Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Nurture Assumption

In her 1998 book,The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, author Judith Rich Harris discussed how parents played a smaller role than originally thought in how their children turn out. She postulates that genes and peers are the most important influences on kid's lives and as a psychologist, I have to say that from what I have seen, this can sometimes be true. Have you ever wondered how you can have one kid who is so calm and good-natured and another who is hell on wheels? Well, you're not alone.

Many of the parents of my young patients spend years wondering what went wrong with the child they loved and nurtured who later turned out to be a vandal, cheat, scoundrel, or worse. They rack their brains trying to find the lack of love or nurturance on their part that led to their little darling ending up in legal trouble. I sometimes have to just say, "You know, it's not your fault." I think that if parents would read the Nurture Assumption, they might understand more about how heredity and the peers one picks play a heavy role in how the kids turn out and quit blaming themselves so much. It would be time better spent trying to surround a child with peers who are good role models.

Now Ms. Harris has another book that comes out next week, No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality, in which she tackles the question, "Why do twins who grow up together have different personalities?" They have the same genes, same parents, so what makes them different? The book description at Amazon sounds fascinating:

Her solution is a startlingly original one: the first completely new theory of personality since Freud's. Based on a principle of evolutionary psychology—the idea that the human mind is a toolbox of special-purpose devices—Harris's theory explains how attributes we all have in common can make us different.

This is the story of a scientific quest, but it is also the personal story of a courageous and innovative woman who refused to be satisfied with "what everyone knows is true."

Here is a question and answer session with Ms. Harris at Gene Expression. I can't wait to read her book and find out more.


Blogger TangoMan said...

Thanks for the Helenlanche :)

8:22 PM, February 18, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...

I, too, would like read this book. Not only is it fascinating when children from the same family develop very different personalities but, as the parent of an autistic child, I think Mrs. Harris' theories may also have relevance to autism and other developmental personality disorders.

The author, Mrs. Harris, apparently suffers from a severe autoimmune disorder. It's amazing that she offers so much professionally despite her suffering. There is evidence that families of autistics have a much higher incidence of autoimmune diseases than normal and some researchers have postulated that autism is a nueroimmunological disorder. Perhaps this is all random or happenstance, but sometimes it seems like a small world ... or at least a very connected world.

Thanks, Dr. Helen.

10:02 PM, February 18, 2006  
Blogger jw said...

Genes and peers, eh?

It wouldn't surprise me. Looking at my step-son particularily ... the kids a child hangs out with do seem to effect the child so very much.

4:35 AM, February 19, 2006  
Blogger ShadyCharacter said...

Yet another good argument for home-schooling. If our kids are really being morally formed by their peers, what could possibly excuse the abdication of parental responsibility that obtains when one throws their children into the public school system?

That probably sounds too harsh, but what if it is true???

1:30 PM, February 19, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In "The Blank Slate" Stephen Pinker argues the same thing about genes and peers. He also defended the comments by the Harvard president. I am different from my siblings and I think it is because I became really active in my church at age 14 and they didn't.

2:09 PM, February 19, 2006  
Blogger Assistant Village Idiot said...

I have biological sons 26 and 22 who are enormously like my wife and I. There is a clear family style among us. My younger sons, 20 and 18, were adopted from Romania 5 years ago. Though sometimes their habits of mind and behavior are opaque to me, you can see the family style in them as well. In fact, we have considered it important that the 6 of us mutually affect the others to create a new family style.

On the other hand, my brother and I had little contact with our father after the age of 6 and 3, yet found we were much like him when we sought him out as adults.

All this to say, we're pretty much evidence for whatever side of the argument you want to take. No gene expresses anything without an environment to bring it forth. No environment produces behavior unless there is something with genes to operate on. There can only be tendencies, never a clear divide.

The idea that each human brain has a non-identical but fairly protean toolbox fits well with the Montessori concept of "critical periods." Skills allowed to bloom in their proper time strengthen easily. Trying to activate the "wrong" tool at the "wrong" time produces something different -- usually, something not as good.

2:32 PM, February 19, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this. My own comment, which is far too long for anyone else's comment section, can be found here:

Will Brown

6:59 PM, February 20, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, Dr. Helen! I link to this and share some related thoughts in my post What's Wrong With Motherhood?

6:48 PM, May 09, 2006  
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