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.