Appropriate Vulnerability

Kin-to-Kid Connection: Appropriate Vulnerability

When we talk about human connections, it often necessarily involves vulnerability. Our most meaningful relationships are the ones in which we make ourselves vulnerable in front of others, because it means we can trust those people. But how vulnerable should we be? How do we balance sharing too little and not forming a connection with sharing too much and potentially harming our loved ones? In this talk, “Appropriate Vulnerability,” we walk you through the importance of trust, how to temper our vulnerability, and how to form the connections we need as humans.

To learn more about Kin-to-Kid Connection and our mission to get kids and their kin to form meaningful connections, visit

Understanding Shame and Guilt

Kin-to-Kid Connection: Understanding Shame and Guilt

We’ve been motivated throughout our lives with shame and guilt but too few of us have looked into the heart of what they are — or the scars they leave on our hearts.  Sometimes, we can even get caught up in feelings without really knowing where they come from or what to do about them. In “Understanding Shame and Guilt,” we discuss guilt, shame, judgement, and blame and how these concepts tie together.

To learn more about Kin-to-Kid Connection and our mission to get kids and their kin to form meaningful connections, visit

The Greatest Generation

Book Review-The Greatest Generation

I’ve heard the stories – or rather I’ve heard the sensationalized stories – about how World War II came to be and how it ended. However, somewhere in the reduction done for history books, I missed the importance of the event. I don’t mean the importance to the world. I mean the importance to the men and women, to the families of those that served in the war. The Greatest Generation is Tom Brokaw’s tribute to a generation that openly faced some of the hardest challenges that our nation has ever seen. Coming out of the Great Depression and into the fire of war, this generation demonstrated what Americans could do.

Generational Context

I was introduced to The Greatest Generation in Chuck Underwood’s book, America’s Generations. It was there that I realized that the challenges faced by my generation and my children’s generation are nothing compared to the struggles that were faced by previous generations. It’s also where I realized that every generation – to be great – must have a test that helps to define them and demonstrates their ability to triumph.

Through story after story – some of them personal – Brokaw paints a picture of the values, commitment, and grit wielded by this great generation. Stories of mothers and daughters swapping roles between caring for young children and working outside of the home. Stories of entire families working to pool enough money to survive. Story after story of people helping each other to survive the harshness of the world.


Personal responsibility and accountability are at the top of the list of the values that were held by this great generation. They didn’t blame others for their success or failures. They didn’t whine that they didn’t have control. Certainly not everyone had the values and personal fortitude of the people that Brokaw interviewed; however, time and again, these great Americans would speak of how they didn’t earn medals, but rather they accepted them on behalf of others. This kind of humility wasn’t an outlier. It was woven into the very heart of how these servant citizens operated.

They were honest when it was difficult and hardworking. There was a sense of being connected to one another through our shared struggles. There was a common enemy so there was less fighting amongst ourselves. Consider the impact of the 2001 terrorist attacks. For a moment, there weren’t any Democrats or Republicans. There were just Americans. The greatest generation were Americans for their lives.


Today, we expect that we’ll be prosperous. This is a new expectation. It’s not one that the greatest generation held. They couldn’t imagine real prosperity. Having come through the Great Depression, they had seen suffering and want. They didn’t believe that they could avoid it. They worked hard to make sure that their basic needs were met.

Imagine choosing your career not because you liked it or it was interesting, but instead because it gave you an opportunity to help support the family. Retrospectively becoming a nurse may look like a conscious choice to be compassionate to the common man, but in the moment – at least in some cases – it was an opportunity to make much needed money for the family. We expect that employment is an option to us, but those who lived through the Great Depression were grateful for any work that they could get.


One of the darkest hours in the history of this great nation was when Executive Order 9066 was signed. It stole Japanese-Americans from their homes and interned them in camps. Families who were appalled by the Japanese government’s attack on Pearl Harbor were uprooted from their communities. This was a time of deep divides in American consciousness. In the South, African Americans were treated like second class citizens – but at least they weren’t interned in camps far away from their lives.

However, across the ocean, men fought together as men rather than against each other over their ancestry. No matter what your race or social group, when someone shoots at you, you’re all American. Such is the functioning of the human heart. When the bonds forged in the fires of war came back to the states, they weren’t enough to completely thaw the hearts of those who thought they were superior to others; but the seeds of equality may have been sown on those fields so far away.

Changing Moral Values

Perhaps the most challenging issue faced by returning veterans wasn’t readjusting to a normal life. By all accounts, the men (and women) who came back from the war became the leaders that our communities needed. They became businessmen, community leaders, fathers, and friends. Many wouldn’t trade the lessons learned in war – nor would they give you anything to do it again.

The real challenge was when the morals of the country became more divided. Divorce became more common – and they didn’t know how to cope with it. They supported the services, but struggled with the war in Vietnam. They struggle at the lack of discipline with children these days.

The Atomic Bomb

There’s no way to talk about World War II without talking about the impact of the atomic bomb. One might wonder how a moral and ethical generation would process the use of two atomic bombs. The answer is surprisingly straightforward. They simply consider how many lives were saved – instead of the tragedy of the lives that were lost. That’s a fitting response from The Greatest Generation.

How Do You See God?

Kin-to-Kid Connection: How Do You See God?

Parents of teens often don’t see how their faith or lack of faith shapes what their children see.  Nor do they recognize some of the hidden messages they picked up as children.  How you see God can shape how you and your children interact. In this talk, “How Do You See God?”, we take a look at the biblical definitions of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, so you can see God for what he is.

To learn more about Kin-to-Kid Connection and our mission to get kids and their kin to form meaningful connections, visit


Responsive or Responsible

Kin-to-Kid Connection: Responsive or Responsible

This is the first of the parent training sessions we did for the teen care program.  The teens got a similar message but shaped so that they could hear it.  The teen messages weren’t recorded.  We recorded the parent messages as a part of our preparation.  The first one helps with the biggest challenge that parents face with their children.

The choices and behavior of our children can make us feel like we’re responsible, and it can be difficult to deal with feelings of shame and guilt when they don’t always act the way we want. As parents, we need to understand when to be responsible and when to be responsive. In “Responsive or Responsible,” we discuss the ways that we should be responsible for our children and the importance of being responsive to our children, even if we aren’t responsible for their behavior.

To learn more about Kin-to-Kid Connection and our mission to get kids and their kin to form meaningful connections, visit

How to Not Get Sucked In

Kin-to-Kid Connection: How to Not Get Sucked In

Last week, we posted the first leader training for a program working with teens.  Everything You Know Might Be Wrong was designed to shake the volunteer’s beliefs that they know the truth to open them up to their need to not get sucked into the story. In ministry, volunteer work, corporate work, and life, it’s too easy to get sucked into a cause and lose yourself. In this video, I’ll talk about compassion, altruism, and boundaries and how they fit together to keep you from getting sucked in.

To learn more about Kin-to-Kid Connection and our mission to get kids and their kin to form meaningful connections, visit

No Two Alike

Book Review-No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality

“Why am I me?” is an important – and unanswered – question that George Dyson asked his father, Freeman Dyson, at age 8. It’s at the heart of Judith Rich Harris’ work in No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality. It’s the essence of the tension between our desire to be like others and our 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 previously studied. No Two Alike is a dozen years old as I write this, having been published in 2006. However, many of the observations that she makes and the research she cites still isn’t widely known by parents.

The Consistency Fallacy

We believe that human behavior is a fixed constant. We believe after meeting a person that their behavior is the same whether hanging out with their friends on a Saturday night or in the second row at church on Sunday morning. However, nothing could be further from the truth. (See How to Be Yourself for more on this example.) Kurt Lewin said that behavior is a function of both person and environment. (See more in my review of Moral Disengagement.) In The Lucifer Effect, we learned, through the Stanford prison experiment, just how powerful the effect of environment can be. We learned how people can behave one way in one environment and completely differently in another.

Johnathan Haidt explains how our behaviors are driven by a rider, an elephant, and a path. Our behaviors are rationally, emotionally, and environmentally based. (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch.) It would seem silly to believe that people behave consistently when there are so many levels to the way that we make decisions, most of which aren’t available to our consciousness.

Maybe we’re fooled by the belief that others are consistent, because we know how hard it is to change our own behaviors. (See Change or Die and Willpower.) Whatever the reason, we believe that we’ll behave consistently across time and circumstances despite the evidence to the contrary.

Not Knowing and Not Questioning

One of the challenges of our human brains is that we stop questioning things when we forget where we learned them. One of the reasons for the extensive notes I take – and the extensive effort I put into writing these blogs – is to preserve the knowledge of where I found things. Over the years, I’ve found a few errors in citations. It was defective steel in the Brooklyn Bridge that required additional winding – not the Golden Gate Bridge, as was reported in one source. Nor does “Indiana” mean a headman and advisor to the king in Zulu – as was reported in Dialogue. (This turned out to be a simple transcription error.)

The problem is that people assumed that the environment made a difference, that parents made a difference, that bad kids were the responsibility of parents, and that they deserved some blame for their children not turning out to be model citizens. That assumption is something that Harris challenges.

More Alike

With at least 50% of the genetics between them and a home environment that is completely the same, one would expect siblings to turn out substantially more alike than they do. Anyone with two or a few children quickly realizes that they’re not the same. But the question is why? If 50% of our makeup is hereditary, then what is the other 50% made of? Surely it must be the environment – but The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike both systemically eliminate many of the theories for why people are different.

Birth order – perhaps because of the popularity of the book Born to Rebel – is given considerable time as a potential actor in the play of differing personalities, but its effects are tiny – if they exist at all. Otherwise, the environment that siblings are raised in seems to be relatively identical.

Microenvironments and Mutations

Identical twins are – at least genetically – identical at the time of their separation. It’s one egg and sperm that separates into two people. However, sometimes genetic differences – very small differences – occur due to random mutations. These random mutations can make very small changes in twins, which can sometimes drive them apart.

We know that some genes are environmentally triggered. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers speaks of Fetal Origins of Adult Disease (FOAD) – and how these aren’t generically triggered per se. Rather, they are genetic responses to environmental stressors. Two twins sitting side by side – or quite literally attached to one another, as in conjoined twins – may still experience life, just slightly differently, and those slight differences may make all the difference.

Imagine a peg board like the one in the TV show The Price is Right. The Plinko board allows for a token to be dropped at the top, and the token bounces its way down through the pegs to its final resting place. Small differences can cause a token to go left or right at each peg. This is also known as the Butterfly Effect, after the 1972 article by Edward Lorenz titled “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” The short is that, in a chaotic system like weather, we have no hope of capturing enough data to predict everything.

The same seems true of how our children’s personalities will develop. There are so many factors that we’ll never be able to accurately predict – or effectively shape – our children’s personalities. Each child lives in their own microenvironment, one unique just to them.

I vividly remember the day my son discovered that there were people who would steal. We were at the Indianapolis Zoo, and my wife and I had split up so I could look for something for my brother and his Fiancée’s wedding. She had our son and a wagon that we brought for him to ride in. She called me on the radios we bought to ask if I had taken the wagon. She had left it outside an exhibit. When she came back it was not to be found. I was already outside putting the gift in the car and began looking through the parking lot to see if I could find the person who had taken the wagon. Soon after, they joined me, and I eventually found the person who had taken the wagon and positively identified it, because my jacket was still in it. That was the day that my son learned about theft.

I couldn’t have shaped those events. I couldn’t have decided when he learned of theft. I had to respond to it when it came. The microenvironment of his life taught him a lesson that day – whether I was ready for it or not.

Academic Investigation

Rich is an interesting person, sitting outside the traditional academic world and focused on integrating disciplines instead of advancing a single discipline. Instead of being an expert in sociology or neurology, she artfully weaves the findings from each into a tapestry of ideas that point the way towards explanations for why children raised in the same household turn out so differently.

She’s like the chief detective in a murder-mystery book, who looks for the inconsistencies in one story and for other ways to understand or explain what is happening. This is exciting for me, because it resonates with my desire to connect thoughts from disparate disciplines and connect them or point out inconsistencies.


Often the term “amateurs” is used as a derogatory term by established elite, who believe that amateurs aren’t capable of the kind of progress that professionals – and particularly academic professionals – are. However, used as a pejorative term, it’s a weak one. Just months before this post, Smithsonian magazine posted “Will the Next Great Scientific Discovery Be Made by Amateurs?” It shares a few of the recent discoveries that amateurs participated in – and expectations that more discoveries will come from amateurs.

Amateurs hold a special place. They’re not bound by the assumptions of the profession. They don’t have to do things the same way that everyone else does them. They’re free to innovate and find their own way. (See The Medici Effect and Diffusion of Innovations.)

Consider that the research says that most therapies – whether talk-based or pharmacological – don’t work. They have marginal, if any, improvement for the patients. What does matter is a relationship – called therapeutic alliance – though it’s not clear that your bartender couldn’t give you that. (See The Heart and Soul of Change and Warning Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health.)

In fact, much of the entire field of psychology rests on pillars of salt. The psychological tests that many use have been repeatedly debunked but continue to be used in settings where their accuracy doesn’t approach any level of reliability. (See The Cult of Personality Testing.)

European Orphanages

For the most part, it seems that if you do a reasonable job with raising your children and don’t veer off course beyond the boundaries of what society expects, children are not permanently harmed by their childhoods, no matter what the psychologist of the week wants to make them believe. It’s easier to make someone believe that their unhappiness is their parents’ fault than it is to get someone to face the fact that they’re responsible for their own lives.

However, there are some cases – particularly, cases where children were deprived of stable social relationships – that do have lasting impacts. Orphanages in Eastern Europe denied children access to loving relationships and provided them with only the necessities of life. As a result, some of the adults rescued from this environment showed a host of psychological issues.

I had the opportunity to meet one such adult who had been in an orphanage in Eastern Europe. After several years with loving parents from the United States, she was overly friendly with the men she would meet – and several took advantage of that friendliness. She’s still seeking to heal the wounds left with her from her time in the orphanage. She’s still trying to learn how to be an adult and understand her intrinsic value.

Most children who are raised don’t have the social deficits that these children have and will grow up with personalities that, while not always pleasant for the parents, are in a normal range.

Children Teaching Children

Often parents today worry whether they’re spending enough time with their children. They’re concerned that they aren’t enriching their lives enough. However, Harris points out that, in most traditional societies, parents don’t interact with children much. Instead, children are raised by older children. A child is separated from their mother’s warm embrace at the time of the next child – typically after three or four years of age. After that, the older children of the group would look after the younger children.

Depending upon the size of the group, it may stay together or split along age lines, and eventually on age and gender lines. Smaller groups have one large group of children, and larger groups have age-specific groups. The self-categorization that happens in the children causes them to sort into groupings that are the most like them when the groups get large enough.


There are many words that could be used to describe me. Father. Son. Brother. Entrepreneur. Developer. Technologist. Pilot. The list goes on and on. No word fully expresses all my personality, but each can describe a facet of it. More importantly, I can switch between which facet of my personality I identify with as easy as crossing a room. All adults and children do this as well. One moment they identify with some aspect of themselves or a group to which they belong – and they can quickly change to another identification.

This is important, because each of the categorizations leads to a different set of behaviors. As a father, I take on an authoritarian (or authoritative) stance, helping my children to realize that I’m not their peer. As a son, I take an opposite attitude. The category that I leave myself in the most frequently begins to have dominance in how I behave and how others perceive me.

Bad Fit Stereotypes

Harris explains that she’s no good at fitting into stereotypes. I’m proud to say that I’m no good at it either. Use the developer stereotype, and you’ll find yourself thinking of someone who is so shy, they stare at people’s shoes when others talk to them. Use the entrepreneur stereotype, and you’ll expect me to hurl myself down mountains and surf the big waves in Hawaii. No matter what stereotype you attempt to use… I just don’t fit in.

Accepting this fact, that I don’t fit in, has taken many years. Children are – quite rightfully – disturbed by the lack of “fitting in,” which, in some sense, means fitting in with stereotypes.

Battle of Three Systems

Harris explains her theory that there are three different systems in operation in the human brain at the same time. There’s the relationship system that works to maintain favorable relationships with people. The second system is the socialization system that makes people want to fit in with a group. The third, and latest to develop system, is the status system that makes humans want to be better than one’s rivals. The status system gets much of its input from the mind reading systems in the brain – which, though functional at age four, needs some time to get good at its job. (See Mindreading.)

The personality we see from our children is the result of this epic battle. At one level, they want to make close friends, except when that means they don’t fit into a group – however they chose to define that group. More challenging, however, is how someone can be both a member of the group and above it in status at the same time.

As people move from group identification, where stereotypes live, to individual relationships, different mental processing systems are in use. As a result, Al Campanis can believe that Jackie Robinson is a great player and at the same time believe that blacks shouldn’t be managers. (See Mistakes Were Made for more on this example.)

Parental Influence

At the end of the day, do or don’t parents have impact on their children? They clearly have impact on their children, but most of it is indirect. The people that they move their child near and the groups that are formed by children dramatically influence a child’s personality and “lot in life.” Between random events and microenvironments, it’s impossible to really shape a child’s personality.

However, the good news is that this lets parents off the hook. They don’t have to be ashamed if their child doesn’t turn out perfect. They can – and should – still do what they can to support their children just like our ancestors did. However, we need not worry that we’re “doing parenting right,” because there is no one recipe when there are No Two Alike.

Everything You Know MIGHT Be Wrong

Kin-to-Kid Connection: Everything You Know MIGHT Be Wrong

It was last year and Terri and I were being asked about helping with a church-based program to help teens and their parents who were struggling.  It was a program that had run for a while and was dormant because it wasn’t working.  In the restart everyone wanted to provide a bit of support to the volunteers.  This is the first of two training sessions that we did with volunteers to help them realize that what the teens might tell them might not be the only truth.

We’re all convinced that we have the right answers and our perceptions are the right ones – however, what we really know is that our perceptions aren’t always right.  What do you think you know that ain’t so? (Paraphrasing Mark Twain.)

To learn more about Kin-to-Kid Connection and our mission to get kids and their kin to form meaningful connections, visit

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

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

In the previous post, I addressed the foundation of The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris’ challenge to the assumption that how we nurture our children has an impact on their outcomes in life. She has broken the causal arrow from a parent’s nurturing to the child’s outcome. In this post, we walk through some of the candidates for why children turn out so differently and settle on Harris’ idea that it’s the peers that drive children’s growth – and why we can’t do anything about that.

Birth Order

The easiest first guess for how children with similar genetics end up so different is their birth order. That is, the first born is in a different world developmentally than the second, the third, and so on. It’s the difference between the first born – who doesn’t have to share the parent’s attention – and the second – who must contend with an incumbent. However, a careful review of the data by Judy Dunn and Robert Plomin concludes that there are no lasting, extrafamilial effects of birth order.

The research that said there was a birth order impact used only parental or self-reported questionnaire. When additional research was done, and teachers were asked to rate children’s personalities, the effects of birth order disappeared. It seems that the roles (or the perceptions of roles) that the child played in the family supported the idea of a birth order personality, but the independent assessment of personality didn’t find any patterns. This leads us back to the work of Kurt Lewin and others that personality – or at least behavior – is situationally dependent. How we behave at home isn’t necessarily how we’ll behave in public.

Situational Personality

Kurt Lewin has a formula for behavior. He says that behavior – what we actually do – is a function of both person and environment. In other words, the situation (the environment) has an unpredictably strong influence on what we do. We really are different people drinking with pals on a Saturday night than we are in church on Sunday morning.

When you couple differences in behavior and an awareness of the environmental impact, it’s easy to see how fundamental attribution error might lead us to trouble. Fundamental attribution error is our tendency to see a person’s behavior as fixed and unchanging despite changes in the environment. So, we’ll reach the wrong conclusion about people – and keep it even as the situations change.

Research proves that children behave differently in different situations – whether that behavior is moral or not. The structure of the environment has more impact – good or bad – than we would like to believe. (See The Lucifer Effect for more on the impact of the environment.)

Generalization of Learning

It’s necessary to side-step out of the world of psychology and personality and into the world of learning and teaching. One of the key roles of the parent in the modern society, and behind the nurture assumption, is the idea that the parent is a teacher. Certainly, it’s true that parents teach their children, but there is more to learning than meets the eye.

In learning, particularly adult learning, there’s a great deal of discussion about the facilitation of what is called “far transfer.” That is, how the learning applies outside the context that it was done in – mostly the classroom. Expressed in the context of The Nurture Assumption, the word that Harris uses is the “generalization” of learning. Will something that you teach your children at home be applied to other situations as well? The answer is, disappointingly, that it’s not likely. This is true of all learning – not just those important moral lessons that parents seek to teach their children at home.

Babies, it seems, are very poor at generalizing their learning. Take a mobile with red things hanging from it and allow them to move it by moving their foot, and they’ll reapply the learning that they can control the mobile with their foot. Change the things hanging from the mobile to blue and the baby must relearn the behavior. Move the crib to the living room while keeping the color of the mobile, and the same thing happens: they’re forced to relearn that they can control the mobile with their foot. The good news from the learning world is we know that the more similar the experiences with the same results, the greater the chance that someone will generalize the learning.

Just Showing Up

Woody Allen said that “showing up is 80% of life.” Strangely, Marcia Bates discovered through her research that as much as 80% of what we know comes from passive, undirected learning – that is, just being aware of our environment. (See Pervasive Information Architecture for more about Marcia’s work and structuring information. Ambient Findability is another good work about making information easier to experience.) It’s great that we learn even when no one is trying to teach us – either ourselves or others. The bad news is that it’s not possible to really control everything that a child experiences. As a result, we have no idea how they’ll process and learn from the world that they’re experiencing. They may make something big of something small – and completely miss those “big teaching moments” that parents so look forward to (or not).

Outside of Bounds

Interestingly, there seems to be a set of normative bounds for child-rearing, inside of which there may be little impact on how the children turn out, and an out-of-bounds category that can – but won’t necessarily – cause lasting harm. The tragic fact is that some children are abused by the very people that evolution designed to protect them. Some of those children appear to have long-term scars and burdens inflicted by those experiences – beyond what can be explained genetically. (Mainly because the studies use adopted or foster children.)

So it is possible to have a lasting impact as a parent or caregiver – unfortunately in the wrong direction. On the other side of the equation, the evidence is less compelling. Any advantage that a child has by growing up in a home full of books and classical music fades as the child grows into adulthood. It appears that no amount of “baby genius” programs, resources, or materials will turn your child into an amazing intellect when they’re an adult. This is one of the many factors that were tested for lasting impact and for which no meaningful correlation could be found.

Groups and Gangs

Harris’ theory is that we don’t pass along culture and personality from parent to child, but instead we pass these things from group to group. Children obtain their definition in no small part due to the groups of children that they associate with. Parents have often lamented about the kids that their kids are hanging out with. “Hanging out with the wrong crowd” is a common defense for parents whose children have found their way down the “wrong” path.

Groups are a way that children identify themselves. Whether they establish a name for the group or they just identify with the concept of the people that they’re hanging out with, groups have a powerful impact on people. In The Deep Water of Affinity Groups, I described the impact of affinity groups – or identity groups – on adults. Obviously, feeling like you’re a part of a group when you know everyone makes sense. However, that pull is effective, even when you don’t know the rest of the people in the group. I don’t know everyone in the Microsoft MVP program, but I’ll have a certain level of affinity with them should they ask me for something. They belong to the same group, even if I don’t know them personally.

These same powerful forces work on our children. They pick up a positive effect for the group – and from the group – through their self-identification. When the effect is positive, we call it a “group.” When the effect is negative, we use the pejorative term “gang.” It’s the pull of “the gang” that is at the heart of peer pressure.

Peer Pressure

I remember Nancy Regan’s “Just Say No” campaign. It was targeted at helping teenagers avoid drugs. (For more on the War on Drugs, see Chasing the Scream.) The basic premise was that just saying no when someone offers you drugs is all you need to do. After all, to start an addiction, someone has to offer to let you try it. If you just say no at that point, you can stop the addiction before it starts. It’s not that simplistic. It’s true that there is that moment of truth when you’ll be offered something. However, by that time, you’re likely to want to be a part of the group enough that you won’t want to say no. No matter how many lectures you’ve heard from your parents. No matter of how many of those “this is your brain on drugs” public service announcements you’ve seen. You simply want to be a part of the group.

I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t teach their children to avoid harmful things, including cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs. Rather, I’m saying that peer pressure isn’t about the first time your child is offered drugs. Peer pressure is about their internal desires to be a part of their peer group and what capacity they have to be different than their peers.

For me, I had a defining boundary (see Beyond Boundaries and Boundaries for more) that I would not do drugs. It wasn’t like I wasn’t offered any. It helps that I wasn’t in any groups that drugs were a part of their defining characteristics. By setting my defining boundary as not trying them, it made it easy. (See The Success Principles for Canfield’s perspective – 99% is a bitch, 100% is a breeze.)

Majority Rules

One of the interesting things in group formation is the development of the cultural norms. If you mix equal parts of Type A and Type B, what will the group coalesce around? Of course, A, B, and “something else” are all options. Group dynamics and formation are a major area of research as organizations seek to define their culture and build collaboration inside their ranks. (See Collaboration and Collaborative Intelligence for more on collaboration and Theory U, Organizational Traps, Reinventing Organizations, and The Advantage for more on forming healthy organizational cultures.) Despite the interest in developing the right kind of culture in organizations and an attempt to guide the future, there is little agreement on how to shape the culture. Rogers in Diffusion of Innovations speaks of factors that facilitate innovation adoption – rather than a formula for achieving success.

The upshot of this is that trying to determine how a group of teenagers will find their way is near impossibility. While you can move to good neighborhoods, you can’t really control who your teenagers are “running with” or the standards that the group holds. The problem with majority rules is that you don’t know what idea is in the majority until it’s tested, and by then it’s too late.


In a discussion of groups, it’s important to realize that there isn’t one group that anyone feels like they’re a part of. They might situationally be focused on one group, because they’re with other members; but when they attend the next party, they may identify with a totally different group – with different behavioral norms. Children can identify as child, teenager, boy, girl, nerd, jock, or any combination of these. The change in identification between these can be as quick as walking into the next room.

The reality is that our self-identification is fluid and influenced by our environment. This fluidity and transition is one of the reasons that each of us can live in our own microenvironment. We don’t experience the world like the person sitting next to us. Because we transition our identity into different groups during a conversation – and because our perspective is slightly different – we’ll experience the environment slightly different than every other person.

This microenvironment view is one of the explanations for how children who are raised in the same neighborhood and home don’t end up identical. They are – in effect – in their own environment.

Parent-Child Effects

Parents are targeted as the cause of the microenvironments that children inhabit and therefore their differences. The claim is that parents treat their children differently – and they do. However, as Harris points out, it’s because each child is different and needs different parenting. She speaks about how mothers used to be vilified for not spending enough time connecting with their autistic children, thereby causing the illness. We now know that this isn’t the case; the parent is responding to the child’s inability to connect and adapting their behavior.

This is a child-to-parent effect. The child causes a behavior difference in the parent. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It would be bad for a parent to fail to adapt their responses to their child. However, it isn’t an intuitive response. The assumption is that the parent shapes the behavior of the child. Rarely do we consider how children shape us. We worry about whether we’re raising children well – and at the same time worry that we’re worrying enough. We’re concerned that we’re investing enough into our children. We fear that our working, our divorce, or other distractions (including other kids) are depriving our children of what they need. (You can see other impacts of children with our own baggage in The Psychology of Not Holding Children Accountable.)

Working, Death, and Divorce

Many mothers (and fathers) have been concerned about the impact that their working has on their children. Traditional societies (hunter-gather societies) may have had mother-infant bonding all the time from age 0-4 – but after that, very little parental time was spent with the children. In Britain, it was common to send kids off to boarding schools – with obviously very little parental environment. Robert Putnam concludes in Our Kids that there has been little change in the overall time spent with kids after mothers started working.

Another concern has been about the increase in the divorce rate and the impact it has on children. Neither Harris nor Putnam believe this to be a significant factor. Harris, in fact, goes further to acknowledge that, in traditional societies, death of mothers due to mortality during childbirth or fathers due to wars and accidents was as much or greater than the number of children without parents today. While we bemoan the number of children living in single-family homes, over the long history of civilization, the rate seems to fluctuate but is generally moving in a positive direction with children receiving the benefits of two parents more frequently than not.

We’ve moved away from the tight communities that we used to have and the idea that children belong to the community and have a more parental focus than in the past; so there may be a greater need for the parent to support children – but, overall, things are no worse for children than they used to be.

Sidebar: Public Figures

One of the interesting aspects that raised its head but wasn’t directly related to the core topic is the awareness of the public vs. private perception of “celebrities.” Margaret Mead is well-known for her quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only things that ever has.” The use of this quote elevates Margaret Mead. She’s a luminary. She speaks with authority. Except that, when you read the works of others, you find her work tended to be filled with biases. She found what she expected to find. Some degree of this is normal for all researchers; however, Harris points a few places where the tendency rather high. Ekman, in his book Nonverbal Messages, points out similar concerns with Mead’s work.

Another figure who is featured in The Nurture Assumption – but indirectly – is Albert Bandura. Bandura is famous for his research on television violence. Harris debunks the myth that television violence causes violence – no matter what the Bobo doll says. (In truth, the research was on observing an adult attack the Bobo doll, not about children watching it on a TV.) In my review of Moral Disengagement, I shared that I didn’t agree with Bandura’s cases. It seems like my concerns about how he makes some of his cases are consistent with others’ concerns.

Circuitous Routes

Harris admits that, of her two children, one took a more or less straight path, and the other took a much more circuitous route. (That’s a parent’s way of saying that they were worried for their children for a long time.) In my – admittedly incomplete – experience with children, I can say that I understand the circuitous route. Some of our children know their path and follow it. Some don’t know their path, but work diligently to move forward to be ready when their path is revealed. Others drift, not yet sure of where they want to latch on or that they even want to walk forward.

The reality is that I can only support and nurture without any control of the outcomes. The outcome of our children isn’t ours to control – it’s theirs. I am not willing to give up on nurturing. Not because of The Nurture Assumption or because I believe that I can control the outcome of their life. Ultimately, it’s because it’s the person I want to be. Whether you make The Nurture Assumption or not is up to you – just be the person you want to be.

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.

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.


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.