The Parent Rap

September 08, 1998|By PETER JENSEN | PETER JENSEN,SUN STAFF

To the guilty parent who frets over the latest advice about quality time, instilling values or toilet training, Judith Rich Harris offers this relief: Mom and Dad, you don't matter that much.

Hmmm, is that good news or bad? It's certainly controversial, and Harris, a northern New Jersey grandmother, is already feeling the heat from psychologists and child-development experts outraged by her views.

"I seem to have hit a nerve," concedes Harris, a textbook writer kicked out of Harvard's psychology department four decades ago because the chairman thought her graduate work lacked originality and independence.

Her book, "The Nurture Assumption," certainly challenges conventional wisdom and, even the author concedes, is counter-intuitive. But her goal is to do nothing less than fundamentally change the direction of child psychology, and she expected a little ego bruising.

Although it landed in bookstores just two weeks ago, the book has already sold more than 50,000 copies and should soon make it to the best seller list. A cover story in Newsweek, a major article in the New Yorker, a scheduled appearance on the NBC's Today show, and possibly one even on Oprah, could send it vaulting even higher.

Meanwhile, the child psychology establishment is in serious backlash mode. "My first reaction is amazement that this book should be taken seriously," says Urie Bronfenbrenner, professor emeritus at Cornell University and a leading figure in developmental science. "We've got a blooper."

"I don't see a constructive fallout from this," said Johanna K. Tabin, a suburban Chicago psychologist, "other than a helpful fallout for Harris."

What Harris proposes is nothing short of breathtaking: Other than providing genes and the basic essentials such as food and shelter (and unless they are abusive or negligent), parents are not the most important influence on their children's lives.

That runs opposite to almost everything the advice-givers have been telling parents for much of this century -- not to mention countering the Freudians, who see personality traits as veritable parental hand-me-downs.

Instead, Harris points to the impact of peer groups, which she believes psychologists have long underestimated. Is the average second grader likely to prefer the sneakers a parent favors, or the kind the fellow second graders wear?

With no academic affiliation or Ph.D. beside her name, her ideas might easily be dismissed, but Harris has done some serious reading of research in psychology, sociology and anthropology, backing her theory with dozens of articles and studies. (Her reference list takes up 31 of the book's 460 pages.) She also has the wit to write about them in a breezy and often entertaining manner.

"My position is that teen-agers belong to the same species as the rest of us," Harris writes of adolescents in one chapter. "But one cannot help but wonder. If they are equipped with the same sort of brain as the rest of us, why do they so often give the impression of having forgotten how to use it?"

Harris must be pardoned if she still has a little frustration with teen-agers. Her own daughters behaved so differently from each other when they were growing up, it made her question her own influence on them.

Her oldest, Nomi, was an achiever. The younger, Elaine, who was adopted, dropped out of high school. Meanwhile, Harris spent much of their teen years stuck in bed, disabled by an autoimmune disease that has systematically attacked her internal organs, leaving her weakened and often homebound.

But Harris, 60, is adamant that her own experience, while instructive, was not the basis for her theory, and she resents how some writers have already exaggerated her ideas and dissected her own life.

"What I acquired from my experiences as a mother was an interest in child development," she says in an interview by telephone from her home. "Secondarily, parenting taught me that things are a lot more complicated than others made them look."

Consider, for instance, the children of immigrants who readily acquire English and adopt American cultural preferences even if their parents still speak their native tongue. Or how about studies of twins that show growing up in the same home didn't make them more alike than twins separated at birth.

Harris also picks apart researchers who are too quick to make a correlation between child behavior and parental influence -- hence, the title of her book, "The Nurture Assumption." An example: Theoreticians once thought autism was caused by cold, aloof parents, not realizing that parents may have been reacting to autistic children who didn't want to be touched or held.

The implications of this idea could be profound. One example is in divorce and the observation that children of divorced parents generally have more problems in life. But is that due to the emotional tumult of divorce or the psychic wounds caused by an enforced separation from one parent?

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