(Judith Rich Harris is a former writer of college textbooks on child development. One day she had an epiphany and realized that what she was writing about didn’t jive with her or her neighbors experiences of raising children. She stopped writing textbooks and began studying why children turn out the way they do. Her conclusions have shocked professionals and parents alike. An award winning author in psychology, Mrs. Harris’s book, The Nurture Assumption, is a must for anyone who works or lives with adolescents.)
Interviewer: Mrs. Harris, you have been described as “the terrible grandmother from New Jersey” — the one who has taken on the academic establishment and has been ferociously attacked by some of its members. The dust from the controversy you stirred up has not yet settled, and people are still livid about your Group Socialization theory, as presented in your book The Nurture Assumption. Could you briefly explain the main point of GS theory and also explain the uproar?
Judith Harris: Most of the uproar is directed not against GS theory itself, but against my assertion that parents have no important long-term effects on their child’s personality, intelligence, or mental health. I don’t consider that to be my original idea — it’s been floating around in the back rooms of psychology for years and is supported by plenty of evidence — but it’s the point that gets most of the attention.
Group Socialization theory, on the other hand, is my own contribution. It’s my attempt to answer the question, “Well, if it isn’t the parents, what is it?” It is clear that the environment does affect a child’s personality, intelligence, and mental health — the question is, how does it do it? Our species has a long evolutionary history of living in groups. I believe that human children are predisposed to identify with a group and to become accepted members of that group. My theory isn’t about “peer pressure,” because pressure is seldom required. Children want to be like the other members of their group. This is how cultural norms are transmitted: children identify with a group of others they perceive as being like themselves and take on the norms of that group.
I: Most people believe that parents with good parenting skills influence their kids to behave properly, regardless of what their peers do. If it isn’t the parents, where do the good kids come from?
JH: The existence of “bad” teenage groups, and the influence they have on their members, is widely recognized and understood. What isn’t recognized or understood is that the “good” groups are having just as important an effect on their members. Many psychologists think of “peer pressure” as a source of problems and believe that it only affects kids whose parents are not doing an adequate job of rearing them. They don’t notice that the “good” kids have peer groups that are just as influential. The attitudes and behaviors found in the “good” groups tend to be those that the parents approve of, so the parents assume it is their influence that’s causing the kids to have those behaviors and attitudes.
I: Many people would say that water seeks its own level and that kids seek out peers with similar behaviors and attitudes. They believe it is the parents who determine the kid’s behaviors and attitudes and that therefore it is the parents who ultimately determine which peer group their kid will join.
JH: The evidence against that point of view is that a child who switches peer groups — for example, from a group of kids who are opposed to doing well in school to a group of academic achievers — will have a change of attitude. The parents’ ideas haven’t changed, and the child still has the same IQ, but all of a sudden academic achievement is something to be sought after and admired instead of scorned.
I: So what a parent teaches a child at home isn’t what is causing them to act good or bad out in society?
JH: That’s right. An important element of GS theory is the idea that behaviors learned in one context are not automatically dragged along to other contexts. Behaviors that children learn at home often turn out to be useless or inappropriate outside the home. When that happens, the kids quickly drop what they learned at home and acquire new behaviors. It is true that some kids are nice wherever they go, and some are troublemakers both at home and in school, but that doesn’t mean they transferred what they learned at home to the schoolyard. I have found evidence that when there is a carryover of behavior from one context to another it is due to a genetic predisposition. Children who were born with a tendency to be impulsive or aggressive are likely to get into trouble wherever they go.
I: The problem is that many professionals tell parents that if they do X, Y, and Z, their kids will not be at risk for substance abuse or delinquency. Then, if the kids get into trouble anyway, people assume that the parents must have done something wrong. I would think that your theory of group socialization would make parents happy. But parents seem to balk as much as many experts do.
JH: My impression is that the parents who don’t like what I’m saying either have very young children whom they are still hoping to influence, or have older children who have turned out very well and for whom they’d like to take the credit! The ones who thank me for what I am saying are the parents who did their best but who nonetheless have a kid who’s giving them a lot of grief. (Usually it’s just one kid — their other kids are doing fine.)
I: In today’s society, we have been quick to blame parents for whatever is wrong with us. I find this particularly noticeable in adolescent treatment programs. Although therapists don’t overtly say, “Your parents made you an addict,” they do say that getting the whole family in therapy is necessary to heal the ‘dysfunctional family system?that the teenager surely must have come from. What is your take on this?
JH: I have great sympathy for the parents of these teenagers. The reason they are blamed, I believe, is that there really is a tendency for “dysfunctional” kids to come from families with “dysfunctional” parents. What is overlooked here is the genetic connection between the parents and the kids: the fact children inherit many of their characteristics from their biological parents. If you eliminate the genetic connection — for example, by looking at adopted children — the correlation disappears.
I: What can you suggest to parents who want to protect their kids from substance abuse?
JH: The biggest power parents have is to determine where their kids will grow up and where they will go to school. Problems like substance abuse, school dropout, and teenage pregnancy vary in prevalence from one neighborhood to another. Whether a given child succumbs to one of these temptations depends very much on where he or she lives and goes to school. But parents already know this — that’s why they try so hard to buy a house in a “nice neighborhood”!
I. All this reminds me of Dave Barry’s piece about smoking, which you quoted in your book:
Arguments against smoking: It’s a repulsive addiction that slowly but surely turns you into a gasping, gray-skinned, tumor-ridden invalid, hacking up brownish gobs of toxic waste from your one remaining lung.
Arguments for Smoking: Other teenagers are doing it.
Case closed! Let’s light up!
Any parting comments?
J.H: Dave Barry is right. The evidence shows that the tendency for parents who smoke to have children who smoke is explained by the fact that the tendency to become addicted to nicotine is heritable. Researchers who controlled for genetic effects found that only one environmental factor determines whether or not a kid will become a smoker: whether or not his peers smoke.
I: Thank you Judy. Your message has startling implications for prevention, treatment, and parenting.
In conclusion I want to add, that if Harris has correctly interpreted the data she has looked at, parents can do little to offset the effects of peers, which means that changing the family will not change the teenager’s behavior — we must reach this teenager in other ways. For those who want to know what she is really saying about GS and don’t have time to read the book, read a minister’s apology to her, at:
As the minister points out, no one has the right to disagree with Ms. Harris until they have given her a chance to explain the evidence and reasoning that back up her conclusions.