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
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
Dr. Popkin is the founder and president of Active Parenting
Reprinted from Leader magazine.
Copyright 1998 by Active Parenting Publishers, Inc.