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The Nurture Assumption

Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do.

by Judith Rich Harris


When it was published this book created quite a stir, attacking as it did the assumptions of conventional psychology. The nurture assumption is that the way children grow up, is either their genes, or the way parents bring them up. It is so ingrained that very little work has been done on the way children interact and relate to each other.

The truth is that there is an interaction is between genes and the environment, but the environment is much more than nurture - the effect of parenting alone. Certainly, in the first two or three years, babies have their first experiences in forming and maintaining relationships, learning the rules of living and the boundaries of behaviour. But the nurture theory assumes a childhood-long process.

Having introduced the existing theory, the author describes the problems in carrying out studies and extracting evidence.

One set of results that struck her clearly was some work by behaviour geneticists. If identical twins are brought up from birth in different homes, any similarities, it was suggested, must be due to their genetic inheritance, while any differences would be due to their environment. When however identical twins, that had been brought up together in the same family were studied the expected reduction in differences did not occur. Something other than their family environment must be at work,.

Growing up in the same home does not make children more like each other. For several decades, socialisation researchers had been producing study after study, yet correlations between parents behaviour and children's characteristics were neither strong nor consistent. Meanwhile 'pop' child care books were muddying the waters with statements which could not be supported by actual evidence.

Perhaps the author does not make clear enough at this point, that just because there are no consistent effects, it does not mean that are no effects. What I am reading is that the effects between different parents and different children are not predictable. But I am also certain in my mind, that parent and family influences are not the whole story.

Children are built to be social beings. Through evolutionary time they have never been able to rely completely on parental support. Disasters of all kinds can befall parents. Moreover, as Hrdy, DeMause and others have pointed out, they may be abandoned and, in the past, frequently were.

I would submit that, as Bowlby points out, the newborn child certainly attaches to its mother, but soon begins to observe others around it. Young animals have evolved ways to charm adults (even those of other species). They have also an exquisite ability to sense those they can and can't trust. As social beings they need to interact with other members of their tribe. Childhood is a process of growing away from the parents. I have suggested elsewhere that for children, adults are a model for future, but other children are their models for the present. After all, it is other children that they have to live with and interact with, children who will be the adults of the future, when the models provided by today's adults may be well out of date.

By the time it is weaned, it starting to explore. By six, if necessary, and given a supportive group, it can be virtually self-sufficient, as witness the street children of South America. The idea that childhood lasts until sixteen has arisen in my lifetime, with the raising of the school age. When I was young, a teenager was not a child - he or she had often left school at eleven. At the beginning of this century children often left the family at seven or eight. Boys entered apprenticeships, girls went into service.

As the author goes on to point out, we think of the way we bring up children as being natural, but, in fact, child-rearing varies immensely both throughout our history and across different human cultures.

The next chapters examine the way that the home and the school are two different environments with their different rules, and how children adopt different personas for each. Most parents, when they ask their children, "What did you do at school today?" get a mumbled and incoherent reply. Similarly, children at school find it difficult to talk about their home life. They are two different worlds, and they do not necessarily transfer the experience from one context to the other.

She tells the story of a teenager at school walking down the corridor at school and, having forgotten something, saying "Oh, shoot!" Then she looked around her, embarrassed, and said "I mean. Oh, shit."

The author goes on to analyse group behaviour in detail, beginning with Sharif's Robbers' Cave experiment, which is described in every basic psychology course. Suddenly this springs into context. Although it is about teenage boys, it is a behaviour of all groups both adults and smaller children. As a social psychology experiment it became enclosed within that paradigm. Educational psychology does not, it seems, study children as networks of interacting individuals.

The central feature of a group is that members have something in common with each other, or a common goal. It then sets them apart in some way from "the others." But individuals can see themselves as part of a hierarchy of groups. They do not actually have to enjoy being part of that group, nor may the other members of the group accept them. Individuals identify as a member of the group, but also as part of larger groups. First they may be a member of a clique, but they are also members of a school. Each may at times identify as members of other groups, Northerners, say, or Manchester United supporters. What is important at any moment is the salience at that moment of a group. The trick for any headmaster is to get his pupils to see membership of the school as salient. I would submit that rather persisting with an education system, the most consistent effect of which seems to be turning healthy children into neurotic adults, we should take more seriously such "educational experiments" as Summerhill School and Rowen House, which set out to work with and utilise, the power of the childhood group.

At this point the author develops her 'group socialisation theory'. Once again she draws on studies in social psychology, which seem to have been applied to teenagers, as though children only become socialised at that age. But they enter a social world as soon as they meet other children, the family group, at playgroup and at school. They become socialised at that age because they have to.

She is not entirely happy the name for two reasons: "First my theory has to do with personality development not just with socialisation. Secondly the word 'socialisation' suggests something that is done to children . . . . . [rather than something that they] to large extent, do to themselves"

"Children get their ideas of how to behave by identifying with the group and taking on its attitudes, behaviours, speech and styles of dress and adornment. Most of them do this automatically and willingly. They want to be like their peers, but just in case they have any funny ideas, their peers are quick to remind them of the penalties of being different . . . . . The nail that sticks up gets hammered down."

Children learn very early to categorise, to look for feelings of groupness, and they categorise themselves "I am an X", "I am not a Y." Within that categorisation they may emphasise their differences. They may the brains of the group (so long as they don't appear too brainy) or the comic (so long as everyone laughs) Children also categorise life in extremes, in a bipolar and authoritarian fashion, especially gender behaviour.

I have suggested elsewhere that, perhaps, a parallel can be drawn with the development of play. During the sensorimotor period, play tends to be solitary and self-absorbed, as the child develops its ability to manipulate the physical world. With a group of other children, it will tend to continue to play alone, but look on at others. In time co- operative play develops, with highly organised group games. However, the rules are rigid. If there are any disagreements, the group is likely to break up. It is not until a later stage that rules become negotiable.

But how is it that systems of permitted and proscribed behaviour and ways of thinking remain consistent through decades, even centuries and millennia? To a degree there is a genetic heritage in common. Robert Wright's The Moral Animal is a good exposition of this. But humans, unlike many species, have year on year overlapping generations. The author points out that younger children are fascinated by what older children are doing, even though the latter may not welcome their attentions.

In the next chapter, the author examines the way culture influences group schemas. Child rearing varies immensely between cultures. In some native cultures, parents are tolerant of misbehaviour in a way that would be shocking to us. In others, often the more 'civilised' adult control is extremely rigid. Yet children who grow up in cultures different to their parents, to the despair, particularly, of Asian families in this country, grow up absorbing the new culture, rather than their parent's. Parents as a group, do influence children as a group, but indirectly.

The book continues with analysis in more detail of the development of gender schemas, the implications for schools of her theory, particularly those with a mixed cultural or socioeconomic catchment, and then follows the child as it grows up.

Nevertheless, there are problem children and dysfunctional families. Do the two go together somehow and why? What makes a family dysfunctional, or a child antisocial? Considering the multitude of ways in which this can happen, it is a vast area to cover in one chapter. One conclusion the author draws is that it is difficult to draw any conclusions, because the right questions have not been asked, or they have been researched badly. One glimpse of daylight, I might offer, is that sometimes problem children have difficulty with their peer group. Sometimes, also, families are treated with suspicion or rejection by the adult community peer group, and their children sometimes, but not always, have difficulties with their peers.

While the publisher suggests that "parents have little power to determine what their children will become" and if you think that author is saying that parents are little more than wallpaper, she finishes with a chapter on what parents actually do. Though I feel that she misses one perhaps important feature of a family - stability. Though love and demonstrated affection are no bad thing, I would suggest that the main feature of a family is a 'safe harbour' - a secure, unchanging, predictable base for the child to return to after each daily foray into the world.

One reviewer has suggested that the author has not taken enough cognisance of contradictory evidence, which may be true. I feel that perhaps in putting over her case she has undervalued the contribution of parents and the family. Nevertheless this book should be some comfort to those who feel guilty at the way their son or daughter has turned out.

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Published by Pocket Books; 1999
£9.40
paperback, 473 pages,
ISBN 0 68485 707 3
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