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"LEADER" Online: Fall/Winter 98

Yes, parents do matter

by Michael Popkin, Ph.D.
Founder and President, Active Parenting Publishers

Well, so much for all the hard work we've been doing for the past decades in parent education. If you believe the highly publicized work of Judith Rich Harris, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn out the Way They Do; Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More, then we have all been raking leaves in a blowing wind. Her controversial thesis is basically that parents have no influence on the child's ultimate personality. How our kids turn out is mostly a matter of genetics and, after that, peers.

Her ideas first appeared in the journal Psychological Review in 1995 and attracted support from some highly regarded researchers such as neuroscientist Robert Sopolsky of Stanford. Of course others such as Harvard's Jerome Kagan, a child development expert, claim they are "are embarrassed for psychology." I first came across her ideas when a friend wanted to know what I thought about the cover article of The New Yorker (August 1998) entitled "Why Parents Don't Matter." A few weeks later, Newsweek ran a similar, though much more even-handed version entitled "Do Parents Matter?"

Say, I wonder if Harris has considered that when parents are given the training and support to be the most effective parents they can be, then they do matter. That fact has been witnessed firsthand, over and over, by thousands of us in the parent education field. Besides, even if parents only account for, say, 10-15 percent of how a child turns out, that can make a huge difference over the course of a lifetime.

And here is the rub. Ms. Harris does have some legitimate points to make, many of which some of us have subscribed to for awhile. For example, peers are much more important than they are given credit for being. Genetics does have a major impact on temperament as well as behavior and personality development. Kids can be very resilient, surviving and thriving in spite of divorce and even abuse. But how many magazines would be sold under the headline "Do parents matter less than we thought?" Not as many as "Do parents matter?" or the even more hyped "Parents don't matter." If you have seen the vignette I wrote for the revised Active Parenting of Teens program, you'll know what I mean when I say that "Media Man" has struck again. Ms. Harris' own outrageous viewpoints have been turbo-hyped by the press to the extent that a lot of magazines and books will be sold just to see what all the fuss is about. So it goes at the end of the 20th century. Maybe I wouldn't mind so much except that the hullabaloo is going to give a lot of parents an excuse to spend even less time with their children, worry less about whether a spanking becomes abusive, think once-not twice-about a divorce, and forget about taking a parent education course. After all, if what you do doesn't matter, why go to the trouble to parent well?

Finally, I'll stick by what I said when I founded Active Parenting almost twenty years ago: "Parenting is not the only influence on a child's development, but it is the one that we can do the most about."

Dr. Popkin is the founder and president of Active Parenting Publishers.

Reprinted from Leader magazine.
Copyright 1998 by Active Parenting Publishers, Inc.