Kid's rebellion is peer trip, not power one

September 08, 1998|By SUSAN REIMER

A new book by an amateur psychologist titled "The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do" arrived in bookstores this month, and it has the potential to explode like hand grenade in the uneasy lives of parents who are trying to raise teen-agers.

Judith Rich Harris is a grandmother and a textbook writer from suburban New Jersey whose lupus-like illness has kept her homebound for many years. She has no academic affiliation and has done no original research, yet her book has received national media attention.

As she told Malcolm Gladwell in the Aug. 17 New Yorker, she had an epiphany one day while poring over the work of another psychologist who was suggesting that rebellion in children is an attempt to grab the power adults have: Because they want to be like us, kids steal cars, smoke or have sex.

Gladwell wrote that the sky opened for Harris and she saw that children aren't interested in being like their parents. Children want to please their friends.

Harris used this germ of an idea to reopen the old "nature vs. nurture" debate. She read every scrap written on the subject, and synthesized this new conclusion: Half of our personality is determined by genetics and the other half is determined by the environment. But the environment is not the one parents fashion for their children. It is the environment children find among their peers -- for good or ill.

Her conclusions have rocked the world of child development, which has been parent-centered since Freud: If we are screwed up, it is our parents' fault. If we do well, they get much of the credit.

Harris argues that not only do parents have less influence on their children's behavior than they imagined, but what little influence they have does not travel very far outside the home: Your child has simply found the behavior that works with you. He can be a very different child at school -- in other words, around his peers.

Her arguments and examples are persuasive, and some child development experts praise Harris for seeing the trees while everyone else has been describing the forest.

But others, such as Penelope Leach, have reacted angrily, saying she is giving parents an excuse to bail out of a difficult and often unrewarding task: guiding their children through adolescence into responsible adulthood.

I must admit my first reaction was relief: "Great. I'll just turn over the keys to the house and the car to my 14-year-old and his friends and leave for an extended vacation. I never felt like I was on his radar screen anyway."

My second reaction was fury. "Don't you tell me my tears and worry mean nothing. I didn't bear this child just so I could have someone to cook for.

"It is OK if he is not a copy of his father. I didn't clone him, I am raising him. I'd like to improve the species, not replicate it. Just don't tell me I could have set him on the river in a basket of reeds for all I have to say about his character."

Like my first reactions, the central argument of Harris' book is extreme. But I hope that this book has the effect of moderating the parent debate.

That youngsters do not always aspire to be adults is probably true, but that does not mean they don't aspire to be adults someday. That youngsters do not always take their parents' words to heart is probably true, but that does not mean their parents don't matter to them. Study after study is showing that children do want to hear from their parents.

To the extent that this book may prick the balloons of over-involved parents who are making their kids nuts with their controlling style, I think it will be a good thing.

To the extent that this book relieves the anxiety of parents who cannot sleep because they believe they are failing, it will be a good thing.

And, to the extent that this book opens our eyes to the power other children have over our own children, it is also a good thing.

Parents often are ignorant of the invisible socialization that goes rTC on outside our earshot, outside our field of vision. We fail to understand just how powerful peer approval is in the choices our children make.

What this book does not do -- and this failing is why it is a harmful book -- is help parents understand how and when they still matter to the emerging adults in their care.

Parents still matter. But if we knew what we were doing right, if we knew what was still in our power to do, we might matter more.

Pub Date: 9/08/98

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