A Review of The Nurture Assumption

By David Keirsey, Jr

Nobody said life is easy.  Also, it isn't very simple either.

This is especially true when it comes to parenting.

In past centuries, parents didn't seem to worry about their kids and "what they would be when they grow up".  In fact, most the parents expected their kids to be just like them.  Well, we all know from temperament theory, that "kids being the same as their parents" is many times not the case.

Modern parents worry a great deal on what is the "right way" to raise their children.  But what is the "right way" and how do we get our children to pay us mind?  Parents do have a large influence on how their kids turn out...   Don't they?

Judith Rich Harris, in her new book "The Nurture Assumption," is challenging the conventional wisdom of both Academic psychologists and parents alike: that parents have a large influence on how their children turn out.  Harris challenges this wisdom.  I see that many of her points are valid.  If one can combine her points with some knowledge about temperament, it is most likely this synthesis will help in explaining the role of parents in raising their children.   In this essay, I will discuss her main ideas and their relationship to temperament theory.
Harris first questions whether parents have a large influence on their children.  She examines the evidence put forth by the academic community.  She makes a good case that the evidence is both lacking and deceiving.  She declares that much of the statistical academic research about the relationship between parents and their kids is worthless.  A claim, which cannot be proven, nonetheless is probably true.

She points out that trying to separate the effects of inheritance (genes) and the parent's environmental effects is extremely difficult to do with any large degree of scientific validity.  In reality, as one academic researcher admitted, the effect of childhood environment on the development of the individual to mature adulthood is still mysterious and is not understood.

Harris's book, not surprising, is controversial. There will be many critics, and many people will just ignore the work.  Except for her iconoclastic style and her occasional subtle errors due to lack of knowledge in particular subfields of psychology, I believe Harris presents a coherent thesis.

Harris examines the "Nature versus Nurture" question.   Her "Nature" corresponds mostly to what I call temperament, although she doesn't refer to any particular type of temperament theory.  She points out that Nature
has an undeniable effect.  Harris asserts "Nurture" is not the same as environment.  "Nurture" - the parent's environmental influence is not the whole story in how kids grow up.  In fact, Harris points out correctly that a great deal of the child's time is not in presence of parents.   She notes if there is no strong scientific evidence for the influence of parents, then she asks the question: what does have an effect?

She does find that peer groups can have a large influence in behavior while the child is in that peer group.  She finds that kids (and adults) are very good at separating social contexts.  Kids know that what works with their parents, very likely won't work with their peers.   And what works with their peers, very likely won't work with their parents.   They easily and pragmatically separate social context, and adjust their behavior accordingly. What kids learn from their parents, may or may not be useful with their peers, and what they learn from their peers, may or
may not be useful with their parents.  Harris backs up this observation with detailed, strong evolutionary arguments, why this is necessary so.

Another important part of her book is that she goes into a great depth to explain what is the nature of groups and what they are.  The notion of social group is complex one, and she does a good job of explaining much of dynamics of groups.

She argues that the individual's social group has a more powerful influence in long-term behavior patterns than an individual's parents.  Much of her book lays the groundwork for understanding the influence of social groups.  Most of her arguments and illustrations provide a strong argument for her case.  Her analysis is, on the whole, very illuminating, cogent, and convincing.  The only problem I see in her arguments is that she implies that every kid is influenced by his/her peer group in similar ways.   She points out that there is a significant amount of "socialization" of kids. This socialization is the process of the kid and his peer groups interacting to establish the kid's roles in the dynamics of his/her peer structure.  She asserts that when there is a conflict between the learning from the parent versus the peer group, the peer group will win.  This may or may not be the case, I suspect that it is more complex than that.  Again, on the whole she is correct, but temperament theory has something to say about how kids of different temperament will interact and be influenced by their peers groups (as well as their parents).

Most of academic research in parental influence makes the assumption that kids in the same family are treated the same.  On the other hand,  Harris points out parents don't treat all of their children the same.  As we know,
Harris is right.  Unfortunately for Harris, she does not know temperament theory.  To understand the parent's influence means understanding how parents specifically treat their children differently (and how kids treat their parents differently). This is where temperament theory comes in.  Although Harris addresses this issue, her lack of understanding temperament in detail precludes any in-depth analysis.  Her lack of knowledge about temperament
theory also precludes her from making much headway in the interaction between different type of kids and their peer groups.

Despite her rhetoric, Harris does not deny parents do not have an effect on their children.  The only issue she is questioning is the current wisdom of how we as parents influence our children.  One particular large influence, that is directly in control of the parent is where a kid lives and how often the kid moves.  This is because where a kid lives and who his peer group are depends on where he lives and how he assimilates (or doesn't) into his peer group.  Those can have larger effects than whether a parent smokes or forces a kid to take piano lessons, attend church, and cleans up his room.

Her contribution is to point out social groups is another obvious (when she points it out) source that one must understand before you have a good predictive model of growing up.

Unfortunately, by the time we figure it all out, our kids will have probably have grown up.

Such is life.

David Mark Keirsey