Review of The Nurture Assumption

Harris, J. R. (1998). The nurture assumption: Why children turn out the way they do. New York: The Free Press. Pp. 462. ISBN: 0-684-84409-5

This book makes a bold claim: It’s not parents or other adult family members who have the main environmental (non-genetic) effect on how children develop; it’s the children’s peers. After I read a review of this book that summarized Harris’ ideas and noted the stir that her work was apparently causing in the field of psychology, I thought I should check out the book, because its thesis would seem to bolster support for CL as a means for peers to have a positive effect on one another.

The bulk of the book is a refutation of the work of Freudians and other psychologists who claim that parents are the decisive factor in how their children turn out. “Group socialization theory [Harris’ theory] makes this prediction: that children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left their lives outside the home unchanged—left them in their schools and their neighborhoods—but switched the parents around” (p. 359).

Harris maintains that roughly one half of the variation in a person’s personality is determined by their genes. For instance, she dismisses most of the research that suggests parents getting divorced increases the likelihood that their children will get divorced. Instead, she presents studies that controlled for the effects of heredity and found no relation between divorce rates of parents and children. “Heredity is one of the reasons that parents with problems often have children with problems. It is a simple, obvious, undeniable fact; and yet it is the most ignored fact in all of psychology” (p. 294). Harris asserts that the link between divorce rates of parents and children is actually due to common personality traits passed on genetically. “Heredity, not their experiences in their childhood home, is what makes the children of divorce more likely to fail in their own marriages” (p. 308). These traits include “aggressiveness, … impulsiveness, a tendency to be easily bored” (p. 309).

In the nature vs nurture debate, Harris is not denying any role to nurture or saying that it’s okay for parents to abuse or abandon their children. Her point is that we should be contrasting not nature vs nurture, but nature vs environment, and that peers are a more important aspect of children’s environment than are parents. Indeed, the book’s first chapter is entitled “’Nurture’ is not the same as ‘environment’” (p. 1).

Studies involving identical twins raised in different settings are a key source of evidence Harris uses to debunk the importance of parents. “The medium through which the cultures are passed down cannot be the family, because if you pluck the family out of the neighborhood and plunk it down somewhere else, the children’s behavior will change to conform with that of their peers in their new neighborhood” (p. 304). The experiences of children of immigrants provide another important support for Harris’ contention about the importance of peers. For instance, she cites the story of a British family who moved to Italy. The son grew up not only speaking Italian like a native but also, to his father’s chagrin, adopting Italian culture. Another case involves a family that moved from Poland to the U.S. Even though the family spoke only Polish at home, the son was soon speaking English as though his family had been in the U.S. for generations. Harris writes, “If the peer group’s culture differs from the parents’, the peer group’s always wins. The child of immigrant parents or deaf parents invariably learns the language of her peers and favors it over the language her parents taught her. It becomes her native language” (p. 358).

For many years, in the psychology textbooks she wrote for university students, Harris was a proponent of the nurture assumption that her current book seeks to refute. Her experiences with immigrants to the U.S. were a key force in changing her view: “When I was a graduate student I lived in a rooming house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was owned by a Russian couple who, along with their three children, occupied the ground floor of the house. The parents spoke Russian to each other and to their children; their English was poor and they spoke it with a thick Russian accent. But the children, who ranged in age from five to nine, spoke perfectly acceptable English with no accent at all—that is, they had the same Boston-Cambridge accent as the other kids in the neighborhood. They looked like the other kids in the neighborhood, too. There was something foreign-looking about the parents—I wasn’t sure if it was their clothing, their gestures, their facial expressions, or what” (p. 10).

Instead of parents having a lifelong effect on children, as most developmental psychologist would lead us to believe, Harris maintains the peers are the ones who have the sustained influence. “Although the learning [done in the home] itself serves a purpose, the content of what children learn may be irrelevant to the world outside their home. They may cast it off when they step outside as easily as the dorky sweater their mother made them wear” (p. 13). Another example Harris gives of how children learn to differentiate between the home and the world beyond is that, “The child who acts obnoxious in the presence of her parents may be demure enough before her classmates and teachers” (p. 75).

Harris maintains that peers have a powerful impact on children’s self-image. “I believe high or low status in the peer group has permanent effects on the personality. Children who are unpopular with their peers tend to have low self-esteem, and I think the feelings of insecurity never go away entirely—they last a lifetime. You have been tried by a jury of your peers and you have been found wanting. You never get over that” (p. 179). This is reminiscent of the work status difference in groups of Elizabeth Cohen and her colleagues at Stanford University (e.g., Cohen, E.G. 1994. Designing groupwork: Strategies for the heterogeneous classroom, 2nd ed. New York: Teachers College Press.)

Different peer groups differ from each other, and members of a particular peer group differ from each other. Harris says that at about seven or eight years old, children begin forming their self images by comparing themselves with their peers, and soon “children get typecast into roles that might last them the rest of their lives” (p. 181), and “Children don’t learn at home the sort of person that they are. They learn this from their peer group” (p. 331). The main influence of the home is in those areas which are not central to the peer group: “If knowledge, skills, or opinions acquired at home are in an area the peer group regards as optional—an area where conformity is not enforced, where difference may even be appreciated—the child may retain them” (p. 330).

One study Harris cites in support of the peer influence being stronger than that of parents is: Ambert, A.-M. (1994). A quantitative study of peer abuse and its effects: Theoretical and empirical implications. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 56, 119-130. Ambert asked students at York University to answer a number of questions about their life before coming to university. One of the questions was “What above all else made you unhappy?” Thirty-seven per cent of respondents described experiences with peers, while only 9% recounted experiences with parents.

Why did modern Western society develop the incorrect nurture assumption of the book’s title? Two of the reasons given by Harris are:

(1) A misunderstanding of socialization. “A child’s job is not to learn how to behave like all the other people in his or her society, because all the other people in the society do not behave alike. In every society, acceptable behavior depends on whether you’re a child or an adult, a male or a female. Children have to learn how to behave like the other people in their own social category. In most cases they do this willingly. Socialization is not something that grownups do to kids—it is something kids do to themselves” (p. 356).

(2) A misunderstanding of how behaviors are learned. “[People] behave differently because they have had different experiences—in one place they are praised, in another they are laughed at—and because different behaviors are called for. It was also assumed, also incorrectly, that if children behave one way at home and in a different way in the schoolyard, it must be the home behavior that matters most” (pp. 356-7).

I kept hoping to find something in the book about the potential for CL to promote positive peer relations, but I found nothing. I’ve written to Harris and referred her to some of the CL literature. However, the book does devote a fair amount of attention to groups and group dynamics, chapters 7 and 11 in particular. Harris believes that groups are very powerful in the lives of people in middle childhood and adolescence. She asks and answers the question “Can the family be a group? … In the modern North American or European home … the family is not a salient social category because it’s the only one around. There are no competing groups to bring out the family’s groupness and so it falls apart into a bunch of individuals—each with his own agenda, her own patch of turf to defend. Self-categorizations are on the me end of the continuum; us seldom makes an appearance in the home” (p. 331). Harris states that this may be different in Asian cultures. She also gives examples of how teachers have been able to have powerful positive effects on their students by creating a strong group identity among an entire class. Jaime Escalante, made famous in the movie Stand and Deliver, is one of the examples she cites. Harris also discusses how forming students into classroom groups that cut across various divisions, e.g., by sex, prior achievement, or social class, is one means of overcoming cliques that may appear.

The Nurture Assumption has its own home page: Included therein are reviews of the books, more of Harris’ writing, some interviews with her, and a Jules Feiffer cartoon.