The challenge of raising children


I should have guessed it would come to this. The debate about how to be a good parent has now deteriorated into a debate about whether parents influence their children at all. The cover of the most recent issue of Newsweek asks: “Do Parents Matter?” Newsweek features a report on a controversial new book by Judith Rich Harris entitled: The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do; Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More.

Before reading the Newsweek report, I had already heard about Harris’s book. I had hoped that I could just ignore it, that the book would be rejected immediately because of its absurd premise. Harris’s theory is that a child’s development is not influenced by his or her upbringing. Parents matter most for their genetic contributions. Peers, not parents, create the biggest influence on the child’s character. Of course, Harris’s book is getting attention because it’s controversial.

While I don’t believe Harris’s arguments against parental influence even justify debate, the fact that the mainstream press is giving her book respectability, not to mention tremendous publicity, is a sad commentary on our attitudes toward family. With huge numbers of parents already abdicating their responsibility toward their children, all they need is one more excuse not to bother, one more reason to say: What difference does it make whether or not I’m involved with my child?

While that’s the more obvious fallout that may result from the attention given to this book, there’s even more at stake. By placing more emphasis on genetics than nurturing, Harris undermines the confidence many parents have in the adoption process. At the very least, those considering adoption may hesitate, seriously wondering if an adopted child may be predisposed to making their lives miserable, regardless of the love and attention they bestow.

In addition to undermining confidence in adoption, Harris’s book, if taken seriously, creates an even greater social gap than what already exists. According to the Newsweek report, one of Harris’s suggestions to ensure children grow up well-adjusted is “have enough money to live in a good neighborhood so your children associate with only the ‘right’ peers.”

That suggestion is highly offensive. Already this society is seriously divided along economical and racial lines. For a book on child development to recommend a “good” neighborhood to produce a “good” child discounts the vast numbers of poor families who lack access to that privilege. Those who take Harris seriously would also be inclined to use every opportunity to avoid children who seem socially or economically “inferior.”

Encouraging parents to isolate their children from those they perceive as undesirable is frightening. Surely, we’ve all known some children whose behavior and temperament have prevented us and our children from associating with them. But Harris’s theory goes beyond a natural avoidance. It asserts that those of us who are serious about rearing well-adjusted children have a lot to worry about if our children’s peers aren’t as “acceptable” as we are. I, for one, have enough confidence that the values my husband and I have imparted to our children will override most of the negative influence from their peers and may actually serve to help other children who lack strong guidance. To separate my children from peers whose behavior I find less than ideal, I couldn’t let them leave the house.

In an age when people are already suspicious of one another, when there exists so much division and fear, how disturbing that a supposedly respectable psychologist recommends even deeper division.

Harris also advises that parents place greater emphasis on their children’s looks. She writes that parents “do have control over the way their children look, and their goal should be to make them look as normal and attractive as possible, because looks do count…” Now that’s an important piece of advice.

Ultimately, one has to wonder what type of person Harris expects parents to raise. To follow her advice, first, we acknowledge we’re helpless in child-rearing (apart from providing the sperm and egg); then we ensure our children associate with peers we deem acceptable; and, finally, we do everything possible to make our children physically attractive. Once this is accomplished, what sort of adults will these children become? The prospect is frightening.

Mary Hood Hart lives in Sunset Beach, N.C., with her husband, Jim, and their four children, ages 7 to 15.