The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

Book Review-The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do – The Basics

When you look at another family (probably on Facebook) and think “they’ve got it together,” do you think that they “come from good stock,” or are you impressed with the matriarch and patriarch’s ability to nurture their children? Would it surprise you to know that the ability to change our children through nurturance is a widely-held but frequently disproved assumption? In The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Judith Rich Harris, with a bit of help from Steven Pinker, explores the impact that parents can have on their children – or not.

This review is broken into two parts, the first that speaks of the assumption and the basics, and the second that speaks of the candidates and the effects.

The Grandma from New Jersey

It was Steven Pinker’s book, The Blank Slate (see my review on the basics and the implications), that pointed me to The Nurture Assumption. Pinker spends a great deal of time in the book trying to explain how humans are formed and how we become ourselves. He describes the flap that happened when Harris published an article and her book. They called her the “grandmother from New Jersey.” This was a true statement intended to prejudice people against her.

To me, however, it was a statement of conviction. Without a university affiliation and “only” a master’s degree, Harris published a controversial article in a peer-reviewed journal. People wanted to know about this mysterious woman who came from outside academia to challenge their beliefs. What they found was surprising and disconcerting. She was a citizen scientist. She was a scholar who dedicated her scholarship across disciplines. She sought for truth no matter where it led her. (See Antifragile, Saving Our Sons and Bold for more on citizen scientists.)

As a mother and grandmother, Harris had a particularly practical point of view on the process of rearing children; she had done it. She had the battle scars to prove it. So, while writing a textbook on child development, she came across a crisis. Suddenly, the answers that were being taught – including in the textbooks that she had authored – no longer made sense. The research didn’t seem, to her, to say what the authors claimed. She saw that some of the research was hopelessly flawed. There was no way to say that the claims being made were valid, because the structure didn’t support the conclusions.

What do you do when your beliefs come crashing down on you? If you’re this grandmother from New Jersey, you dig in and dig out.

Put Out the Fire

Setting the Stage

As was discussed at length in The Blank Slate, roughly 50% of our “selves” comes from our genes. There may be 10% of what we become that comes from what we typically think of as environment, and the remainder is unexplainable using the typical definition of “environment.” In the context of a parent rearing children, this is disappointing news. After the roll of the genetic dice, there’s very little we can point to that has a real impact on the outcomes and personalities for our children.

This doesn’t stop advice-givers from telling parents what they should and should not do to help raise healthy “well adjusted” children. In fact, I’ve reviewed a few of these books, including Parent Effectiveness Training, Saving Our Sons, Raising a Modern-Day Knight, Stepparenting, The Gift of Failure, How Children Succeed, Helping Children Succeed and The Available Parent. This doesn’t include those books that include advice for parents as a sideline to their main message. Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly caries the subtitle of “How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.” The Cult of Personality Testing carries the subtitle of “How Personality Tests Are Leading Us to Miseducate Our Children, Mismanage Our Companies, and Misunderstand Ourselves.” Clearly, there is a lot of advice out there.

The market for writing the instruction manual that parents never get when they have a child is big business. There is always someone that has a different take. Some of those takes are misguided or discovered to have their own challenges that show up later. Dr. Benjamin Spock is reported to have lamented about the outcomes of the advice he gave parents in his book Baby and Child Care as a more elderly and wiser man.

Human Development and the Art of Mindreading

There is a lot we have learned about human development. As was discussed at length in Mindreading, the human ability to read the intentions of others – to do mind reading – is a skill that is nearly unique to humans. (Harris points out that dogs can read human intention to some degree.) We have the ability – by age 3 or 4 – to understand that not everyone knows the same things. Further, we realize that the object of communication is to interact with other people and their understanding of the world. Sometimes that’s conveying our intent, and other times it’s inquiring on the intent of others.

The problem is that, as much as we know through careful study of the fundamentals of our mind’s functioning and research on development, there’s still a great deal we don’t really know. There aren’t simple easy answers on how to “best” raise a child – much less multiple children.

Guilt and Shame

One could easily ask the question, what’s the harm in the advice that causes parents to seek better ways to care for their children? Certainly, that is a positive position. Parents are more attentive to the practices they use, and they’re more conscious of how they impact their children. However, what are the negative impacts? There are some that describe Millennials as self-absorbed and under-developed due to the “helicopter parenting” that Generation X used to protect their children. (See more about my thoughts on this in my review of America’s Generations.)

However, the more insidious harm comes to the parents themselves when their children aren’t perfect. If they’re children aren’t perfect, then they must have done something wrong. If you assume that you ultimately have the power to nurture children, then you must feel some guilt that you didn’t. In the assumption that you can nurture your child into anything that you or they want to be is the problem of believing you’re at fault for not nurturing your child to success.

The problem is that, for all the advice-givers, none of them has the 12-step program to your child’s success and happiness – at least not one that everyone agrees upon. Scholars have been working on research to lead us towards this goal, and they’re no closer to understanding what factors in the environment of a child are the important factors to help them live a fully-fulfilled life. In fact, it’s hard to define exactly what it is that we really want for our children outside the context of our culture.

Culture

What few realize is that what we believe about parenting is very culturally driven. Should children sleep alone or with their mothers? It turns out that the perspective is driven by culture. If you’re in a traditional society, a baby is rarely away from its mother. Some traditional societies would consider the idea of a baby sleeping separately to be cruel.

It’s important that I add a quick sidebar here. There are many tragic deaths where a parent (both mothers and fathers) accidentally smother a baby while sleeping with them. While I accept that traditional societies don’t believe that children should be left alone to sleep, I’d still encourage that they be left in their own bassinet (or crib) with no items in them. I can’t imagine the horror of having to live knowing that you accidentally suffocated your precious child to death.

Harris shares that she and her peer group of mothers didn’t believe in children in the parents’ beds, they believed in bedtimes, and that “an occasional smack, administered at the right time and in the right spirit, might do a kid a bit of good.” She’s quick to point out that she’s not condoning beating children, just that an occasional correction might be warranted. For Harris and her group, these are the norms. There are groups who don’t believe in bedtimes, or that physical punishment isn’t acceptable. There are some who, despite the evidence of unnecessary deaths, believe it’s OK for children – even babies – to sleep in the parent’s bed.

Should a child be physically corrected? Most societies, and most of America, believe that the right correction at the right time is helpful. There’s some research that supports this notion. However, there are other perspectives as well. In fact, there’s a correlation between physical punishment and poorer outcomes for children. However, things aren’t as they seem. To understand that, we first must understand at least one way to categorize parental behavior.

Too Hard, Too Soft, Just Right

The year is 1967, and Diana Baumrind has defined three contrasting styles of parenting. They’re named authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative. Harris finds these labels too confusing, as do I, and calls them simply too hard, too soft, and just right.

The authoritarian parents dominate their children – they’re presumably too hard on their children. The permissive let their children dominate them – they’re presumably too soft on their children. The authoritative parent is firm but flexible and interacts with their children in ways that the children feel heard but still understand the power structure.

The correlation between parents using a too-hard approach on their children having greater problems with those children exists – but only if you select the right data. It’s true that, in lower income homes of generic American and European descent, the too-hard parents tend to have more unruly children. The problem occurs if you include Asian parents in this mixture. Their style would be considered too hard – but their children are frequently model students and citizens. Their too-hard parenting style is what their culture expects, and their children seem to be no worse for the pattern.

Much of the research that is designed to show that too-hard parenting is bad for children falls victim to our old nemesis – the confusion of correlation and causation.

Correlation and Causation

One of the persistent issues in science, research, and life is confusing correlation and causation. It seems to come up time and time again. (The last time was in Antifragile.) The problem is that we see some level of statistically-significant correlation, and we assume that the correlation is real – and that one of the variables causes the other. Time and time again, this mistake is made in research – and outside of the confines of peer-reviewed research. Yet we continue to miss it. We continue to miss that we potentially leap to the wrong conclusions in our desire to understand and dominate our world.

Much of Harris’ work in The Nurture Assumption is working through dozens of faulty studies and explaining what must be done to ensure that the results are reliable – and indicative. For a finding to be useful for parenting children, there must not just be a correlation between two factors. We must know first that it’s not a spurious correlation (one expected by random chance) and second which – if either – of the two correlated factors is causal to the other. While this would seem to be an easy proposition, it’s far from it.

Environment and Nurture

Before proceeding, we must address one confusion that exists. That confusion is lumping all the environmental factors that can influence someone into the emotionally-loaded word of “nurture.” Nurturance is about taking care of someone, as a parent does to a child. However, once we clear the correlations in behavior due to genes, we must move to a more emotionally neutral word of “environment.” Nurture would imply a limited scope of the things that a parent does to further their child’s development, but much of what happens to a child happens beyond the direct control of a parent.

We must realize that the world that a child lives in is much broader than just a set of parents. It includes siblings, extended families, communities, and the nations in which they live. Even if we can find the causes of personality differences, they may not be caused by parents at all. They may be a result of the environment that children are in.

Robert Putnam did a study of children and their communities in his book Our Kids. He seems to disagree with Harris about the degree to which parents matter in a child’s life – however, he does offer support, in that he believes that there’s a great deal of richness in the environment that matters beyond the parents themselves.

The Studies

It’s important to explore for a moment the kinds of studies that sociologists and psychologists use to tease out which environmental factors are important to improving a child’s success in life. The favorite choice is identical twins. They’re the favorite, because the genetic factors can be held constant. Identical twins are – at least from a genetic standpoint – identical. So whatever makes them different must be based on something else – something environmental, something experiential, and perhaps a bit of the random zigs and zags of development. These studies find identical twins raised in different homes and measure their differences.

Another favorite of researchers is adoptive families. The similarities at the end of the day can’t be assumed to be genetic, because the genetics are different. The similarities must be driven by the environment in which the children were raised.

Of course, regular families are important too, since a family with very many kids is bound to produce some radically different individuals. It becomes interesting, because roughly half of their behavior should be driven by genetics, but the children turn out to be so different. I can attest to this in the six of seven children that share the same genetics. They’re very different people despite the similarity of genetics. The question to be answered is what makes them so different? Is it something as simple as birth order?

Who and What?

If parenting has less of an influence on a child than we have first thought, then where do we look to for answers? Now that I’ve covered the basics, part 2 of my review will discuss some candidates for why children may turn out differently.

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  1. […] great deal has been made about heredity in No Two Alike, The Nurture Assumption, and The Blank Slate. The quick summary is that about half of us is driven by genetics. The other […]

  2. […] need to have status amongst our peers. I’ve read and reviewed Harris’ previous work, The Nurture Assumption (written in 1998), so in many ways her work here builds on her theories, which I’ve […]

  3. […] the previous post, I addressed the foundation of The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris’ challenge to the […]

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