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Book Review 

Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

By: Judith Rich Harris
Published by The Free Press, 1998
Reviewed by Frank Pecarich
Bakersfield, California

I have no special credentials to evaluate such a book as this except as a parent. Yes, I have an undergraduate degree in science and have worked in the field of social psychology and organization behavior for over 30 years so at least the concepts are familiar. What truly makes me interested in what Harris says is that I have been doing extraordinary research into what makes kids behave and misbehave ever since I became a parent. Harris has dropped a conceptual bomb on the traditional notions of what is important in child rearing. Plain and simple she is saying that the predominant effect on development comes from the child's genetics and peer group. Oh yes, she credits parental behavior as being functional in influencing the way their children behave at home as well as teaching them things they may choose to use once out in the world. What Harris says they don't learn at home is how to behave in public and what sort of people they are. These things they learn in peer groups. 

What makes a review such as mine limited is that it is impossible to cover in these few words the overwhelming evidence that Harris cites in making her case. This is not a pop psychology piece filled with new psychobabble. Harris cites research study after study that appear to reinforce her thesis. In fact the book's appendix, notes and references number almost 100 pages. I was impressed with the scholarly approach and yet the very readable manner of her work. I strongly recommend the reading of this book to anyone interested in this important subject. 

Harris uses the behavioral genetic studies of twins and adopted children as grounds for genetic effects in development. She makes the case that genetics has been largely over looked by the populace at large, a population that has bought the premise that nurture is more important than nature. As an example, she states that "on average, pleasant, competent parents tend to have pleasant, competent kids. But that doesn't prove that parents have any influence - other than genetic - on how their children turn out. Harris points out that disagreeable and aggressive temperaments have heritabilities of around 50% and that a disagreeable temperament can lead to trouble both directly and indirectly; directly because it makes the child respond unfavorably to other people, indirectly because it makes other people respond unfavorably to the child. 

Harris says that a child's socialization comes from his/her interaction with peer groups. She points out that what the child needs to learn from the environment comes largely from the collective experience and perception of the peer group. It is the peer group that relates the world and the environment to the child. Nature causes this to occur to take into account and prepare the youth for changes in the environment, changes of which parents are not aware. It is the peer group that presents the relevance of the modern culture to the youth, a culture in which that youth will have to learn to live. This is not to say that a parent's behavior toward a child doesn't affect how the child behaves in the presence of the parent or in contexts that are associated with the parent. Harris says her goal is to explain what makes youth behave the way they do outside the home - the world where they will spend the rest of their lives. 

There are tremendous implications for political correctness here. Already the defenders of the nurture assumption are lining up to strike Harris' work down as her view conflicts with the philosopher Rousseau: that all children are born good and it is society - their environment - that corrupt them. But psychologists now say that some children are born with "difficult" temperaments - difficult for their parents to rear, difficult to socialize. Harris lists characteristics with a significant genetic component: a tendency to be active, impulsive, aggressive and quick to anger; a tendency to get bored with routine activities and to seek excitement; a tendency to be unafraid of getting hurt; and insensitivity to the feelings of others. 

When people voice their opposition to Harris' views, it seems that they are concerned that parents will just give up trying to influence the outcomes of their children if it doesn't matter all that much. Harris does offer some suggestions as to what parents can do. Trying to influence the kind of peer group your child is exposed to is a paramount suggestion. Doing things that prevent your child from being negatively typecast in a peer group is another. All in all though, Harris says parents have been sold a bill of goods. "Parenthood 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 says don't worry about what the advice-givers tell you. "Love your kids because kids are loveable, not because you think they need it. Enjoy them. Teach them what you can. Relax. How they turn out is not a reflection on the care you have given them. You can neither perfect them nor ruin them. They are not yours to perfect or ruin: they belong to tomorrow." At age 57 and looking back on those years, it sounds pretty accurate to me. 

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