In Defense of Parenting

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."

But while no one would argue with Harris's claim that a particular parenting style cannot assure a particular positive outcome, most people do believe, or in too many cases, know through personal experience, that certain failures or abuses on the part of a parent can cause a wide variety of painful responses in children and the adults they eventually become. Harris, however, breezily dismisses this critical point from her polemic. In fact, she virtually scoffs at the belief that even "super-bad" parents-- which at one point she defines as those who would "abuse their kids so severely that they end up in the hospital, or who leave them unattended in cold apartments stinking with unchanged diapers and rotted food"--might saddle their children with permanent scars. It's here and in other similar spots in her book that Harris's views become most surreal and disturbing. In essence, she's saying to the many walking wounded survivors of bad parenting that "studies now prove that what happened to you really didn't matter." To take Harris's logic to its extreme, one could point out that any number of young Holocaust survivors "turned out" just fine in terms of becoming productive, gainfully employed, law-abiding adults. However, to extrapolate from that data that their early experiences were essentially meaningless is both cruel and unwise. In the case of my own children, one of the three is clearly possessed of a natural resilience and toughness that would undoubtedly serve her exceptionally well were she ever faced with suffering or adversity. However, that doesn't lessen my responsibility as her mother to protect her from facing those things whenever possible.

The idea of parental responsibility is a concept generally lacking from The Nurture Assumption. Harris writes that we should treat our children "just as well as we would treat our own husband or wife . . ." and that we should "love our children because they are lovable." The problem with the child/spouse analogy is that children are not the same as adults. They are smaller, weaker, and both cognitively and emotionally less developed than their parents. They are special. As anthropologist Meredith Small, author of Our Babies/Ourselves, mentioned to me in a conversation regarding Harris's ideas, human children are not truly biologically independent for a number of years. In other words, children are in need of protection and yes, guidance, from their parents and the other adults in their lives, and we have a responsibility to provide it to them. And if we base our parenting decisions and commitment solely on our children's "lovableness," rather than on this responsibility, we risk failing them based on external and often random factors. No one, not even one's own cherished child, seems lovable or appealing all the time. Most mothers and fathers I know will tell you that it's at those inevitable times when they're able to rise above the unpleasantness of the moment and still continue to meet their responsibility toward their children that they gain the most from their roles as parents. This is when parenting becomes the maturing, ennobling experience that matters to parents and which, in the end, enriches us all.

Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of The Nurture Assumption has been the huge and mostly positive response the book has received in the media. Why is it, when book after book is released each year with indisputable evidence concerning children in our midst who are without adequate food, shelter, health care, and yes, nurturance, that the book that essentially lets adults off the hook for our failings is the one that makes the cover of Newsweek? Parenting does matter. Ask any child, parent, teacher, psychiatrist, emergency-room physician, social worker, or prison warden and she will tell you the same thing. If we accept Harris's assertion that the care and guidance we offer to the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society doesn't matter in the long run, we are left with the question of what, ultimately, does.  


Katie Allison Granju is a Tennessee-based writer with credits in Salon, The Chicago Tribune and Hip Mama, among others. She is the author of Attachment Parenting: Instinctive Care for Your Baby and Young Child (August, 1999, Simon and Schuster), and the mother of three young children. She is a frequent contributor of articles and essays to Minnesota Parent.

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