Parent-advice writers like to paint pictures of a child’s love bucket that is so full that the world could never poke enough holes in it. Our love is the ultimate insulator we’re told. How is it then that childhood anxiety and bullying is so pervasive? Do we not love our kids as much as we think we do? Could our love have limitations? Judith Rich Harris’s, The Nurture Assumption, is an attempt to answer these questions. While compiling content for college psychology textbooks Harris began to notice discrepancies in research about childhood outcomes. It’s as if researchers in developmental psychology, anthropology, and behavioral genetics do not read research from each other’s disciplines. These discrepancies led her to form a new theory, Group Socialization Theory.
Have you ever noticed that kids often mimic other kids? Try as you might to teach your children the way you would like them to behave, they still end up mimicking the behavior of other children. You assume it’s your fault. Harris thinks you’re being too hard on yourself. You’re falling victim to “the nurture assumption.” “The nurture assumption,” as Harris calls it, says that kids are socialized by their parents, that the way you raise a child is by parenting them correctly. When we believe only in the nurture assumption we miss the other factors that affect our children.
Our clothes, our language, and even the way we behave around people acts as a membership card. It gives our group, or our potential group, clues about how we might fit in. Children bring these things to the group and test them to see if the group accepts it. It’s why kids often seem shy in new places and around new people. They are waiting to suss out the rules of their group. And it doesn’t matter what we tell them the rules should be. We’re not members. Not because children dislike us, but because he identifies with the peer group. If the kid wanted to be like adults, then he would wait to see what we have to say. A child’s behavior is not indicative of a lesson we failed to teach—kids just want to be like other kids, especially the kids they identify with. Their social standing within their peer group heavily influences who they turn out to be.
Heredity is Often Overlooked
Harris asserts that if we pay extra attention to studies done by Behavior Geneticists we will see that our genes have a lot of impact on our child’s dispositions. Instead of perceiving every idiosyncrasy as a failure of parenting we would do well to consider that it may simply be a disposition or a norm of their peer groups.
Personality is Not Constant
Personality, Harris argues, depends largely on who the child is around. They have certain behavioral patterns in the presence of parents, friends, and extended family. Maybe your “strong-willed” daughter is mostly strong-willed when it comes to your opinion. Her friends likely experience her quite differently. That’s why even other adults experience our kids differently than we do. Many parents meet their child’s teacher for the first time and wonder how the teacher could possibly be talking about their child.
Harris presents Group Socialization Theory as a response to the nurture assumption. Learning how to act in society happens within a person’s peer group. Kids learn how to act from other kids, parents from other parents, to put it simply. People across age groups treat each other differently. Kindergarteners learn how to do school from watching each other and sometimes the first graders. First graders learn from second graders, and so on. But who do the seniors in high school look to? They look to their peers in college or in the workforce. Eventually they are looking at other adults, although often from their own generation. People may become legally adults at a specific age but the cultural transition is a bit hazier than that.
If Harris has any message specifically for parents it might be to be extremely skeptical about the claims parent-advice writers make. Harris admits that it still takes a village to raise a child, which might surprise you. However, she writes, “The reason it takes a village is not that it requires a quorum of adults to nudge erring youngsters back onto the paths of righteousness. It takes a village because in a village there are always enough kids to form a playgroup.”
This article was written by Philip Mott. Learn more about him on his website.
Harris, Judith Rich The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. Free Press. 2009