crasch (crasch) wrote,

Do parents matter?

"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?"
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