The problem with our parents

It’s hard for me to take one of the most interesting theories I’ve ever come across and present it in a blog. Quickly. After my shower, but before I need to get going today on the laundry, the shopping, the packing of my suitcase, and before I go out tonight, and get back to work tomorrow and fly to Boston tomorrow night to visit my mom.

So I won’t try too hard. I only have about 40 minutes.

Instead I will tell you about the person behind the theory which involves a story even more interesting to me. Here goes …

Back in 1998 Judith Harris wrote a book called The Nuture Assumption: Why Children Turn out the Way They Do. Here’s some of the praise on the back of the book

  • ‘Harris’s assault on the assumption that screwed-up-adults should blame their families is a refreshing corrective.’ The Observer
  • ‘[This book] is brilliant – it has the unusual combination of being completely original, high interesting, and almost certainly correct.” Steven Pinker, author of How the Mind Works

But the most interesting thing about the book is how Harris came up with her theory that other children, not adults, have much more to do with how we turn out.

Before she wrote the book, Harris published an article  in the distinguished academic journal Psychological Review. Which triggered a good deal of questions — where was her university affiliation? where were her credentials — Harris was Judith, not Professor Harris, not Dr. Harris. She received an outpouring of replies from the academics who read this journal. Her favourite came from a Professor at Cornell:

Your article constitutes a major contribution to personality and developmental psychology — which only makes me even more curious about you. Are you an academic? A clinician? An unemployed steel worker who has an interesting hobby of writing seminal scientific articles?

Harris was the steel worker. Here’s how she replied to the professor

I said I was an unemployed writer of college textbooks. I explained that I had no Ph.D — I’d been kicked out of Harvard’s Department of Psychology with only a master’s degree. I had been stuck at home for many years due to chronic health problems; I had no mentors, no students. I became a writer of textbooks because that is something one can do at home. I was an unemployed writer of textbooks because I’d quit that job.

She never heard from the professor again.

In one of life’s classic twists of fate she received the George A. Miller prize for her article. Miller was the former president of the American Psychological Society. And by chance Miller was the professor who had kicked Judith Harris out of the Ph.D program at Harvard 37 years earlier.

She’d done nothing wrong, her grades were fine, but it was his conclusion that she didn’t have it in her to come up with anything worthy enough of the Harvard badge. He’d written something to this effect in a letter to her that explained they didn’t want her to pursue her Ph.D.

In the intervening years Harris went on to be a mother. And a textbook writer. And she noticed that the theories and experiments she had to fashion into interesting textbook language didn’t add up. They didn’t explain to her why her two daughters were so different. She struggled with the idea that beyond genetic explanations (which she believes, but only account for half of who we are), her parental style would account for the rest. This was an idea with tremendous explanatory popularity throughout the 1980’s ad 1990’s when therapy took off like a tsunami. We might forget that now because genetics is back in vogue (after decades of their study being too taboo, too politically sensitive after all the effort of the civil rights movement to create a standard of equality that said all people, from all sorts of genetic variations, are just as smart and capable and worthy of the same treatment as the next person.)

Anyway, what Harris noticed is that this classic debate neglects a huge influence in our lives on what’s been called the “nuture side” but would be better known as environmental factors. She examines everything from why some children are more aggressive than others to how it is that immigrant children learn the language of their peers and not their parents and points to group socialization as the overlooked alternative explanation.

She argues against birth order theories, and twin studies and says “children identify with their classmates and playmates rather than their parents, modify their behavior to fit with the peer group, and this ultimately helps to form the character of the individual.”

I didn’t come across Harris until 2005 but her arguments backed up my own belief that school forms us for life. So of course I liked it.

But like all major theories hoping to explain humans, it’s not that Judith Harris has nailed it — it’s that, as an outsider, she saw what insiders could not see. And she stood up and said something about it. What she said was the exact sort of thing that gets you fired from teaching Ph.D programs never mind wanting to complete one. It’s that she devoted years of her life building the case to convince the people that research our lives, that shape government and healthcare and educational policy and that medicate and “treat” us with therapy or bookshelves of self-help — that there’s more they should understand about what influences our personality and life-chances than our parents (the genes they give us and the way they treat us).

What she actually said is that parents don’t matter. But she was just trying to get published. What she goes on to explain is that this over-emphasis on parenting is a huge waste of time when what really makes all the difference is going on in the playground or at after-school sports.

Parents matter, but a whole lot less than Philip Larkin and our culture insists.

[Not that this means that I personally ever forget all that you’ve done and still do for us, if you’re reading this Mom] See, I told you that 40 minutes was a very tall order to sum up Harris’ life work and get in all the nuances, never mind give my own personal thoughts on the matter … but really I have to go.


1 Comment

Filed under Identity, Social psychology, Therapy

One response to “The problem with our parents

  1. Heather Fleming

    As always, brilliant insights, Nat! I loved this blog – and to think it was on a 40 minute deadline!

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