In Defense of Parenting

Millions of mamas can't be wrong

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Judith Rich Harris, author of The Nurture Assumption, the most widely publicized book on issues of human development since The Bell Curve, says that one of her primary reasons for writing the book was to alleviate parental guilt.

"A lot of people who should be contributing children to our society, who could be contributing very useful and fine children, are reluctant to do it or are waiting very long to have children because they feel it requires such a huge commitment," explains Harris. "If they knew that it was okay to have a child and let it be reared by a nanny or put it in a day-care center or even to send it to a boarding school, maybe they would believe that it would be okay to have a kid."

"Great," remarked a friend and fellow mother of three young children to me after reading Harris's comments. "Just what we need: more parents with less commitment."

Believe it or not, that's precisely what America needs, according to Judith Rich Harris and the Alice-in-Wonderland premise she sets forth in The Nurture Assumption. In the New Yorker piece, as well as in follow-up articles in Time and Newsweek, among others, Harris and her supporters argue passionately that today's parents are being asked to commit just too damn much time and attention to nurturing our kids--an essentially useless endeavor--because we have been sold "a bill of goods" in the idea that children are affected in any meaningful way by our parenting. Our naive belief that parenting matters is what Harris has dubbed "the nurture assumption." Harris says she wants to release parents from the bondage of a supposedly widespread "cultural myth": the idea that, through our childrearing practices, "we can make our children turn out any way we want." After all, "children are not empty canvases on which parents can paint their dreams," chides Harris in the chapter of her book entitled "What Parents Can Do." The author further advises that we poor misguided souls currently in the parenting trenches should "give it up" because her own review of the scientific literature has revealed startling new evidence that "parenting matters zilch." As for those of us adults who believe that our own parents' actions strongly influenced the people we have become, well, according to Harris and her assembled evidence, we are simply deluding ourselves.

While reading Harris's book, one cannot help but be impressed with her ability to weave together and render readable a vast array of seemingly random data in an attempt to support her bizarre and utterly counter-intuitive ideas. However, the reader is also left with the strong impression that, despite the fact that she has clearly crafted a book she believes to be for and about everyday families, Judith Rich Harris must not have spent much time hanging around with any real live parents if she thinks that we are all so brazen as to assume we can personally script our children's tomorrows. In fact, Harris's work can sound quite scintillating and paradigm-busting until you realize that few if any parents actually hold the views against which the author argues so eloquently.

In her eagerness to demolish what she defines as the nurture assumption, Harris is tilting at windmills. How many of you mamas out there actually base your day-to-day parenting decisions on the belief that you have the omniscient ability to sculpt every detail of your personal version of procreative perfection? I know I don't. As the mother of three little people, each as fundamentally different from one another (and from me) as can be, it became painfully obvious to me some time back that, in many ways, I'm just along for the ride. Actually, in discussions in recent days with a wide range of parents, including everyone from a Brooklyn-ite Jewish lesbian mother to a married Evangelical Christian father in the Bible Belt, I have been unable to find one person who assumes the way in which they nurture their offspring can guarantee any particular outcome.

Perhaps somewhere between Freud and the advent of behavioral genetics, there were a few parents out there who genuinely believed they alone held the key to every aspect of their children's ultimate fate, but not today. We now know (and Harris acknowledges) that a large part, maybe even the largest part, of whom any child will become is inborn. So if parents accept that giving birth to and parenting a genetically unique individual presents perhaps the greatest act of blind faith in all of human relationships, why do we continue to do it? Why, knowing as we do that no matter how hard we try, we still might end up with a member of Heaven's Gate or even a Mark David Chapman, do we keep trying? Why, ultimately, does parenting matter? And why is Judith Rich Harris so dead wrong in her deeply flawed analysis concluding that it does not?

First, it's a leap from Harris's central point that parents cannot be assured of any specific results to the idea that parenting has little to no effect on a child's life. Actually Harris is vague in her definition of just what it is that our parenting doesn't affect. Throughout the book, she variously refers to our inability to impact children's "character," "temperament," "personality," "development," "behavior," or simply, how they "turn out." Of course, all of these aspects of humanity are distinct from one another and each is uniquely susceptible to various influences. Harris uses her own two adult daughters as an illustration of her case against parental impact by noting that, despite the fact that she believes she parented the girls in similar ways, her biological daughter was friendly, cooperative, and well-behaved as a child and teenager, while her adopted daughter was a hellion. See, crows a triumphant Harris, parenting doesn't matter! The problem with Harris's highly personal example is that today, both daughters are well-adjusted, productive members of society with whom Harris enjoys good relationships. Harris may not have been able to influence her daughters' temperaments, but it appears that her steady, loving parenting did, in fact, likely play a role in how they "turned out."

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