Nature vs. Nurture debate and reframes it. Nature, in the form of genetic inheritance, maintains its potency, she argues. Parents contribute a great deal to their child's personality by virtue of the genes that are shuffled into the embryo when sperm and egg meet.

And genes play a critical role in personality tendencies. Studies show everything from criminality to intelligence to alcoholism have some genetic basis.

But nurture is the wrong word for the other force that shapes boys into men and girls into women. Instead, use the word environment, Ms. Harris writes. It's a small change, but it symbolizes a major shift in thinking.

Nurture assumes that it is the home and the parents that shape children. Environment points to the larger world, often anything but nurturing. In Ms. Harris' design, that larger world is the peer group.

Ms. Harris isn't the first person to emphasize the importance of peers, but she may be the most insistent about their dominance. Nor is she the first to say parents don't play an important role in child development.

Ms. Harris cites the work of Stanford University researcher Dr. Eleanor Maccoby, who said her study of 400 families in the 1950s found ``few connections ... between parental child-rearing practices (as reported by parents in detailed interviews) and independent assessments of children's personality characteristics.''

Studies that purport to find similarities, Ms. Harris says, mistake genetic similarities for the effects of child rearing.

As to the power of peers, the evidence is everywhere, Ms. Harris said.

One example is the way children in immigrant families acquire English. Rather than adopting the accented and faulty English of their parents, immigrant children speak American English like natives. They learn from their peers.

Ms. Harris cites the story of one British psycholinguist whose child attended nursery school in Oakland, Calif. After four months, the little girl no longer spoke in the accent of her mother, with whom she spent most of her day. She spoke black English like her playmates.

Ms. Harris also discounts the notion that children learn by imitating their parents. A child who really behaved like his or her parents would be spanked or given a time out.

``The fact is that children cannot learn how to behave by imitating their parents, because most of the things they see their parents doing - making messes, bossing other people around, driving cars, lighting matches, coming and going as they please, and lots of other things that look like fun to people who are not allowed to do them - are prohibited to children.

``From the child's point of view, socialization in the early years consists mainly of learning that you're not supposed to behave like your parents.''

From an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense for children to learn from their peers, Ms. Harris said. If children are to survive in a world of their peers, why take cues from the older generation?

Even monkeys show a peer-preference.

Ms. Harris cites the work of primatologists Harry and Margaret Harlow, who separated young monkeys from their mothers at birth. Monkeys raised with neither peers nor parents were miserable and forever misfits when researchers attempted to return them to monkey society.

Monkeys raised without mothers, but with other monkeys, spent their babyhood clinging to each other and obviously unhappy. But they developed into normal adults. Monkeys raised with a mother but without peers had happy childhoods, but as adults were almost as misfit as the poor lonely monkeys raised in solitary.

But those are monkeys. Are we really taking our cues from the lower primates?

Ms. Harris reports one story that appears to demonstrate that human beings are shaped by the same influences. It involves six children between the ages of three and four who survived Nazi concentration camp. Their parents died soon after their birth and they were cared for by a series of adults, none of whom survived.

Toward adults, these children were aggressive or indifferent. They would scream, swear, bite, or spit. Toward one another, reports Anna Freud (daughter of Sigmund) they were loving and caring. They were considerate of one another's feelings and took care of each other.

``On walks they were concerned for each other's safety in traffic, looked after children who lagged behind, helped each other over ditches ... At mealtimes handing food to the neighbor was of greater importance than eating,'' Anna Freud reported.

In 1982, when the six would have been around 40, researchers sought them out. They had turned out all right, it was reported, and led ``effective lives.''

Among deaf children who teach one another sign language despite adult barriers, children raised in hunter-gatherer cultures, and children of immigrants, the pattern is the same, Ms. Harris said. Children learn from children, take their cues from children, and become adults through the workings of other children.

For some parents, this perceived loss of power may be good news.

``I think parents get a little too uptight about how much influence they have on their child,'' said William F. Northey, Jr., assistant professor in human development at Bowling Green State University, where he specializes in adolescents.

``Maybe allowing parents some freedom to say, `I don't have that much influence or control over my kids,' I think that might be a good thing.''

But Dr. Northey said such advice doesn't work when parents severely abuse a child.

``At the extremes, if you're beating your child every day, that's going to have an effect,'' he said.

Even with parents who do a far better job of child-rearing, Dr. Northey doesn't drop parental influence from the picture.

``I work with families of adolescents. Sometimes kids get a little crazy. It's normal acting out and parents over-respond. They think they somehow screwed up. Part of what I tell parents is to trust what they've done over the last 13, 14 years.'' Those values are still part of the child, he said.

Not all parents want to get off the hook. Sara Hermanoff, the mother of two sons, age 4 years and 4 months, says the notion of parental powerlessness doesn't fit what she knows to be true.

``In my life, absolutely my parents are my biggest influence,'' said the Sylvania Township woman. ``I think that carries me as an adult. I'm very close to them. They live in Chicago and I speak to them every day. Knowing that they think I am the absolute end-all helps me feel good about myself. I want that same kind of relationship with my children,'' she said.

``Friends are replaceable. You can move in and out of friendships. Your parents are your parents for life, and that relationship has to be nurtured.''

Maxine Calliff, mother of two, grandmother of five, and early childhood director at the Jewish Community Center in Toledo, finds Ms. Harris' peers-over-parents argument unconvincing.

``I do not agree with her at all. Not at all. And I've had 30 years of experience in this field, and a master's in early childhood,'' she said.

``Does this woman have children?'' she asked. (She does. Two daughters.)

``Children do need nurturing. Parents do make a difference. You see it every day in the life of a child. Parents, especially moms, are the most influential people in their children's life. The second most important is their preschool teacher.''

Peers are important, ``but without an adult model to help them ... you could end up having a child who is not going to be able to deal with society.''

Steve Brown is a youth pastor at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Maumee. He also disagrees with the peers-over-parents notion.

``I would say parents are the single most important factor in a child's life. Even if a child doesn't say they are, they still are,'' Mr. Brown said.

``I'm surprised that someone would come to those conclusions.''

As a youth minister for more than 20 years, Mr. Brown said his experience shows peers are important, but their influence, good or bad, is ultimately washed away by what goes on at home.

``We could have all the positive peers in a child's life, not only friends but other youth leaders in their lives ... but once they step out of that cocoon, what lasts is the parents' influence,'' he said.

William M. Gray, a psychologist and professor of educational psychology at the University of Toledo, agrees that family is the most important force.

``There is evidence to clearly suggest that parents have an impact in terms of children's personality characteristics, children's academic orientation, and there's also clear evidence that if those views shared by parents are supported by a peer group, they are amplified, so you get two powerful environmental forces working together.

``I'm not disputing that peers are powerful. But her idea that somehow parents just don't have much effect beyond specific situations in the family and the home, boy ... I'm just not convinced.''

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