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Book Review

The Nurture Assumption

Two weeks ago I bought a book I happened to see in an American bookstore. The book looked like a cheap populist piece of literature, but its subject interested me as I am the father of a 19-month-old child. Despite my doubts, the book succeeded in convincing me about its thesis, which profoundly affects the theory and practice of parenting.

The book is The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris. I had not heard about it before, but after reading it I was able to find quite much discussion about it on the Internet, and I have heard some mainstream magazines have run articles about it. The message of the book is simple: a human being receives their culture and personality from two sources, the genes and the environment. This is also the traditional belief, but it has been assumed without further consideration that the environment mainly consists of the family, especially the parents, of a child. Harris states that the main, if not only, environmental influence is the other children.

Harris presents the results of social-scientific research with which the social scientists usually prove that the parents strongly influence their children. Harris shows that the studies did succeed in measuring the influence of the genes and the environment but the scientists badly measured the subinfluences of the environment. For historical and ideological reasons as well as careless logic, the scientists automatically accepted the ``nurture assumption:'' it is chiefly the parents who constitute that environment.

For example I just finished reading another book about bullying in schools. It mentioned almost parenthetically that (1) the children of men who beat their wives tend to become bullies at school. That is a correct statement but it sounds like a causal interrelation. One can equally well state the same fact in the following ways: (2) ``The fathers of bullies tend to beat their wives'', or (3) ``The men who beat their wives tend to conceive bullies.''

The Nurture Assumption mentions some other similar examples. In fact, it suggests that both (2) and (3) are more likely causal relations than (1). Difficult children inflame the interpersonal relations within the family and cause more violence (2). And aggressive people donate their genes and their hormonal chemistry to their children (3).

After showing that the nurture assumption has not been proved in spite of decades of intensive research, Harris constructs a theory that better explains the research findings: the environment that affects the personality of the child is the child groups whose member the child is. As a child, a person receives from other children their language (including the accent and patterns of speech), their behavioral patterns and their ways of thinking. All immigrant parents try in vain to transfer their culture and language to their children, who become indistinguishable citizens of the new country - unless the immigrant group is sufficiently large and isolated from the main population.

In fact, Harris uses the language and its learning a lot as significant evidence backing her thesis. The hearing children of completely deaf people become perfectly normal speaking people although nobody spoke to them or heard their crying during the first couple of years. And there are cases of a hearing child having to live with deaf children: the hearing child quickly learns that it is not ok to speak with voice even to hearing people.

We laypeople cannot easily weigh the social-scientific evidence but have to wait for the debate among specialists and further research on the subject. However, we certainly can compare Harris's thesis with our own experience. And I have to say it completely corresponds to my life. Why do I not want to cry? My parents never taught that to me. But if I imagine crying, I immediately see with my mind's eye laughing six- or twelve-year-old rascals who are glad to be able to bully and mock me. Although I cannot remember that really happening, it must have happened because I can imagine the situation so strongly.

Examples are many. A coworker of mine said her four-year-old daughter insists on wearing ultrafeminine skirts although her mother herself would prefer more neutral clothes. My sister-in-law speaks with an Eastern-Finnish accent, which is so strong that my brother changed his speech patterns and vocabulary. Their sons learned the same dialect although they live in Sothern Finland. But when they went to day-care when they were three years old, they immediately changed their dialect to the Southern Finnish accent.

The message of Harris's book is a shock both to the ideological right and left alike. The right-wingers believe that a moral, religious family produces moral, religious children. And the left-wingers believe that an empathetic, loving family prevents crime, psychological problems and unhappiness in the children. Both parties are wrong: it make no difference what the parents are like. They are simply the providers.

Some ideological critics misinterpret the book. They claim that the book simply gives a permission to the parents to completely concentrate on their personal goals and neglect their children. It is true that the author wants to free parents from guilt: the successes and failures of the child do not depend on the deeds of the parents.

I interpret the message of the book a little differently. First of all, it is a scientific thesis that is testable. Whatever the ideological consequences, the truth is the truth and we have to accept it. But besides that it redirects my efforts. If I want to make my daughter happy, there are ineffective and effective methods. The effective methods work through other children.

Now I suddenly have a very high esteem for a coworker who coaches a Little-League team to play baseball and to actually live. He is a hero to ten-year-olds who learn to win, lose and respect every team-mate. He can educate the whole group, which is more effective than education in the family. He told me that some parents are jealous for his power.

The schools can educate or damage children. They can offer models but also permit bullying of children. It is important for the parents to choose the school and work to influence it.

If a child is in a bad group that entices them to crime or bullies them, the parents can relocate to another area where the child can begin to rebuild their social self.

And thus it is now evident why several right-wingers in the United States strongly oppose the book: it shows the impossibility of pure individualism. A human being does not make themselves. Even the family does not make a person. It is the society that makes them. The right-wingers do not want the schools to teach the children to live. The schools are supposed to teach academic facts only. But how can an individual not become a criminal if the other children have a high regard for criminals and a low regard for diligent students?

In several places, The Nurture Assumption suffers from bad style: the author cannot help lecturing about irrelevant subjects such as the fate of the Neanderthals, and she overemphasizes her own experiences and herself. However, it is impossible to resist the strong, simple message of the book.

The book is naturally an antithesis of the current doctrine. One must wait maybe some decades until the scientists can form a provable synthesis. So far the social scientists seem to be able to criticize only the fact that Harris does not hold an academic position.

Here are some WWW links:

The home page of The Nurture Assumption contains a long list of other links.

Aŭtoro: Marko RAUHAMAA <marko.rauhamaa@iki.fi>
Thousand Oaks, Kalifornio 1998-10-25