The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

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Free Press, 1998 - Psychology - 462 pages
How much credit do parents deserve when their children turn out well? How much blame when they turn out badly? This electrifying book explodes some of our deepest beliefs about children and parents and gives us something radically new to put in their place. With eloquence and wit, Judith Harris explains why parents have little power to determine the sort of people their children become. It is what children experience outside the home, in the company of their peers, that matters most. Parents don't socialize children: children socialize children.

Yet we cling to the "nurture assumption", our unquestioned belief that, aside from their genes, what makes children turn out the way they do is the way their parents bring them up. This assumption is so deeply embedded in our culture that it underlies everything we are taught about rearing children and everything we believe about the emotional hangups of adults. But that doesn't make it true. Harris looks with a fresh eye at the real lives of real children and shows that the nurture assumption is nothing more than a cultural myth. Why do the children of immigrant parents end up speaking in the language and accent of their peers, not of their parents? Why are twins reared together no more alike than twins raised apart? Why does a boy who spends his first eight years with a nanny and his next ten years in boarding school nevertheless turn out just like his father? The nurture assumption cannot provide an answer to these questions. Judith Harris can.

Using examples from folklore and literature as well as from scientific research, Harris shows us the world of childhood in all its richness and complexity. Relationships with parents and siblings are always important, but they vary from culture to culture. One aspect of childhood, however, is universal: the children's peer group. With a range that extends from the Yanomamo of the Brazilian rainforest to deaf Nicaraguan children learning to communicate for the very first time, Harris demonstrates the power peer groups have in shaping the lives of children. Along the way, we see that many cherished notions-- such as the idea that early mother-child attachments set the pattern for later relationships-- fail to explain what happens to real children, or to a girl named Cinderella, whose miserable home life did not keep her from being a great success in the world outside her cottage.

Harris has a message that will change parents' lives: they have been sold a bill of goods. Parenting does not match its widely publicized job description. It is a job in which sincerity and hard work do not guarantee success. Through no fault of their own, good parents sometimes have bad kids. Harris offers parents wise counsel on what they can and cannot do, and relief from guilt for those whose best efforts have somehow failed to produce a happy, well-behaved, self-confident child.

"The Nurture Assumption" is a profound work that brings together insights from psychology, sociology, anthropology, primatology, and evolutionary biology to offer a startling new view of who we are and how we got that way.

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User Review  - b.masonjudy - LibraryThing

Judith Rich Harris lays out her argument for group socialization theory in this comprehensive study. Her wit and self-effacing attitude kept me engaged with the book and she takes great care to ... Read full review

LibraryThing Review

User Review  - setnahkt - LibraryThing

I was moved to pick up this book because Steven Pinker mentioned it with fulsome praise in The Blank Slate. Author Judith Rich Harris describes herself as “an unemployed writer of college textbooks ... Read full review


Nurture Is Not the Same as Environment
2The Nature and Nurture of the Evidence
3 Nature Nurture and None of the Above

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About the author (1998)

Judith Rich Harris is a former writer of college textbooks on child development who suddenly realized one day that much of what she had been telling her readers was wrong. She stopped writing textbooks and instead wrote a theoretical article on development; her article recently won an award from the American Psychological Association. Harris is the mother of two adult daughters; she lives in New Jersey with her husband and her dog, Page.

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