Do Parents Matter?

In the April 9th issue of Mind Matters Judith Harris was interviewed about her recently expanded and highly controversial volume The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. This widely discussed book questioned one of the most cherished views of child rearing--that parents are the major determinants of their children’s personality and behavior. Harris argued that parental influence has been vastly overestimated and that the children’s peers play a far more important role in shaping their behavior than is usually assumed.

Harris brought to bear a large number of studies demonstrating that whatever influence parents have is overshadowed in the long run by the child’s peer group. She pointed out that most of the research usually cited to support the importance of parents is “so deeply flawed that it is meaningless. And studies using more rigorous methods produce results that do not support the assumption.”

She cited studies of identical twins (reared apart or together) to show that genetic factors control about a half of a person's intellect and personality. She points out that since her book was written, the methodology of genetic research has improved so that there is now a much greater appreciation of the genetic influences on personality. “Unless we know what the child brings to the environment, we can’t figure out what effect the environment has on the child.”

Other studies of fatherless children are consistent with this evidence. Rearing a child without an adult male in the household appears to have very little particular impact on children. Instead, factors associated with income, frequency of moving, and peer relationships are said to matter more.

Harris also points out that measuring behavior in these studies is clearly a function of the situation where it occurs. She says “I’ve put together a lot of evidence showing that children learn at home how to behave at home (that’s where parents do have power!) and they learn outside the home how to behave outside the home.

So if you want to improve the way children behave in school—for instance by making them more diligent and less disruptive in the classroom—then improving their home environment is not the way to do it. What you need is a school-based intervention. That’s where teachers have power. A talented teacher can influence a whole group of kids.”

My own feeling is that the issues surrounding this controversy say less about the influence of parents on their children and far more about the methods used to obtain the evidence, especially the methods used to assess adult behavior and personality. Frankly, I do not believe these methods tap the important dimensions of human personality and intellectual ability. Nor do I think the findings have a very high degree of generality. Each of us can ask: Do they apply to me? The question is unanswerable. There is simply no procedure for determining for whom the findings hold and for whom they don't.

It is also true that critics have tended to falsely conclude from Harris’s notions that parents don’t matter much at all. Of course, they matter; they matter a great deal but not in the all ways we have usually assumed. We learn a great many things from our parents but it isn’t like necessarily very specific.

Instead, we learn from them very general aspects of character and motivation. We learn to value learning, not any particular discipline. We see what it means to be generous and helpful, not any particular instance of these acts. In short, our parents provide exemplars for those deeper aspects of human character and feeling that find are expressed in the sort of person we become.