Many professionals act as though parents were of little importance to the development of their children, but child development theorist Judith Rich Harris has actually written whole books about why that is the case. That would not matter very much except that, as she points out in an interview with Scientific American, “My work is now cited in many psychology textbooks and assigned in college courses.” The fact that most developmental psychologists don’t agree with her does not stop her from being influential.

In The Nurture Assumption, published 10 years ago, Harris argued that peers have much more influence than parents on “Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do” (subtitle). She claimed that research showing the opposite (“the nurture assumption”) is “so deeply flawed that it is meaningless”. In a more recent book, No Two Alike, she explains away personality resemblances between parents and children by putting them down to genes. And she explains personality differences between children — even identical twins — by a theory of competition.

Harris tells us that the “myth” attributing power to parents to shape the personalities of their children only dates back 50 years or so, when parents started thinking they had to “sacrifice their own convenience and comfort in order to gratify the desires of their children”, and boost their self-esteem. Before that, apparently, children were largely ignored, except when they were being disciplined. Yet all the fussing over children has not changed people at all, says Harris; levels of aggression, happiness, self-confidence and mental health remain the same. Ergo, parents have no power over their children’s personalities (character, perhaps?)

Parents' only power seems to be over behaviour in the home; kids have to learn outside the home how to behave outside it. This leads Harris to an amazing policy conclusion: “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 the home environment is not the way to do it. What you need is a school-based intervention.” To whit, “a talented teacher” who can prevent the class from splitting in two, anti-learners versus pro-learners locked in primeval competition.

Harris’s books no doubt introduce many subtleties into this framework, but the Sciam interview shows that her view of the child is that of a strangely fragmented being, one with no moral centre. His behaviour changes according to his environment and his personality is a product of genes and of competition with his peers. It belongs in the field of evolutionary psychology. And it may be shaping the policy of a school near you. ~ Scientific American, April 9


Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet