peers over parents
October 26, 2007 4:16 PM   Subscribe

So he didn't read the baby books! BFD says Judith Rich Harris, author of the "No Two Alike", and originator of a controversial theory about personality development. Namely, that when it comes to our kids' adult personalities, what we did as parents doesn't really matter much at all.
posted by AceRock (40 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite

 
Until we have an actual understanding of the mind, these studies are crap. Take the following statement about the studies: They've looked at personality traits such as extroversion, conscientiousness and aggressiveness

What is extroversion? Is there a scientific definition? The idea is a construct. There is no gene for extroversion, because extroversion is a way that we think about how people act, not an objectively measurable fact, like quark spin or mass, or something like that. We can't connect a gene (something objective) to something subjective, like "agressiveness."
posted by Ironmouth at 4:29 PM on October 26, 2007


I'm still trying to parse the second sentence... it seems to be missing the second part of it? Who or what is BFD?

Harris de-emphasizes the first few years of a child's development, when peers are not the main influence in a child's life.

The answer is, of course, that both matter and focusing on one over the other is detrimental to a child's overall balanced development. Neither one is necessary to becoming a happy and healthy person.
posted by docjohn at 4:36 PM on October 26, 2007


BFD
posted by R. Mutt at 4:40 PM on October 26, 2007


BFD
posted by stopgap at 4:41 PM on October 26, 2007


I remember her book being reviewed in the New Yorker. I tend to agree with a lot of her ideas. Philip Larkin be damned.
posted by vronsky at 4:45 PM on October 26, 2007


The problem isn't so much her ideas, which, at the core of it, aren't that controversial. It's her heavy reliance on a single component of a niche of psychological science (twin studies) to explain virtually everything about child development. There is much information to be gained from twin studies, but they aren't the whole story. People like her who believe they are either being purposely simplistic and ignoring other significant areas in psychology research, or perhaps just naive in thinking they've found the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.
posted by docjohn at 5:08 PM on October 26, 2007


Just more bullshit designed to sell books.
posted by Henry C. Mabuse at 5:29 PM on October 26, 2007


I don't know. This seems to explain the extremely common parenting moment of the school calling you to say that your child refuses to follow directions (or whatever), which is something that never happens at home.

So I'm intrigued, however bad the science.
posted by nax at 5:33 PM on October 26, 2007


I have twins, a boy and a girl. We try to treat them the same, and certainly they're always around both of us. But they've been different, noticeably so, from the first moments that any personality whatsoever was made manifest.

So on the face of it, I'm inclined to think that there's truth to this. Lots of nature in the nature vs nurture debate, in my experience.

But consider this: I have taught my two-year-olds -- who, like other toddlers, freak out and get out-of-control upset at times -- to breathe, just to stop and breathe. The first few times they mostly imitated my exaggerated breathing body language, but even then they stopped freaking out, and after that they mostly started doing it on their own without prompting. The change was night and day from the very first instance I tried it (almost immediate calming down versus a two-minute tantrum and throwing things.)

In other words, they learned a coping skill from me, one that is already helping them to control their anger and frustration and respond in a surprisingly reasonable fashion to obstacles, rather than lashing out and being unreasonable and violent.

Now consider the adults you've known in your life, one who lashes out violently when thwarted, and one who is diplomatic and reasonable when thwarted. Wouldn't you consider those personality traits? I would.

So take that as you will, but I know I've influenced their personalities, and so have other people in their lives, in very obvious ways.
posted by davejay at 5:34 PM on October 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


I don't know. This seems to explain the extremely common parenting moment of the school calling you to say that your child refuses to follow directions (or whatever), which is something that never happens at home.

I might be able to present an alternative hypothesis: at a certain age, a child in one environment (and who has learned some of the rules of that environment, say, home) does not immediately apply them to a new environment (say, school) because that requires more complex thinking to map one set of rules to another environment.

I've seen this in my kids before they were two years old, where they started acting out at school in a way they weren't acting out at home any longer because we'd set boundaries for the behavior. We talked with the teachers, who began setting the same boundaries for the same behavior in the new environment, and the acting out stopped.
posted by davejay at 5:37 PM on October 26, 2007


I am going to make a silly but perhaps useful suggestion: read her book and then decide. She does not discount the home. Hers is not so controversial but rather challenging notions such as birth order and parental influence as being the only matters that matter. She has opened up a new inquiry and has gained many people who are now benefitting from her studies and working on perspectives ignored previously, and, right or wrong in what she says, this is a good thing. If it is bullshit designed to sell books, what then shapes us into the adults we become? Plese give us a non-bullshit anser that is not selling books.
posted by Postroad at 5:40 PM on October 26, 2007 [2 favorites]


I looked at The Nurture Assumption a few years ago. I'm skeptical of her claims:
How the parents rear the child has no long-term effects on the child's personality, intelligence, or mental health. I guess you could call that an extreme statement. But I prefer to think of myself as a defender of the null hypothesis.

The null hypothesis is the hypothesis that a putative "cause" has no effect, and it's supposed to be the starting point for scientific inquiry. For instance, when a new drug is being tested, the researchers are expected to start out with the hypothesis that the drug is no better than a placebo. If they find that the patients who received the drug are more likely to recover than the ones who got the placebo, then they can reject the null hypothesis at some level of confidence, some probability level.
To take an obvious example, if a child is raised by neglectful or abusive parents, I would suggest that in most cases, there would be some long-term effects on the child's personality or mental health.

I'm also thinking that there's certain basic skills--delaying gratification, for example--that are typically learned (or not learned) at an early age, and that would be difficult to separate from personality and mental health.

Perhaps I'm influenced unduly by the Chinese worldview, which regards human nature as plastic and thus shaped by one's upbringing (compared to the Western view, which emphasizes individuality and one's inborn traits).
posted by russilwvong at 5:43 PM on October 26, 2007


I'm also thinking that there's certain basic skills--

On non-preview: what davejay said.
posted by russilwvong at 6:14 PM on October 26, 2007


Until we have an actual understanding of the mind, these studies are crap

Well that's just obvious. Since you think they are crap, they clearly must be. Study after Study shows that random people on the internet are far smarter then anyone who studies anything professionally.

What is extroversion? Is there a scientific definition?

Well, whenever I've taken psychology classes, they used specific, well know repeatable measures for things like aggression, extroversion and so on. But since you haven't heard about, it must not exist. That's just how the internet works. Anything you haven't had explained to you can't be true, and anything you haven't heard of doesn't exist!
posted by delmoi at 6:16 PM on October 26, 2007 [7 favorites]


This isn't new or that controversial. Studies for a long time have indicated that parenting doesn't have much influence except for severe trauma.

And it's not as if we didn't already know this. Everyone, everywhere has known how much siblings differ. If parenting mattered that much, siblings would be more alike than they are different. But that's not the case.

“it's subjective, like ‘agressiveness’”

Aggressiveness isn't subjective, it's objective It's measurable. So is extroversion. That it's a construct? So is “temperature”.

Of course how people act is objective—their actions are objective facts. A common language term like aggressive or stutters needs a more precise, scientific definition for the purposes of research, but the whole point is that this definition corresponds as closely as possible to the common language version. And, in many cases, that's not so hard to do because the utility of the common language term aggressive has everything to do with how accurately it describes how people actually act.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:37 PM on October 26, 2007


While I would agree that a cause/effect relationship can't be established because of all the other contributing factors, to suggest that parents teachings don't have a huge impact on their kids' development is just naive.
posted by misha at 6:44 PM on October 26, 2007


“to suggest that parents teachings don't have a huge impact on their kids' development is just naive.”

The word you're looking for is cynical, not naive. It's naive to assume they do—that's the default assumption which everyone makes.

I suggest that children's peers have more influence on their development than do their parents. That may not be the case; but the point, really, is that the default assumption is pretty much that parental influence is close to being the exclusive factor affecting development. That's almost certainly not true. It may be the single most influential, or perhaps genetics. But all the rest of the influences together probably greatly outweigh any one alone, including parenting or genetics.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:53 PM on October 26, 2007


Another powerful biological influence would be the fetal environment, by the way.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:55 PM on October 26, 2007


My parents fucked me up...that's my story and I'm sticking to it!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 7:09 PM on October 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


You know what kind of tone makes me not want to listen to what someone has to say? This one, which the author in the links adopts:

"Anyone who is daft enough to question the most cherished notions of a culture had better be prepared for the flak that follows. I am the author of two controversial books, The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike , both of which question the notion that parents play a central role in shaping their child’s personality. In an essay in Prospect magazine published earlier this year, I revealed my heretical views and was widely attacked. I’m used to being attacked for my beliefs...."

She is a bold defender of a controversial theory! Striving against the bitter oppressions of mainstream theories! No! Matter! The! Cost! (And did she mention she has a book for sale?)
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:18 PM on October 26, 2007


To be fair, LobsterMitten, this isn't your run-of-the-mill controversial subject. People have a huge emotional investment in the idea that parenting is everything and I don't doubt that she gets rhetorically attacked on a regular basis. She probably gets hate mail.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:37 PM on October 26, 2007


I realize that I am contradicting myself from when I earlier wrote that this isn't that controversial. I meant that it's not that controversial from a scientific standpoint, but it's certainly very controversial in terms of public opinion.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:38 PM on October 26, 2007


Heh. Who'd admit to acting just like their parents...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 7:38 PM on October 26, 2007


There is a way to package this view that makes it sound moderate and reasonable. Peers have a large impact on childhood psychological development. But that doesn't sound like a Big New Breakthrough that will Revolutionize our understanding of people and parenting and so on... it doesn't sell books.

So she has to package herself as a big new controversial theory-haver. And then people get all up in arms.

I'm sure she's been harassed; I didn't mean to suggest otherwise. But wow, that tone of "the masses can't take my amazing revelations" just puts me right off it. Yuck - o.
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:42 PM on October 26, 2007


I'm not gonna read this, but I totally appreciate the Knocked Up reference.
posted by PostIronyIsNotaMyth at 8:50 PM on October 26, 2007


"How the parents rear the child has no long-term effects on the child's personality, intelligence, or mental health."

Finally! *rolls up sleeves* *cracks knuckles*
C'mere ya little bastards!

Odd thing here - how is it that training, tutoring, teaching, etc. has an effect on a child's intelligence and mental health?

Given a parent teaches a kid breathing techniques or ways to figure things out, etc - how does that differ from the influence a teacher might have? And indeed, wouldn't the amount of involvement in a kids life a parent has be a variable?
So my kids would have spontaneously developed fighting skills or gleened it from the environment whether I trained them for 3 hours a day or not? Kids just turn out catholic or buddhist or whatnot?

Seems like there's a whole lotta assumptions going on in some of those broad sweeping generalization type statements.
posted by Smedleyman at 9:42 PM on October 26, 2007


Ethereal Bligh: But all the rest of the influences together probably greatly outweigh any one alone, including parenting or genetics.

If I recall correctly, in The Nurture Assumption Harris makes the argument that genetics accounts for about 50%, based on twin studies. That is, personality traits are passed on from parents to children primarily by genetics, rather than by parenting. (I'm still skeptical.)
posted by russilwvong at 10:49 PM on October 26, 2007


what does fighting skills have or religious affiliation have to do with personality, intelligence or mental health?
posted by shotgunbooty at 10:53 PM on October 26, 2007


So all the, for instance, nudist children of nudist parents -- with all the self-acceptance and body stuff that comes with that -- would totally have just been nudists and ok with their bodies otherwise?

I also really think this is offensive to abused kids. If you don't think abusive parents can shape a person's personality, I dare you to spend time with abused adolescents or the people those adolescents turn into as adults. I doubt it would have been a fundamental aspect of MY personality that I was afraid to speak up or challenge any aspect of a relationship for a long, long time (and had to consciously work to do otherwise).

I do, however, think that as long as you're a fundamentally decent parent, a lot of micromanagement is probably unnecessary. So to a certain extent, I think that perhaps if your parents are GOOD parents in any meaningful way, your personality develops the way it's "meant" to. Unfortunately, not all parents are, and they can stifle personality development to a stunning degree.
posted by InnocentBystander at 11:31 PM on October 26, 2007


InnocentBystander: Nudists are not a good counter-example: Nudists tend to go off and be nudists together, go to nudist beaches, nudist holidays etc etc. So the kids grow up not only in a nudist family, but with nudist peer groups (other adults, other children their age etc etc). So according to this theory it should be unsurprising they end up with similar attitudes.

Also, nobody seems to have picked up on a crucial point that these theories always emphasise whenever I've actually read interviews with the proponents: Bad parenting can & does damage children. Good parenting on the other hand is enabling rather than controlling: good parenting enables your children to reach their potential, it does not allow you to (directly) control them.

Which is why these theories should not be offensive to abused kids: only very poor reporting could possibly come to the conculsion that the proponents of these theories are suggesting that abuse has no long term effect.

It should also be noted that clearly parents have some indirect control over the outcomes, because their physical and financial power over their children gives them the ability to pick and choose their children's peer groups to some extent. How much they choose to exercise that power (and how much opportunity they have to do so) obviously varies with the individual family.
posted by pharm at 1:59 AM on October 27, 2007


I agree with pharm; good parenting is not deterministic, it is open-ended. "here are skills which allow you to think, and self-confidence which allows you to decide, and whatever resources I can give you to help you succeed." But what the kid does with them is going to be their own creation.

The joy of parenting is when the kid surprises you with an interest or skill which they either found in themselves or picked up jeebus-knows where. Well, unless it's shoplifting. Values/morals are one of the harder things to transmit, because they're so personal; believing that stealing is wrong, for example, after a certain age, becomes something you can only hope they agree with. Damn their independent little minds.
posted by emjaybee at 5:49 AM on October 27, 2007


The issue isn't so much that her conclusions are wrong, but that they're overstated. She defines "personality" very narrowly, confining it to four or five paired sets of traits. No one I know is best described by four or five broad traits. That they can be so described is fine, but telling me that someone is extroverted and open tells me so little about what the person is actually like, that it seems like she's making a specious claim.

No wonder the Evolutionary Psych people love her.
posted by OmieWise at 7:58 AM on October 27, 2007


How does she overstate her conclusions, if she defines her terms? And the "four or five paired sets of traits" she confines it to are known as the "Big Five" personality traits in psychology. And EV people are not the only ones who love her. She did win the Pulitzer afterall.
posted by AceRock at 10:55 AM on October 27, 2007


I would have thought that was obvious: by conflating professional and lay definitions of personality. The paired traits she describes don't account for loves, hates, ambitions, investments, motivations, taste, style, choice, effort, or likability; in short, they describe such a small subset of what most people understand to be "personality" that using them to make an argument about personality in a popular science book is overstatement. Which is not to say that she's wrong, just that her conclusions, and the conclusions she wants lay readers to draw, are overstated based on a convenient confusion of terms. This is true of many popular science books.
posted by OmieWise at 11:37 AM on October 27, 2007


The Nurture Assumption Harris makes the argument that genetics accounts for about 50%, based on twin studies. That is, personality traits are passed on from parents to children primarily by genetics, rather than by parenting.

This is so much a cup is half full vs half empty argument!

Do you realize what you just did? You quote the 50% genetics argument and conclude that it is all genetics. Several of the links presented do this same thing--take this 50% number and conclude that it is either all genetics or all upbringing. Fascinating! I guess these all researchers bring their own personal perspective to the facts.
posted by eye of newt at 11:40 AM on October 27, 2007


eye of newt: The point is that no parental influence on the 'classic' personality traits can be measured for the 50% of the variance that isn't genetic. The presumption is that it's peer group together with wider soceital influences that make up the other 50%.
posted by pharm at 12:46 PM on October 27, 2007


Omie, I think you underestimate the intelligence of the average lay reader.
posted by AceRock at 1:09 PM on October 27, 2007


It is a bit strange that Harris, on one hand, says that how you raise your child does not matter at all, but on the other hand, says (in "The Nurture Assumption") that homeschooling is very dangerous because you may end up producing misfits, poorly suited for the world in which they will eventually have to live (conveniently not mentioning ANY research at all - apparently she only cites research if it is available to support her claims). If it doesn't matter what we do as parents, why would it matter whether we homeschool them?
posted by davar at 3:16 PM on October 27, 2007


You quote the 50% genetics argument and conclude that it is all genetics.

Sorry, I was unclear: I meant that Harris's claim was that genetics was greater than any other influence (i.e. any other influence would account for less than 50%), not that Harris was claiming genetics accounted for 100%.

davar: If it doesn't matter what we do as parents, why would it matter whether we homeschool them?

Because it affects their peer group. That's one obvious way in which parents can influence their children's development: by taking actions which determine their peer group.
posted by russilwvong at 5:37 PM on October 27, 2007


Because it affects their peer group. That's one obvious way in which parents can influence their children's development: by taking actions which determine their peer group.
I understand. But still. It means that in the end Ms Harris is just another parenting book author who tells parents what to do and not to do, the exact thing she says is unneccessary, if I understand correctly.

I also think it is disingenious if you constantly emphasize that your theories are so much proofed in science, but you only cherrypick those studies that are favorable to your thesis.
posted by davar at 2:31 AM on October 28, 2007


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