The role of parents in a child’s development has long been seen as crucial. Great minds like Freud and Peck, among many others have highlighted generations of parents’ inadequacies and the effect this has on the subsequent adult. This idea is borne out every day in my practice where clients seem to be held to the past by tentacles of guilt and obligation. Living dysfunctional lives and making the same mistakes with their own children, some seem unable to break the chains of parental influence, even later in life.

It appears to be a universal thought that we are a result of what our parents made us, good or bad and not many people would argue with that. However, not everyone has the same idea. In a highly controversial book published in 1998 and highlighted in a Scientific American article ten years later, Judith Rich Harris did her best to blow this theory to pieces. In her book, The Nature Assumption, (just reissued) she claimed boldly that:

“Parents matter much less, at least when it comes to determining the behavior of their children, than is typically assumed. Instead, a child’s peer group (and the teachers they come across) are far more important”

Harris bases her ideas on her own research and other studies that she claims prove the more common theories of parental influence as “deeply flawed”. Her main motive for writing the book was to show parents 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. She also claims that the idea that parents have a major influence on the behavior of their children is also quite a new concept and states that in the past fathers, in particular, had little to do with child-rearing apart from disciplining children when they came home. In this time, praise and affection were limited so as not to spoil the child, physical punishment was used to keep children in line and the children were expected to conform strictly to the rules of the house. Harris counters all arguments that today is better by saying that even though children are treated better today, people are the same and “children today are just as aggressive as their grandparents”

Harris’s alternative theory is based on the greater influence of peers, teachers and genetics in the development of child behavior. She says that children quickly learn to behave one way in the house and another outside when with other people. During the socialization of children, they are more likely to be influenced by same-sex peers than parents, says Harris. Equally, rules set by teachers (and indeed their personality ) also determines how a child will behave. Due to the socialization theory, children will often break up into groups in school causing certain behavior traits as they try to comply with the social rules set by peers. Harris claims that too often in the case of bad behavior in school, parents try to deal with a solution at home rather than pushing for the school to help where the root of the problem lies.

Many people who read the book will get the impression that this is a licence for irresponsible, dysfunctional parents to push the blame onto others when their children behave badly. Sound as some of Harris’s ideas are, one should not take parents out of the equation totally as this book seems to do. We cannot forget that a lot of a child’s development takes place before they go to school or have major influence from peers. This is a time when parental influence is at its highest.

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