Friday, June 13, 2008

An Extraordinary Book

I've just finished reading Judith Rich Harris's The Nurture Assumption. This book made a big splash when it first appeared in 1998, but although I read about it then, I didn't read the book itself. This is in keeping with my general lateness to anything trendy. Harris, however, is anything but trendy. She is bucking the mainstream of American psychology, and has garnered both awards and brick-bats for doing so.

Her major contention, buttressed with what even her enemies concede to be rigorous and exhaustive examinations of statistical data, is this: Parents have a lot less effect on how kids turn out than everybody thought. What does determine adult personality and behavior, almost exclusively, is the combination of genetic heredity and peer-group socialization in childhood and adolescence. This is because kids don't strive to be like their parents; they strive to be like the group(s) of other kids -- in school or the neighborhood or the tribal village or wherever -- that they identify with. Studies that show parent-child correlations have overlooked both genetic factors and peer-group influence, and when these are corrected for, parents end up influencing children's in-home behavior, but not the "out-there" behavior that they will carry with them the rest of their lives.

To arrive at this conclusion, Harris looks at twin studies, adopted-child studies, genetic studies, cultures across the world, evolutionary biology, socio-economic studies, and a host of other things. Mike Flynn would love this book; Harris takes apart accepted statistical conclusions with ferocious (and witty) glee, pointing out factors that have not been taken into consideration and factors that should have been. It's beyond the scope of this blog to go into much detail, but let me say that I found her methodology and conclusions very, very persuasive. This is partly because I have two very different kids; partly because I can recognize my own life as child, adolescent, and adult in her theories; partly because my first career was as an elementary school teacher (Grade 4) and her descriptions of how kids behave in groups are dead-on.

This is a thoughtful book for anyone who has, or was, a child. Go read it.

19 comments:

cd said...

I remember when this came out. Depressing as hell for a parent, really. How do I keep my daughter from the stupidity of her peers?

The Pondering Tree's Alpha Site said...

Umm, what happens with the kid who doesn't socialize well with the peer group? I'm a little uncomfortable with this notion that every kid tries to be like their peers. I certainly did not.

In fact, I couldn't stand most of them.

Respects,
S. F. Murphy

Nancy Kress said...

"Peer group" doesn't necessarily mean every kid in your school. Especially for teens, it means the ones you choose to identify with --the brains, jocks, nerds, rebels, artsy crowd, whatever. There's usually a subgroup that kids conform to -- even when they insist they're not conforming.

Craig -- According to Harris, you can't keep your daughter from her peers. And since grown-ups are not the ones kids emulate, it will be one or more of the kid groups she belongs to. Harris makes the intelligent point that kids don't expect to emulate adult behavior, nor do we expect them to (leaving the house whenever we choose, selecting the meals, paying the mortgage, going to work). They don't want to dress like us, listen to our music, etc. Smoking studies have shown that it's not smoking parents that decide a kid to start smoking -- it's whether her peers do, or would like to, or admire such audacity. If they don't, she won't.

Bill Dunning said...

Umm, what happens with the kid who doesn't socialize well with the peer group? I'm a little uncomfortable with this notion that every kid tries to be like their peers. I certainly did not.

Well I didn't either. As the loner, the introverted, bookish, nerdy geek, I couldn't stand most of the other kids either. But I naturally found the few other kids like myself and we became our own (tiny) peer group.

But that's not all. The majority of "normal" kids influenced me in their own way -- they made me want to be UNlike them.

I think both of those peer groups were a bigger influence on me than my parents, in many ways.

gdtownshende said...

This book sounds incredible. Like Dunning, I, too, was a loner, introverted, bookish, nerdy,... and artsy, too.

That said, I don't recall having any friends in high school who:

* read as much as I did (I could always be found with 4-6 library books in hand, and I was always reading either all or most of them at the same time),

* or enjoyed English as much as I did (no one I knew in high school chose to use one of their "elective" courses to double up on their English studies for two years running),

* or wrote as much as I did (if I wasn't trying to emulate Asimov by creating my own galactic empires, or trying to emulate Herbert/Tolkien by creating incredibly detailed backgrounds, or trying to emulate Peter Benchley by letting my characters be gritty and foul-mouthed, etc, then I was either journaling, or working for the school paper, or trying to start my own "independent" school paper, etc).

In fact, I recently got reacquainted with two old high school friends (quite a feat in and of itself given that we were military brats and that nearly 30 years has passed since we last saw one another) who told me they were very glad to see that I had not given up my writing.

I think I'll have to make a point of reading this book you've mentioned, as well as a book I purchased not too long ago (MILITARY BRATS: LEGACIES OF CHILDHOOD INSIDE THE FORTRESS) on growing up in this particular subculture, written by Mary Edwards Wertsch.

Nancy Kress said...

Nearly all the writers I know (including myself) felt pretty alienated from the dominant peer group in high school, sticking instead to a small group of friends and living a lot in their heads. Actually, I think it's a wonder that anyone survives high school.

The Pondering Tree's Alpha Site said...

I've told people that if I had to do either high school or the Army over again (even supposing that my four year do over meant standing at a street corner in Iraq with no body armor or weapon) I'd take the Army option in a cold second.

I can see reacting against my peers but much of my reaction was buttressed by the examples and rules my parents set down. In the absence of any viable role model on the teen peer side, I tended to follow the example of the adults. Besides, they are who I spent most of my time around anyway. Compared to the screaming, giggling, malicious monsters of the public school system, the adults seemed tame and sane by comparison.

Respects,
S. F. Murphy

Mike Flynn said...

She is bucking the mainstream of American psychology... Her major contention...is this: Parents have a lot less effect on how kids turn out than everybody thought. What does determine adult personality and behavior, almost exclusively, is the combination of genetic heredity and peer-group socialization in childhood and adolescence.

I'm not sure how this bucks the mainstream. In practice, American culture has devalued parents and exalted the peer group since at least the late 50s, and the notion that we are creatures controlled by genes is the default thinking among all right and true thinkers.

This may all be a consequence of the infantilization of the American people, who more and more act like adolescents even into their 30s. At one time, kids =did= want to be like their parents; now the parents want to be like kids. When I went off to grade school, I wore a jacket and tie and carried a brief case (book bag) - IOW, I dressed like I was going to work, not to play. Now people go to work like they were going to play. (I grant one caveat: my father did not go to work in a tie until somewhat later. He was a pressman and master printer. Even so, we kids used to talk about what we'd like to be when we grew up; now they talk about never growing up. We wanted to be firemen, policemen, postmen, RR engineers, and suchlike things. Now they want to become rock musicians or to get paid for singing, dancing, or wearing pretty clothes professionally.

Julie Woodman once wrote, "As far as I can tell, the concept of the hormone-crazed teenager is coeval with suburbia. I don't think this is a coincidence. I think teenagers are driven crazy by the life they're made to lead. Teenage apprentices in the Renaissance were working dogs. Teenagers now are neurotic lapdogs. Their craziness is the craziness of the idle everywhere."

Kay Horowitz on child-men:
http://tinyurl.com/2o3xvf

Nancy Kress said...

You need to read the book, Mike. It's a lot more complex than I can summarize here -- just as today's kids are a lot more complex and varied than your comments suggest.
Nan

Bill Dunning said...

...and the notion that we are creatures controlled by genes is the default thinking among all right and true thinkers.

Alas, a sizable proportion of people in the social sciences are not "right and true thinkers" and still devalue the genetic component.

By the way, if anyone is interested in another good book on nature vs. nurture and bucking the opinions of (some) psychologists, I highly recommend Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate.

Mike Flynn said...

bill dunning: if anyone is interested in another good book on nature vs. nurture and bucking the opinions of (some) psychologists, I highly recommend Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate.

Is that the same Steven Pinker who urged us to be more open-minded about infanticide? ("Why They Kill Their Newborns," New York Times Magazine, November 2, 1997.) I mean it's one thing for him to denigrate the liberal social model of human malleability, or to claim that women's nature is distinct from men; but infanticide... Excuse me, neonaticide.

I recollect he had quite a run-in with the notoriously even-tempered Leon Kass in Commentary a while back.

Bill Dunning said...
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Bill Dunning said...
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Bill Dunning said...

Is that the same Steven Pinker who urged us to be more open-minded about infanticide? ("Why They Kill Their Newborns," New York Times Magazine, November 2, 1997.)

I found the article, and if you meant to use it to dismiss the author as some sort of kook, I'm afraid you're mistaken. It's a typical mistake, the old "is/ought" fallacy: just because nature is a certain way, that doesn't tell us how we ought to behave. Pinker points out a sociobiological basis for neonaticide, but also says "to understand is not to forgive" and "killing babies is not moral." Trying to understand the basis for some horrible practice is not the same as accepting it.

Mike Flynn said...

Pinker points out a sociobiological basis for neonaticide, but also says "to understand is not to forgive" and "killing babies is not moral." Trying to understand the basis for some horrible practice is not the same as accepting it.

Oh, he certainly did not approve; but one does wonder from which gene the "not moral" judgment comes from. It is all too reminiscent of "just so" stories, like Michael Schermer's attempt to deduce the mutiny on the Bounty from basic Darwinian principles.

Truth to tell, Social Darwinism has always had an ominous feel to me, even under it new, user-friendly name of sociobiology, so it may be only my own wariness talking.

It does make me wonder why Pinker is interesting when he speaks of the genetic basis for X, but Watson is beyond the pale and loses his job when he speaks of the genetic basis for Y. In neither case, it appears, does an actual gene have to be produced and its causitive power demonstrated, so great is the power of a dominant narrative.

Bill Dunning said...

Mike, there are several misconceptions there I'd love to dig into; but I feel we're sidetracking this post's comments onto a different topic and I don't wish to be rude. So I'll end on a positive note by saying it's good to meet a fellow Nancy Kress fan, and see you around.

Mike Flynn said...

I feel we're sidetracking this post's comments onto a different topic

I agree. It's been nice discussing it - we never learn anything new from people who agree with us - but discussion here ought to center on the wonders of Kressitude.

ScottQ said...
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ScottQ said...

Sounds like an interesting read. I need a fresh perspective, I will look into it. Maybe I'm an anomaly, but from a personal perspective, I grew up keeping one foot in most of the clicks. I had gamer friends I hung out with, Jock friends I played sports with, "social" friends I partied with, musicians I hung out and played with, and of course, all were cast aside for girl craziness... what does that make me? A generalist?
I think "the answer" to this topic is more likely some combination of the three than any one or two, but if there's one thing I've learned it's that keeping an open mind is the key to enlightenment. I am not suggesting that I am enlightened, however...