Friday, February 20, 2015

Book Review: The Nurture Assumption

It all started on Facebook, when a friend commented on an article I had posted about how parents can help language development by speaking to their children. My friend posted an article in rebuttal: The 50-0-50 rule: Why parenting has virtually no effect on children. This led to a lot of questions for which my friend did not have an answer, and so ended the discussion. Recently I read the book mentioned in the article, The Nurture Assumption, by Judith Rich Harris, hoping to find the answers to those questions.

The book starts by discussing the difference between the words nurture and environment. She does a thorough history on how we have perceived child development throughout the ages, followed by a scouring review of all the evidence that science has collected in supporting the nurture assumption. I especially appreciated her discussion on the difference between correlation and causation.

Once Harris finishes taking down all the bad science surrounding the debate, she proceeds to enumerate the different studies that exist in support of her hypothesis. She also gives a few chapters to discuss how children are really influenced by their environment, which is by group socialization. Finally, she discusses dysfunctional families. Surely, there must be some parents out there who are really screwing up? The evidence seems to say that there is a large genetic component to dysfunction, and again, most studies done can show correlations but not causation.

The final chapter is entitled "What Parents Can Do." It seems that beyond our genetic contribution, the only influence we have on our children is where we live and where we send them to school, which contributes to the type of friends they make. As to the idea that if parents have no influence then they can treat their children whichever way they want, she believes that while it may not influence the child, it does influence the relationship, and makes an analogy to marriage. "I don't expect that they way I act toward my husband today is going to determine what kind of person he will be tomorrow. I do expect, however, that it will affect how happy he is to live with me and whether we will remain good friends."

When I first started this blog I wanted to write about how parents can find a way to raise their kids that suits them. I didn't know if I would be able to do this idea justice since I am very attached to my method of raising kids, and I really believe in the precepts that I follow, not to mention that the parenting blogs I regularly visit have a lot of scientific evidence to support their points. This also often leads to a lot of agonizing over parenting decisions. While Harris' book does not convince me that parents have zero influence beyond their genes and environment (and I am not the only one, see some of the reviews below), it does make me feel like there is a wide range of acceptable parenting practices and that every little decision I make is not going to initiate a butterfly effect down the road.

For Further Thought:

If you knew that no matter how you raised your child, your child would turn out OK, what would you do differently?

Are there any tenets of the parenting philosophy that you ascribe to that you only follow because you're "supposed" to?

Would your life be different if it didn't matter to you how other people are raising their children?

For Further Reading:

A list of reviews on the author's website
Review in the Journal of the American Medical Association
Review by John D. Mullen, PhD
Review by Richard Niolon PhD
Review in the American Journal of Psychiatry
NYT Book Review by Carol Tavris
Is It True That Parenting Has No Influence on Children's Adult Personalities?
Scientific American: Do Parents Matter?
Newsweek: The Parent Trap
Commentary Magazine: What are Parents For?

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