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Parents count for less and peers count for more

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do
Judith Rich Harris
Free Press, 1998

A really worthwhile book to have. The author is very much a free-lance, though with academic training and credentials. Her thesis is roughly that sociologists have misread the origins of child development, putting excessive emphasis on family environment, ignoring or denying the genetic element, and completely failing to identify the prime importance of the “peer group”. This thesis is backed up by interpretations (more strictly re-interpretations) of large numbers of studies, making use of adoptees, identical and fraternal twins, kept together or separated, and simply family studies of sibling differences. In all of these the parental influence is, rather to the author’s regret, discovered to be minimal to nil.

Why this common (sociological) misperception? The author makes the point on the last page: we keep up with our parents and family, far less so with our peers. She rights the balance of blame away from the parents, who have borne it for a long time (she names Bruno Bettleheim as a culprit, but not, I think, R. D. Laing), pointing out that just as children react to their parents’ treatment of them, so it happens the other way round.

She makes much of the fact that the most notable and clearcut example of peer group vs family influence is language, especially as learnt by children of immigrants; their birth-language does not grow up to cope with their mature interests, but remains a language of childhood. This situation is paralleled by the acquisition of speech by non-deaf children of parents both of whom are deaf (only about 10% of children born to such parents are themselves deaf).

There are exceptions, such as cooking, which tends to be, or can be, learnt in the home. She spends considerable space refuting claims to any effect of birth-order, particularly by Sulloway (including a 25 page-length Appendix). It was interesting that she should suspect that such claims arose from the once widespread, now near-obsolete, custom of primogeniture.

The author assures us she is not kidding about the names of Ernst and Angst, on whose research she draws.

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1 comment to Parents count for less and peers count for more

  • M. Simon

    What is also not well publicized is the connection between addiction to drugs and genetics.

    The drug demon is not going to rise up out of some powder and grab you by the throat.

    Addiction prone (genetically) accounts for only 20% of the population.

    In addition there is another factor since only 1/2 of the 20% has trouble with drugs.