Sunday, March 11, 2001


Baslow and Mrs. Baslow are very proud of their children. It is unclear, however, how much of the credit the Baslow parents can take for the way the Baslow children behave or for their admirable qualities. Certainly, they are responsible for the childrens' genetic endowment but this traces back to activity that is "parenting" only in the barest sense. What of the rest of "parenting", the care taken to treat children in nurturing ways, to provide children with good examples, to shape their behavior?

Psychologists, especially popularizers who communicate psychological results to the lay public, have tended to start with what Judith Rich Harris calls "The Nurture Assumption". That is, they assume that parents and their methods of child-rearing play a large role in the determination of behavior outside the context of the family and try to find in the research clues to which methods have which effects. If, however, one starts with the "null hypothesis" and assumes that parents have NO effect beyond the genetic, one must question whether the evidence establishes ANY consistent effect of nurture on offspring behavior. Harris claims that it does not, or at least that it doesn't indicate MUCH effect. She further claims that the evidence points to other factors in the child's environment which are far more influential, primarily the child's interaction with peers.

Baslow (who has not yet read her book) believes that there is considerable merit to Harris' critique of the prevailing psychological model of personality development in children. He suspects that she has oversold the merits of her own alternative. He doesn't share Howard Gardner's concern that Harris' book will be taken as an excuse by many parents to abandon efforts to influence their children's behavior; he hasn't heard many parents talk about Harris' book at all.

Baslow believes that we do not yet possess models of sufficient richness or complexity to adequately address the questions raised by Harris' book. We lack sufficient understanding of the minute-by-minute experience of our lives. We need to be able to describe how the human organism, on a second-by-second basis, decides what to attend to, decides what details to retain and accumulate, and decides how to act.

Baslow is convinced that models of such granularity will emerge only when students of human behavior have the means to incorporate social/cultural and ecological elements into their fundamental psychological accounts. For example, we will need to understand far betther than we do now how wording, setting, timing, tone of voice and facial and gestural expressions affect the reception of praise. Such understanding may very well require us, further, to appreciate how the history of a particular relationship affects the interpretation of any given combination of wording, setting, timing, etc. This is a tall order which, Baslow believes, will require contributions from many workers in many disciplines over the course of many years.

Baslow intends to read the Harris book. He believes that it will serve, at least, to cause him to re-examine his assumptions. It will almost certainly help him to clarify his own, half-formed beliefs about how children develop. There is every indication that it will make him think.

The Book

The Nurture Assumption

Writings by Judith Rich Harris on the Web

Children Don't Do Things Halfway
How to Succeed in Childhood
Slate: Dialogue with Jerome Kagan
Where Is the Child's Environment? A Group Socialization Theory of Development
How Many Environments Does a Child Have?
The Nurture Assumption and Adolescent Addiction

NPR: All Things Considered, Friday, March 9, 2001
"Commentator Judith Rich Harris says at times there isn't much a parent can do to prevent a child from using a gun at school and that signs are often not obvious. She says the best preventive measure is simply not to own guns. (3:30)" (14.4|28.8)

Responses and Reviews

In Defense of Parenthood, by Katie Allison Granju
Who Needs Experts? by Beth Kephart
Do Parents Matter? -- Equinox
Do Parents Count? by Howard Gardner
Peer Pressure by Carol Tavris
Lehrer Online NewsHour: Nature vs. Nurture
Parents and Children -- Commentary Magazine
The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do


How Is Personality Formed? A Talk With Frank Sulloway (in which Sulloway expounds on his theory of the effects of birth order on personality.)
Harris's Comments on Sulloway's Talk