A child raising principle that's probably without peer

October 02, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Chalk this up as the Great Parenting Paradox of our era.

Just as kids spend more hours out of their parents' sight, we privatize child development. Just as more kids go to day care, school care, other care, we rachet up the message that parents are overwhelmingly responsible for how they turn out.

This is how it goes today in the child advice world: Music for the womb. Bonding in the first week. Flashcards for the crib. Reading for 2-year-olds. It's all over by 3.

In this anxious atmosphere, you would think Judith Harris would get a standing ovation for telling parents to "relax" because they matter less than they think.

In fact, Ms. Harris' book "The Nurture Assumption" got a Newsweek/New Yorker send-off that most authors only dream about. But now it's producing one of those heated debates that begin with dueling experts and end up with confused parents.

The author who raised two very different daughters in the same household once shared the nurture assumption -- a belief that the way parents raise young children lays out the pathway of their personality for life. Now, she looks at the research with a jaundiced eye and shares her epiphany: "Hey, it's not the parents! It's not the parents at all!"

Yes, nature in the form of genes matters some, says Ms. Harris, but nurture is vastly overrated. There is no proof that one style of parenting produces one kind of personality. Children who are raised the same way turn out differently.

Indeed, she suggests, "The relationship between a parent and a child, like any other relationship between two individuals, is a two-way street -- an ongoing transaction in which each party plays a role." Our parenting styles may be the effect rather than the cause of a child's personality.

Ms. Harris does overstate her case. As one reviewer put it, she throws the parent out with the bath water. Then having debunked the overwhelming influence of parents, she goes on to tell us who does matter. It's peers.

"The personality shaped and polished in our childhood and adolescent peer groups," she concludes, "is the one we take with us to the grave." Peers 'R' It.

Now I have noticed how our beliefs about parenting change over the life cycle. At 20, we're pretty sure that whatever is wrong with us can be blamed on our parents. We enter parenthood with an anxious and heady sense of our own power. Then our children go out into the world and crash into adolescence. Just when we accept the limits of parenting our 20-year-olds decide that whatever is wrong with them is our fault.

Alas, child psychology is not a pure science. You can't do a double-blind crossover study of one child. Can't raise her in one household, controlling for all the variables called life and then start her over again in another family. Child psychology, like parenting, is fallible.

So is Ms. Harris' notion that it's the peers not the parents, "it's the neighborhood, not the family." She suggests that the best parents can do is choose the neighborhood and the schools that will be our children's tribe.

This is, of course, a well-known strategy. Parents often vote with our feet, and real estate taxes, and private school tuitions. But in handing over the keys from parents to peers, she doesn't explain why neighborhoods, schools, peer groups differ from one another. Or where they come from.

Ms. Harris simply describes self-perpetuating cultures, "passed down from the parents' peer group to the children's peer group." If we can't blame the parents, can we blame the parents' peer group? She seems to dismiss these peer cultures as impervious to change.

It's odd that the controversy over this sea-changing book rages around the fear that if parents think they aren't important, they'll give up the job. That the only reason we are involved with kids is because our quality time is imprinted for life.

I take a rather different message from "the nurture assumption." I agree with Ms. Harris that we aren't just raised in a mom and pop lab. Nurture is a rather squinty-eyed view of that other larger word, environment. Parents are part of that larger cultural environment. But so are peer groups.

We have spent increasing amounts of energy, anxiety, attention on child-raising as a private enterprise. Check the bookshelves of advice. If Ms. Harris is right, parents have less to worry about at home. On the other hand, we have more to worry about -- and to do -- in the neighborhood.

Now who was telling us to "relax"?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/02/98

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