Thursday, May 29, 2014

Further thoughts on The Nurture Assumption

This morning, I finally got to this week's NY Times Sunday Review. And there in the Gray Matter column, lo and behold, is yet another reference to the highly influential studies that Judith Rich Harris cites in The Nurture Assumption. The Gray Matter columnist is Nancy L. Segal, a professor of developmental psychology at California State University and the author of “Born Together — Reared Apart: The Landmark Minnesota Twin Study." Segal reaffirms that:

Identical twins raised apart match closely on genetically influenced traits such as intelligence and personality. In fact, identical twins raised apart are as similar in personality as are identical twins raised together. In contrast, biologically unrelated siblings (i.e., when one or both are adopted) show little behavioral resemblance despite their shared rearing.
This, in a nutshell, is what leads to Harris' conclusion in The Nurture Assumption that:
Children would develop into the same sort of adults if we left them in their homes, their schools, their neighborhoods, and their cultural or subcultural groups, but switched all the parents around.
As some commenters have pointed out, this is not as strong a statement as it first appears. Harris is:

(1) controlling for peer groups, which she suspects, comprise the greatest human influence on personality
(2) restricting her parent variable to "normal" parents--i.e., normally functioning parents who are both present, loving, and non-abusive.

While not as strong a statement as it first appears, Harris' conclusion is nonetheless significant. Parenting Advice in this country has become a huge industry teeming with best-sellers, and the advice that predominates doesn't exactly focus on dissuading parents from abandoning or abusing their kids. Rather, we find things like Attachment Parenting, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, or how to Tiger Mom your kids or raise them the way French parents do. According to Harris, none of these strategies have a significant influence on personality.

The Nurture Assumption  has made me realize, somewhat reluctantly, that my full-grown son would have turned out more or less the same if he he'd been raised by any number of parents around here, from the most permissive to the most micro-managing. People are always complimenting me on how confident, social, kind, funny, and responsible he is--and giving me and my husband credit for this. Perhaps some people also quietly fault us for what are probably his biggest flaws: he's a bit of a slacker and rarely reads for pleasure. But The Nurture Assumption has convinced me that, were he raised by another pair of functioning parents, regardless of how much they Tiger-parented him, and regardless of how many more books they read to him--or in front of him--than we did, he'd be more or less the same person he is today.

In the course of raising my son, I've often wondered how it is that the more driven, micro-managing parents I know often seem to succeed in convincing their kids to be such high achievers. Are they using some strategy I could have used--if I'd wanted to--with my son? But then it dawns on me: these parents aren't molding their kids into high achievers; these kids are achieving because they've inherited the same kind of micro-managing drive their parents have. If they had identical twins being raised by adoptive slacker parents, those twins would be just as driven.

What about the impressive achievement of so many Asian kids? Surely such a broad cultural phenomenon can't all be genetic. Surely we must credit, instead, Asian-style Tiger Parenting. But The Nurture Assumption offers a more plausible explanation: peers. Kids, for better or for worse, tend to identify with kids of similar appearances and cultures. So what looks like a culture-based parenting influence may actually the powerful influence of peer-identification.

There is one sort of child that Harris doesn't address--so far as I recall--namely those with special needs. Here, inasmuch as much more parenting intervention is necessary, different parents probably do make a big difference. Even among "normal" parents, parent-facilitated interventions for special needs kids can vary tremendously.

Parental influence is especially great when it comes to kids on the autistic spectrum. Autistic kids, inherently unsocial and under-responsive to peers, are relatively immune from the sorts of peer influences that shape personality. This leaves a much bigger role in personality-shaping for other elements in the environment. And many of these elements are much easier than peers are for parents to control. That, of course, doesn't make raising an autistic child any less challenging than it would be if we, like most other parents, could comfortably defer to The Nurture Assumption.

1 comment:

cranberry said...

Harris does point out that children build their identities through peer-group identification. My (not Asian) daughter has relayed Asian friends' concerns that anything less than the highest grades and test scores count as an "Asian F." So at some point, do the parents need to push? If the child has internalized that anything less than 100 is failing for someone like her, the child's peer-group identification drives motivation, especially if all the other children have the same expectations for members of that group.

All my children have changed schools. We do believe in peer group influence, because we've seen it. The kids really notice whether or not the other students tolerate fooling around. The public school's fondness for pairing successful students with recalcitrant students was also a factor in our decision. Even though the academic work was much harder at her new school, not being responsible for somehow motivating cynical, obstreperous group members (that teachers couldn't motivate) was a great relief for our oldest.

There's also the reinforcement factor from people who know very little about our children's schools. To people who know only that we've sent our children to private schools, we count as more interested in education and more moral. For others, we count as really foolish about money and more snobby.