Chalk this up as the Great Parenting Paradox of our era.
Just as kids spend more hours out of their parents' sight, we privatize child development. Just as more kids go to day care, school care, other care, we ratchet up the message that parents are overwhelmingly responsible for how they turn out.This is how it goes today in the child advice world: Music for the womb. Bonding in the first week. Flashcards for the crib. Reading for 2-year-olds. It's all over by 3.
In this anxious atmosphere, you would think Judith Harris would get a standing ovation for telling parents to "relax" because they matter less than they think.
In fact, Harris' book "The Nurture Assumption" got a Newsweek/New Yorker send-off that most authors only dream about. But now it's producing one of those heated debates that begin with dueling experts and end up with confused parents.
The author who raised two very different daughters in the same household once shared the nurture assumption - a belief that the way parents raise young children lays out the pathway of their personality for life. Now, she looks at the research with a jaundiced eye and shares her epiphany: "Hey, it's not the parents! It's not the parents at all!"
Yes, nature in the form of genes matters some, says Harris, but nurture is vastly overrated. There is no proof that one style of parenting produces one kind of personality. Children who are raised the same way turn out differently.
Indeed, she suggests, "The relationship between a parent and a child, like any other relationship between two individuals, is a two-way street - an ongoing transaction in which each party plays a role." Our parenting styles may be the effect rather than the cause of a child's personality.
Harris does overstate her case. As one reviewer put it, she throws the parent out with the bath water. Then having debunked the overwhelming influence of parents, she goes on to tell us who does matter. It's peers.
"The personality shaped and polished in our childhood and adolescent peer groups," she concludes, "is the one we take with us to the grave." Peers `R' It.
Harris simply describes self-perpetuating cultures, "passed down from the parents' peer group to the children's peer group." If we can't blame the parents, can we blame the parents' peer group? She seems to dismiss these peer cultures as impervious to change.
It's odd that the controversy over this sea-changing book rages around the fear that if parents think they aren't important, they'll give up the job. That the only reason we are involved with kids is because our quality time is imprinted for life.
I take a rather different message from "the nurture assumption." I agree with Harris that we aren't just raised in a mom and pop lab. Nurture is a rather squinty-eyed view of that other larger word, environment. Parents are part of that larger cultural environment. But so are peer groups.
We have spent increasing amounts of energy, anxiety and attention on child-raising as a private enterprise. Check the bookshelves of advice. If Harris is right, parents have less to worry about at home. On the other hand, we have more to worry about - and to do - in the neighborhood.
Now who was telling us to "relax"?
The Boston Globe Newspaper Co.