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3.7 out of 5 stars
3.7 out of 5 stars
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on August 27, 2003
There are so many reasons to give this book five stars and no reasons that I can think of to give it fewer than four stars. Let me list my reasons for giving it five stars in order of importance with number one being most important:
1. Her ideas are original. Harris�f argument contradicts much of the current dogma.
2. Her perspective is both deep and wide. Actually I am not qualified to assess how deep is her knowledge of the various fields of psychology, but after reading this book that provided so many examples to prove her points, I was convinced of much that she argued. I think everyone will recognize the unusual breadth of her perspective as she incorporates so many different fields into this �gfull picture�h view.
3. Harris�f writing is well crafted. She has no wasted space where the reader is waiting for her to make her point as are books that are light in content.
4. She is funny and witty without being caustic. Harris provides numerous humorous scenarios to illustrate her points.
5. She provides practical, detailed advice to parents that is much needed in our society.
I disagree with a few of her points like the degree of long-term influence some parents have on their children, but I don�ft think a prerequisite of a great book is to be 100% correct. This is a brilliant read.
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on July 11, 2001
At last, someone has challenged the folk wisdom that situates parents squarely at the center of each child's universe. At last someone with intelligence, rigor, and a clear writing style has debunked the phony, softcore social science that backs up this ideological claim. At last someone has acknowledged the influence of peers on child development. Thank you, Ms. Harris, for freeing us from years of Freudian simplification.
As a college teacher I've always noticed the ways in which adolescents ape each other. One thing that has always been abundantly clear to me is how really uninterested in me my students are; they turn to one another for social validation and a shared sense of what is normative. It's not that I'm unimportant; it's that I, as an adult, am in a different social category, a category that matters less. Yet, in the psuedo-religious literature of the social sciences, parents shape children; Lockean epistemology said that each child was a tabula rasa -- a blank slate to be carved by society. We've taken this extreme claim a step farther. Our "experts" tell us that the blank slate is carved by only two people: mom and dad. Therapy reinforces this crude belief by suggesting that all other relationships are mere forms of disguise: patients reach back into their putative memories to find the "origins" of their adult relationships in some largely imagined past. This is not a scientific method; it takes for granted that which it sets out to prove, and so reinforces the nurture assumption.
Another thing that has always seemed obvious to me is that the formative period of a human being's life is in late adolescence, not early childhood, as the soothsayers claim. In the late teenage years mental illness emerges, personality traits codify. After late adolescence people lose the ability to learn languages. And of course this is a period of intense social activity away from parents.
In reading previous reviews I'm amused that a simple claim like "nurture is not environment" -- which Harris makes early on -- can elicit such hostile responses. By pointing out that we should not conflate these two terms and reduce a human being's entire experience to his or her parents, Harris exposes a valuable bias built into popular beliefs about developmental psychology. We should be thanking her, not excoriating her! Her effort is all the more laudable because she is a mother -- who is willing to put aside parental vanity and admit that peers influenced her children more than she did. This is a brave step and one that few are willing to take in a culture such as ours, that sentimentalizes motherhood. Harris has complicated our notions of how people become who they are. Her work has implications for other disciplines: history, women's studies, and literary studies.
One quibble: Harris ends her book by admonishing troubled people not to blaim their parents for their problems in adult life. I think she should have also admonished narcissistic parents not to take undue credit for their successful children's accomplishments. Our achievements are, after all, our own, as he book ably shows.
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on December 13, 2003
Judith Rich Harris has written a book that not only turns our culture's assumptions about child-rearing upside down, but also does so in a read that is funny, witty, and very enjoyable. The book provides a great deal of evidence that what we are told by the "experts" on child-rearing is often unsupported conjecture, and often fashioned from whole cloth. Yet we as parents continue to follow along, terrified of the possibility of being labeled by our peers as bad parents. The nail that sticks up is hammered down.
The book does not pretend to be a child-rearing manual, and in fact offers little advice for raising children. Its purpose is to make us question the assumptions by which we raise our children. The confrontational, irreverant, and occasionally flippant tone of the book is necessary to help the reader step outside the box and look objectively at what we as parents have considered our sacred duties.
The reviews critical of the book from homeschoolers are laughable. ... For the record, I think Ms. Harris is wrong about homeschool, but that's no reason to ignore 400 pages of paradigm-shifting thought.
As a father of two, I feel this is the most important book I have ever read. And the funny thing is, I have developed a much better relationship with my children since I took the book's principles to heart. Once I set myself free from the responsibility to "mold" my children into good adults, I began to enjoy my children, and they me, so much more.
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on April 19, 2003
I came to this book from Steven Pinker's THE BLANK SLATE. He devotes much of a chapter to its thesis that 'kids socialize kids; parents don't.' Harris here makes the case at length, and a rollicking good read it is.
The main argument AGAINST Harris is this: IF it doesn't matter how parents treat their kids, they will mistreat them. Harris shows the folly of this by looking at how adults relate: I can't change my friends and family--they are 'who they are' despite my best efforts to improve them--yet it never occurs to me that because I cannot remake them in my image and likeness I might as well abuse them. How silly that sounds when you think about it! (And sad.) Further, Harris is clear that parents can do great damage to their kids. She in no way sanctions abuse or neglect.
What does she say, then? She makes plain what all of us with siblings know from experience but forget when considering theories of child development. Namely, if parenting shapes kids, why are siblings so DIFFERENT? My mom and dad had four kids--I'm the only one that ever read a philosophy book or a Russian novel, the only one with a jazz collection, and the only one who (like mother) plays a musical instrument. Though I love my two brothers and my sister, and they love me, my mom (-dad's dead) admits, "You were all different from day one. Jamie was always happy, Linda felt God got it wrong because obviously SHE should be the mother and I the child, and Billy Boy was running off by himself before he could tie his shoes."
Parents provide us with genes. That matters. Much of what they consciously do, however, has little effect on how their kids turn out. (This is precisely why parents care who their kids play with--parents realize that 'the wrong crowd' can overcome all their teachings and warnings and pleadings in the course of a single fateful night.) IF parents had THE strongest influence on their kids, then the bad example of admired peers would be no threat. But it is and parents know this. So do kids.
Aside from being right, Harris is fun. She gets at the heart of why kids are embarrassed when their parents come outside. (Who hasn't cringed at a parent's visit to one's school? The constant fear is that mom or dad will utterly humiliate one in front of the other kids--this could only happen if 'the other kids' mattered more, in some sense, than mom or dad.)
I lent this book to a moral theologian here at the seminary who read it and then tokd me, "If she's not crazy, we've been mislead about child development. And she's not crazy."
He's right. She's not crazy. And parents should welcome this news, as it frees them from much useless anxiety. ("My child doesn't love opera--where did I go wrong?") Further, it invites them to respond to their children as persons, not as projects. Who could oppose that ideal?
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on May 17, 2002
This is a book that will make you rethink all of your assumptions about the effects of child-rearing. Harris takes all of the recent developmental psychology studies and shows that the don't demonstrate what we think they do. Harris' theory is a simple one: While "nurture" contributes substantially to the composition of the personality and character of a child, the parent turns out to be only a small part of that mix. This flies in the face of all of our cherished beliefs about modern parenting, quality time, loving guidance, and positive discipline.
I was prepared to resist Harris' thesis to the death, but I found her arguments compelling. In the end, she won me over: If you look at the studies, if you examine your common sense notions, if you look at the way primitive societies raise their children, and if you do so without preconception, it is reasonable to believe that parental rearing styles are only a very small factor in how children turn out.
This is both comforting and scary. It is comforting because it removes a lot of the pressure to be the "perfect parent" and it is scary, because it shows how little control you truly have as a parent.
In short, this is not just another "parenting" book, it may force you to throw away most of the parenting books you already own.
Highly recommended!
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on August 24, 2015
Overall, this is an interesting book that certainly provokes some thought about the genetic and peer influences on children. It's worth a read as long as you read it critically. It is very simplistic at times, some parts are much more useful than others.

Some observations:
1. While she makes some good points regarding developmental psychology research, she goes well beyond the evidence in her claim that parents have no effects on children. Her "debunking" is often based on very simplistic straw man arguments (e.g., are criminal children raised to be criminals by criminal parents?). A more realistic thesis would be that we should take these dev psych results with a pinch of salt and not underestimate genetic and peer factors.

2. I found the parts on language and evolutionary psychology to be the worst. Very speculative, and she doesn't seem to have really mastered the material. For example, she uses the term "code-switching" incorrectly, and then keep using it over and over again. Of course, the main thing is that language acquisition shouldn't be expected to tell you much about psychological effects of either parents or peers. Pretty irrelevant in my opinion.

3. The author totally ignores non-statistical evidence on parental influence (e.g., from psychiatry). I get that she doesn't like Freud, but ignoring one of the main bodies of evidence on this topic doesn't make for a convincing argument. Trying to measure psychological characteristics is clearly a tricky business, and to think that you're going to get a complete picture by looking at stats just doesn't make sense. A lot of economists (and other social scientists) make the same mistake, and it doesn't make for robust conclusions. It's telling that she spends so much time on non-stats evidence of peer influence, but none for parental influence. If you want to write a book emphasizing these other factors, that's fine, but don't claim to be able to conclude that parental influence doesn't matter.

4. One of the key questions in this story that she also doesn't address is identity formation. Peer groups form within schools, etc. Kids form their own peer groups, presumably based on identity. Yet she doesn't address this at all - why might one child identify with or be accepted by "the cool kids" while another hangs out with the smokers, etc? There are many questions like this that
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on March 8, 2003
This book appears to be very carefully put together. It's not your usual genes vs. environment infotainment. The author, and the author of her foreword, seriously overplay the outsider autodidactic myth. Harris studied at a top graduate school, has co-written textbooks on psychology, thanks numerous colleagues in her Acknowledgments, and seems to know her material extremely well.

The book is persuasive, important, and entertaining. I come away convinced of the importance of genes and of peer groups in shaping a person, but also certain that Harris sometimes overstates her case against the environmental importance of parents.
The importance of Harris' evidence for peer group influence can be seen in the example she gives of a classroom in which the teacher (who thus has some influence of her own) gets the students to unite and identify as a single group self-characterized by strong academic performance. These kids, unlike most kids given a Head Start, maintained that performance into adulthood.
If dividing a class into good and poor readers causes the first group to improve and the latter to get worse, because the poor readers decide to look down on reading skills, then one can only wonder how much longer we will go on putting misbehaving kids together with others like them, watching them get even worse, and calling this destruction a "correctional institution."
I'd like to see every educator in the country read this book, but read it carefully. Harris admits that parents have environmental effects, but either characterizes these as inessential or complains that they are unpredictable. On p. 329 Harris says that parents may affect a person's choice of profession or leisure activities, but on p. 330 denies that they can have any impact on "what sort of person" a child becomes. On p. 341 Harris makes the same point using the analogy of marriage:
"Marriage can change your opinions and influence your choice of a career or a religion. But it doesn't change your personality, except in temporary, context-dependent ways."
What REALLY MATTERS, I'm guessing, is the sort of stuff asked about on personality inventories. But does Harris believe that whether you are bold, shy, loving, trustful, humorous, or depressed is unconnected with such mere contexts as marriage, religion, career, and leisure activities - not to mention everything typically done with families rather than peers? What interest should I take in a personality that exists somewhere outside such realms?
Well, I'm not being entirely fair. Harris' point that children may behave one way at home and another way with their friends is a good one. And she herself points out that personality tests vary with context. But, then, why dismiss personality changes as "temporary, context-dependent"? Aren't all aspects of all personalities temporary and context-dependent?
I cannot change my opinions without changing my personality, and I doubt that anyone can. I resist playing different roles in different contexts (but recognize that this is problematic). I've changed on my own and by reading books since I passed the age at which Harris thinks people are fixed for life. And I've been changed by marriage.
When Harris is not dismissing parental influence as inessential, she is complaining that it is not predictable. The same parenting can have different effects on different kids. Well, yes. Parenting is an art, not a science. Nowhere in her book does Harris mention the fact that lasting effects of peer influences are also unpredictable.
Although Harris wants to maintain that certain aspects of a person are fixed by age 20 or 25, she also acknowledges that people change in significant ways after that time, not to mention before it. Yes, parents only affect how kids behave with parents, but peers affect how kids behave with peers. This can as easily be stated: Peers only affect how kids behave with that group of peers, but parents affect how they behave with their parents. Harris has added an insight, but is intent on making it into a conflict and a fight to the death.
I'm quibbling, as is my wont. But I recognize my own life and those of others in Harris' descriptions of peer groups. I have never accepted my own parents' view that their every move shaped my character. I've always attributed more influence to genes and peers, just never quite to the complete exclusion of parenting.
Parenting is, of course, important during the first couple of years, and in the ways that Harris acknowledges toward the end of her book. It also may have some effects that are slow to appear. When kids stop trying to be unlike adults (as Harris characterizes teenagerhood) they are likely to remember and observe anew how their parents behave.
When I have kids I intend to recognize the genetic presence of human beings, not blank slates. I intend to take into consideration the importance of peers and groups. I intend not to worry too much about molding my kids, since I probably won't mold them much but may insult them by suggesting that I can. And I plan to make their childhoods as happy as possible and to do what I can to influence them in ways I see as beneficial and likely to be successful, based, if not on any studies, on my best guess given the details involved and the extreme incapacity of social science to analyze them all.
Indirect genetic effects (such as the love given to an especially attractive kid) are environmental, and everything environmental is filtered through genes. Only in large studies can genes and environment be separated, not in individuals.
Family environment is part of peer groups, and vice versa. Young children may allow more of their family lives to enter their peer activities. Teenagers may be teenagers because they have given more importance to their peer groups and allowed more of that world to enter their homes.
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on December 15, 2002
Increasingly, it appears that psychologists today have abandoned the scholarly scientific approach of examining and weighing all relevant evidence, in favor of a new "lawyer-advocate" model of argumentation and attempted persuasion. Like a lawyer in a courtroom presentation, this book seems to begin with a conclusion (a "client") and then to present selectively only those findings that favor the client, the apriori 'conclusion' of the author. For example, the 'review' of the research literature on the developmental psychology of peer relationships is highly selective and tendentious -- perhaps some might even call it unscholarly. Of course Harry Stack Sullivan was right that peer relationships are highly significant in personality development, but that does not rule out everything else. As summarized in the recent book 'Liars, Lovers, & Heroes' the development of the brain takes years and genetic 'programs' depend upon and interact with environmental inputs. The claim that parents have no effects on this developmental process is implausible. Certainly behavior genetics research indicates that family effects on child development tend to be unique-individual effects rather than common family effects, but that is only what anyone who understands the individuality of temperament and brain development would expect. Saying that 'common family environment effects' are small does not mean that 'unique-individual family environment effects' are small. On the contrary. So read this book as a case study in how contemporary psychology may have lost its way from watching too many TV lawyer shows and talk show debates. And hope that the scientific method will be more clearly visible in psychology soon.
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on November 19, 2002
In The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris attacks the idea that parents play a major role in the formation of their childrens' personalities. To date, the only studies that find consistent effects of parenting style or parent personality on the behavior of children are small, and often confounded by social class, genetic effects, and the childrens' peer groups.
This last variable gets the most attention by Harris. The best example she uses is the English lad shipped off to boarding school at age 8. He is not raised by his father, and yet he ends up just like his father. How? Once you eliminate social class and genetic factors, the only component left over is the environment of the boarding school, with its rituals, structure, and constant peer group that has been unchanged for generations.
Harris asserts that this peer group is what explains the most about a child's personality. His grades and attitudes towards school are shaped by his peers. His openness and confidence are shaped by his peers. And so on. Luckily for Harris' theory, the usual suspects such as social class and parenting style so far have almost no evidence in their favor.
I must stress that Harris' theory is relatively new, stemming from an article she wrote in 1995. It will be many years before her ideas are fully tested and accepted. Still, it should be reassuring to many parents that their child's hatred of peas has nothing to do with how many times they were hugged as babies.
At a minimum, The Nurture Assumption takes conventional wisdom about how parents shape their kids and knocks it to the floor. I recommend it to all parents and students of human behavior and personality.
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on September 22, 2002
As a mother of an almost 2 year old child, I picked up this book as it seemed a quite interesting read. And it is. Although, as others have said before, it does get a bit repetitive.
I think it's good that the pressure is taken off of the parents, as perfection isn't achievable. But it just raises so many questions in my mind.. It seems that Harris thinks she can explain the effects of the social environment on children by looking at children growing up in cultures decidedly different from our own. Which is an interesting premise, but it doesn't quite qualify to rule out parents' contribution to their children's development. All it does is show that within an environment where parents aren't present/able to teach something, children will learn it from their peers. When parents are a larger part of the social context in which their children grow up, their contribution to the final result will be larger, too.
I think Harris overlooks the fact that children are likely to be different in how much they will be formed by their parents, and how much by their peers.
Furthermore, the fact that children behave differently in different social contexts doesn't rule out that they'll behave like their parents within the context of their own future family.
In raising my son, I've definitely recognized my parents upbringing seeping though. Doesn't everybody sometimes stop and think: "wow, I sound just like my mother/father"?
Finally, what I kept on thinking throughout reading the book, is that raising your child with love & respect - even if it has no effect on the final outcome of your child's character - will make the time you spend together under one roof so much more pleasureable. And they'll even want to visit you for Christmas (or whatever it is that you celebrate)!
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