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The NURTURE ASSUMPTION: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do Paperback – September 1, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

Whether it's musical talent, criminal tendencies, or fashion sense, we humans want to know why we have it or why we don't. What makes us the way we are? Maybe it's in our genes, maybe it's how we were raised, maybe it's a little of both--in any case, Mom and Dad usually receive both the credit and the blame. But not so fast, says developmental psychology writer Judith Rich Harris. While it has been shown that genetics is only partly responsible for behavior, it is also true, Harris asserts, that parents play a very minor role in mental and emotional development. The Nurture Assumption explores the mountain of evidence pointing away from parents and toward peer groups as the strongest environmental influence on personality development. Rather than leaping into the nature vs. nurture fray, Harris instead posits nurture (parental) vs. nurture (peer group), and in her view your kid's friends win, hands down. This idea, difficult as it may be to accept, is supported by the countless studies Harris cites in her breezy, charming prose. She is upset about the blame laid on parents of troubled children and has much to say (mostly negative) about "professional parental advice-givers." Her own advice may be summarized as "guide your child's peer-group choices wisely," but the aim of the book is less to offer guidance than to tear off cultural blinders. Harris's ideas are so thought-provoking, challenging, and potentially controversial that anyone concerned with parenting issues will find The Nurture Assumption refreshing, important, and possibly life-changing. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Harris, author of a college-level textbook on child development, offers a contribution to the increasingly popular trend to absolve parents from feeling responsible for the rearing of their children. The inability of psychologists to demonstrate that parents have predictable effects on children, it is argued, vitiates the long-standing assumption of parents' crucial role in children's personality development. While the author's skepticism of the view that parents' behavior produces necessary and direct effects on children is itself well founded, her counterpoint to the "nurture assumption" is not. Rather than attempting to examine the evident complexity of parental influence on children, the author instead avoids the problem altogether, asserting that one must recognize "that children learn separately, in each social context, how to behave in that context." By consequence, the primary influence on a child's social development, Harris asserts, is not the family setting (in which the author thinks children merely learn how to behave toward other family members), but rather the peer group. Pleasant as this theory may be to some parents, this book contains not a shred of empirical research to support it. What substitutes for research are numerous anecdotes and pages of opining. Here, for example, is one of many personal observations the author uses to bolster her own argument: "I believe high or low status in the peer group has permanent effects on the personality. Children who are unpopular with their peers... never get over that. At least I didn't." While this kind of evidence is unlikely to sway the critical reader, it will undoubtedly find favor among those parents who, like the author, find in this book's thesis a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, which will mitigate guilty feelings about how they treated their children?feelings that, as the book implies, need not be analyzed. First broadcast to 20/20. BOMC alternate, QPB selection.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; 1 edition (September 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684857073
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684857077
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 6.1 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (140 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,900,830 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

117 of 122 people found the following review helpful By Todd I. Stark VINE VOICE on April 4, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is a very difficult book to review, almost as difficult as it was to read. It is not difficult to read because of technical sophisication, but because both content and style trigger very strong emotions. Make no mistake, this is not an "unscientific" or hastily written defense of bad parenting, as has been claimed in some of the prior reviews here. Agree or not, she does handle the research with competence, discipline, and insight. She does not handle it all objectively, at least in the book. Moreover, it's questionable that the rhetorical purpose of questioning a mainstream dogma could be accomplished by a "balanced" approach to surveying the extant research.

This book challenges us to think of specific ways in which we influence our children's behavior and traits outside the home, other than through heredity. Yes, as many critics claim, we can find some. Aside from the early developmental issues which Harris acknowledges, we teach our children basic problem solving and moral reasoning that they often apply when we are not around. We also provide opportunities of various kinds for children to play, to interact with other people, to learn.

If she had recognized more of that, and written more about that, many of the harsher and more sophisticated criticisms would probably be somewhat assuaged. Her evolutionary argument about children doing what is neccessary to survive childhood is not at all inconsistent with the notion that parents do have important opportunities, resources, and survival and coping skills to provide.

Even within group socialization theory, the skills don't have to come from the group, they are selected by interaction with the group.
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91 of 98 people found the following review helpful By Arnold Kling on November 25, 1998
Format: Hardcover
This book asks a question that is interesting to many people: what factors explain the personality differences in people?
The author starts by reporting on studies that show that about half of the differences can be explained genetically. Most social scientists would agree with that assessment.
But what about the half that cannot be explained genetically? The author deals with this in three steps.
1. The _assumption_ that parenting style matters is attacked by showing that the evidence for it is merely anecdotal. Rigorous attempts to quantify the effect of parents fail to show more than a negligible impact.
2. An alternative theory is developed. She suggests, based on evolutionary biology, that there might be a greater role for peer groups than parents in shaping personality. This is a very interesting section of the book, because even outside of the context of the theory, the observations of how groups form and interact are interesting.
3. The author tries to provide empirical support for the "group socialization" theory. Ironically, to my untrained eye, this evidence appears to be largely of the anecdotal variety derided in step 1! And nowhere is there a clear demonstration of the quantitative importance of peer groups.
I believe that the author has succeeded in raising the "group socialization" theory to the same level of plausibility as the nurture assumption. But I came away feeling that neither theory is well supported.
I suspect that we may never prove that anything other than genetic factors matter in personality. A large component of the "other half" could be measurement error.
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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 20, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I came upon this book by accident in search of something else. It is sooooo intriguing I've been reading it and pondering all day! The author has written several text books on child development, but through personal experience (two completely different daughters, academically, socially, etc.) and a careful review of scientific literature comes to other conclusions which she is able to support with anthropology, biology, genetics (nature) and double-blind psychological studies. The results dispel popular notions of "nurture" theories so ingrained by Freudian and behavioralist influences in our education establishment and social culture. To authenticate her assertions, recorded histories of identical and fraternal twins raised by adopted or foster families and other scientific and biologic data are offered. Judith Harris makes a convincing case that parents have less influence on how children turn out than do their peers. In the process, she relieves parental guilt if not suffering.
On the second anniversary of the Columbine tragedy, it's worth examining a shift in thinking. Obviously the mainstream media are consistent about maintaining the status quo of pop psych nurturing or we would be aware of this 21st century paradigm. Harris does not discount the value of being a loving, caring, supportive parent. But, she effectively illustrates how decent parents can have decent children or not as well as the reverse. Genetic conditions for behavior apparently are not as politically correct among psycho/social "advice givers" as the egalitarian NURTURE ASSUMPTION. She contends children are more likely to bring peer influences home than share home influences with peers; preferences (genetic similarities?
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