Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Judith Rich Harris - Nurture Is Out, Nature Is the Answer

Judith Rich Harris wrote a book - The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do - that essentially rejects the nurture element of the nature/nurture debate, freeing parents from the pressure to be responsible for their kids.

I have problems with this on so many levels - so while I mention this book the positive review given by Sp!ked Review of Books, I also want to mention The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, The Developing Mind, Attachment in Psychotherapy, and Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self - all of these books demonstrate in various ways the crucial nature of the child's bonding with a primary care-giver.
It’s time to move beyond the nature/nurture divide

In advising parents to ignore hectoring experts, Judith Rich Harris’s book still packs a punch 10 years on. But its use of evolutionary theory and social psychology to explain how people are ‘shaped’ leaves much to be desired.

Earlier this year, on the tenth anniversary of its first publication, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do by Judith Rich Harris was revised and updated. The book is a welcome antidote to the increasingly shrill voices lecturing us today about the ‘right’ ways of parenting. But as an insight into what it means to be human, and what shapes our development, Harris’s book raises more questions than it answers.

‘One of my purposes in writing this book is to relieve parents from the guilt that has been imposed upon them by the professional givers of advice on child-rearing’, Harris writes. ‘The nurture assumption has turned children into objects of anxiety. Parents are worried about doing the wrong thing, fearful that a stray word or glance might ruin their child’s chances forever.’ She rightly argues that ‘Somehow the advice-givers always manage to take the joy and spontaneity out of child-rearing and turn it into hard work’.

‘If you have occasionally lost your temper and hit your children, it is unlikely that you have caused them any lasting harm’, she continues. That is not to say it doesn’t matter if you are regularly nasty to your children; if you are, it is possible that you will seriously harm your relationship with your child, potentially for life. But it will not shape your child’s relationship with other adults. Your child will not relate to all other adults as if they are unpredictable, quick-tempered and nasty, but they may relate to you in that way, says Harris.

Harris meticulously takes apart the claims made by academics and experts about children being determined by their early familial relationships: ‘The experts are wrong: parental nurturing is not what determines how a child turns out.’

Much of the evidence for the effect of parenting styles on children’s later outcomes is based on correlational research. Harris shows that many of these claims are vastly overblown. Researchers will often gather a good deal of data about the participants of their study. If, for instance, they were to gather five measures of the home environment and five measures of the children’s outcomes, these measures could be paired up in 25 different ways, yielding 25 possible correlations. As Harris points out: ‘Just by chance alone, it is likely that one or two of them will be statistically significant.’ She adds that if none of them is significant, ‘Never fear, all is not lost’: all the so-called experts need to do is split up the data further and look again. ‘Looking separately at girls and boys immediately doubles the number of correlations, giving us 50 possibilities for success instead of just 25. Looking separately at fathers and mothers is also worth a try. “Divide and conquer” is my name for this method.’

“Harris argues that self-esteem is based on what we do, not how we are encouraged to feel”

A good example of this type of analysis is the recent government-funded study by the Institute of Education, which, according to the UK Daily Mail, shows that ‘children are more likely to grow into well-adjusted adults if their parents are firm disciplinarians’ (1). The authors of the report set out to ‘understand the determinants of parenting’, and ended up recommending that ‘maternal mental health, breastfeeding and social networks form the focus of intervention efforts to boost parenting capabilities’ (2).

On what basis did they draw such far-reaching conclusions about the need for further government intervention in family life? The researchers looked at the relationship between a whole host of measures and the ‘quality of the mother-child interactions’. The factors they looked at included: the mother’s marital status, marital satisfaction, family income, breastfeeding, attitudes towards breastfeeding, feelings about childcare, quality of maternal care that the mother received in her own childhood, post-natal depression, mother’s age at child’s birth, mother’s education, and much more. To assess the mother-child interactions, they measured the amount of ‘warmth’ and ‘educational communication’ involved when a mother shared a picture book with her child at one and then five years of age.

Of course, the researchers came up with some ‘statistically significant correlations’. With so many possible correlations it would be highly surprising if they didn’t.

Read the whole review.

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