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Do parents matter? - Open Knowledge — LiveJournal

Mar. 29th, 2004

01:46 am - Do parents matter?

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http://www.gladwell.com/1998/1998_08_17_a_harris.htm

"Do Parents Matter?  Judith Rich Harris and child development ", by Malcolm Gladwell.  The New Yorker, August 17, 1998.


"If adolescents didn't want to be like adults, it was because they wanted to be like other adolescents.  Children were identifying with and learning from other children, and Harris realized that once you granted that fact all the conventional wisdom about parents and family and child-rearing started to unravel.  Why, for example, do the children of recent immigrants almost never retain the accents of their parents?  How is it that the children of deaf parents manage to learn how to speak as well as children whose parents speak to them from the day they were born?  The answer has always been that language is a skill acquired laterally--that what children pick up from other children is at least as important as what they pick up at home.  Harris was asking whether this was true more generally:  what if children also learn the things that make them who they are--that shape their characters and personalities--from their peer group?  This would mean that, in some key sense, parents don't much matter--that what's important is not what children learn inside the home but what they learn outside the home.

"I was sitting and thinking," Harris told me, looking bright-eyed as she clutched a tall glass of lemonade.  She is tiny--a fragile, elfin grandmother with a mop of gray hair and a little-girl voice.  We were in her kitchen, looking out on the green of her back yard.  "I told my husband, Charlie, about it.  I had signed a contract to write a developmental-psychology textbook, and I wasn't quite ready to give it up.  But the more I thought about it the more I realized I couldn't go on writing developmental-psychology textbooks, because I could no longer say what my publishers wanted me to say."  Over the next six months, Harris immersed herself in the literature of social psychology and cultural anthropology.  She read studies of group behavior in primates and unearthed studies from the nineteen-fifties of pre-adolescent boys.  She couldn't conduct any experiments of her own, because she didn't belong to an academic institution.  She couldn't even use a proper academic library, because the closest university to her was Rutgers, which was forty-five minutes away, and she didn't have the strength to leave her house for more than a few hours at a time.  So she went to the local public library and ordered academic texts through interlibrary loan and sent for reprints of scientific articles through the mail, and the more she read the more she became convinced that her theory could tie together many of the recent puzzling findings in behavioral genetics and developmental psychology.  In six weeks, in August and September of 1994, she wrote a draft and sent it off to the academic journal Psychological Review.  It was an act of singular audacity, because Psychological Review is one of the most prestigious journals in psychology, and prestigious academic journals do not, as a rule, publish the musings of stay-at-home grandmothers without Ph.D.s.  But her article was accepted, and in the space below her name, where authors typically put "Princeton University" or "Yale University" or "Oxford University," Harris proudly put "Middletown, New Jersey."  Harris listed her CompuServe address in a footnote, and soon she was inundated with E-mail, because what she had to say was so compelling and so surprising and, in a wholly unexpected way, so sensible that everyone in the field wanted to know more.  Who are you? scholars asked.  Where did you come from?  Why have I never heard of you before?"

Comments:

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From:tinymammoth
Date:March 29th, 2004 07:59 am (UTC)
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I'm working on Harris' book, The Nurture Assumption. It's very convincing, well worth reading.
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From:darius
Date:March 29th, 2004 01:26 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, I liked it too.
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From:gentlemaitresse
Date:March 29th, 2004 12:23 pm (UTC)
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Being the mother of five children, ages 20, 16, 11, 5, and 3, I'd say that parents definitely matter, and peers are more influential over some people than others. I haven't yet decided whether it's simply in their nature, or whether there are things parents can do to help their children resist negative peer pressure. Let's just say I'm currently involved in research to answer that question. ;-)

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From:herbaliser
Date:March 29th, 2004 02:46 pm (UTC)
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as a daughter of a mother of five children, I agree.

for example: the first three of us do not have regional accents, whereas the next two do.
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From:kitnish
Date:March 29th, 2004 05:14 pm (UTC)
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That was a very interesting article! I'm going to have to read the book too :)

I don't have any children, but I was a kid once ;), and remember quite clearly the influence that both my peers and family had on the way I developed. My parents definitely had some influence on me, but I honestly think my peers did even more. When it comes to little things like how I put the toilet paper on the roll, and whether I open presents Christmas morning or Christmas eve, my family definitely had a bigger influence. But for the big things like how I've expressed my spirituality and sexuality, my relationships/lifestyle, my life philosophy, my peers were hugely more influencial.

Very thought-provoking to me, as I'm currently trying to have children. It makes me wonder if the most influencial thing a parent can do in the life of their child is to help them make good choices in choosing their friends!
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From:delores
Date:March 29th, 2004 06:25 pm (UTC)

Very interesting

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As a new mother -- particularly because I'm a "stay-at-home" -- my first reaction after reading her theories is relief. At this stage of the game, she spends the vast majority of her time with me, so the pressure is intense to not "screw her up for life," as they say.

As a daughter, I agree with her up to a point. I think in my very early childhood, parents & other family were my greatest influence. As I got older, their influence waned, and peers became vastly more important until I married/reproduced. Now my husband is my greatest influence, with my family a close second. Peers barely show up on the map anymore. Of course, I'm no longer a 'child' so her theories perhaps aren't supposed to apply anymore, but I've found that after rejecting my parent's and family's influence when I was young, I've embraced it as an adult as I start my own family.

So perhaps parental influence does win in the end?

I'll check out her book, though -- it sounds terribly interesting. Thanks for turning me on to this!
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From:shribble
Date:March 29th, 2004 09:09 pm (UTC)
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Wasn't this already covered by the evolutionary biologists and game theorists?

It may well be the case that peer groups provide the main source of socialization, but parents have a decent influence on who a child associates with (choosing schools and such). Also, does she talk about the impact of dysfunctional families on children? Maybe parents have little upside impact in their children, but I can't help but think they hold a vast deal of power to truly complicate the lives of their children. Talking to friends and family from suboptimal families, I find there's just a whole bag of issues I don't have to deal with because my parents were basically loving, stable and rational. These friends may behave normally and lead normal lives, but they still devote a great deal of emotional energy to cope with the baggage inherited from their childhoods.
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From:crasch
Date:March 30th, 2004 07:41 pm (UTC)
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Good questions. I haven't read the book yet, so I don't know how or to what extent she addresses them. My observations of friends who had dysfunctional parents certainly correlates with yours -- although for the most part they've coped well, they often have emotional problems that they have to spend a lot energy working around.

Like you, I had a basically loving, stable, and rational home life--for which I'm eternally grateful. I'm so glad that I don't have to deal with the problems some of my friends face.
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