Spare The Rod, Or Not: Scientist Says Parents Have Little Effect On Kids

Despite the ever-more complicated efforts of many American parents, independent researcher Judith Harris says moms and dads don't really have much influence over how their kids turn out.

Harris tells Scientific American's Jonah Lehrer that she wrote her 1998 book The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do in part to show "that parenting didn't have to be such a difficult, anxiety-producing job, that there are many different ways to rear a child, and no convincing evidence that one way produces better results than another." While many people assume that everything you do as a parent marks your child forever, Harris claims that the two most important influences are actually peers and genetics, not parental nurture. She points out that when she was a child, in the thirties and forties, parents used lots of corporal punishment and didn't worry about their kids self-esteem. And, she says:

All these things have changed dramatically in the past 70 years, but the changes haven't had the expected effects. People are the same as ever. Despite the reduction in physical punishment, today's adults are no less aggressive than their grandparents were. Despite the increase in praise and physical affection, they are not happier or more self-confident or in better mental health.

Harris does note "that children learn at home how to behave at home (that's where parents do have power!)," but she also says "they learn outside the home how to behave outside the home." This point of view is upsetting in some ways, especially for parents who think they can raise a model citizen just by trying really, really hard. Middle-class parenting in America has a lot to do with control — over what your child eats, where she goes to school, how much time she spends with you. But if Harris is right, much of this control is an illusion, and maybe parents can back off a little. And for kids who are disadvantaged, maybe we need more school and after-school-based programming, as Harris recommends, rather than putting the onus on mom and dad. In the thirties, Harris says, "parents didn't feel they had to sacrifice their own convenience and comfort in order to gratify the desires of their children." Few would advocate a return to corporal punishment, but the rest of it — an end to potentially useless parental sacrifice — actually sounds kind of nice.

Do Parents Matter? [Scientific American]