Bryan Caplan  

The Most Memorable Passage in The Nurture Assumption

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If you haven't read The Nurture Assumption by Judith Harris, you simply must. Years later, this paragraph is still with me:

People sometimes ask me, “So you mean it doesn’t matter how I treat my child?” They never ask, “So you mean it doesn’t matter how I treat my husband or wife?” and yet the situation is similar. I don’t expect that the way I acted toward my husband is going to determine what kind of person he will be ten or twenty years from now. I do expect, however, that it will affect how happy he is to live with me and whether we will still be good friends in ten or twenty years.
You could easily add that a great way to alienate your spouse is to try to change him. How's that for an example of unintended consequences?


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Tim Lundeen writes:

I agree, excellent book. Her "No Two Alike" is also excellent.

LemmusLemmus writes:

I wholeheartedly agree that it is an excellent book. Few books change the way you look at the world, but this one did it for me.

If there was one nonfiction book I had to recommend to, um, the world's readers, it would be this one.

Note that there is ongoing research by Terrie Moffit and others, so the results she reports are not carved in stone. Even so!

TGGP writes:

I haven't read Harris directly, but that's quoted in Pinker's "The Blank Slate". He really liked that part as well.

bill greene writes:

Is it logical to compare a grown man with an infant or young child ? I for one was much less set in my ways as a youth--even, like Benjamin Franklin, looking for ways to improve myself! Now, of course, such ideas are totally foreign to my thinking--and my good wife accepts it. But she is working on ther kids' behavior and manners! I always thought a young child's behavior and habits were to some extent shaped by childhood experiences and also by the feedback gotten from parents and friends. A child is born with many innate traits and characteristics,clearly, but good citizenship has been "taught" to a number of youth. A current issue might be: could Islamic leaders "raise" their children without quite as much of the hatred that makes them suicide bombers? Are those children born that way--wanting to strap bombs on their bellies--or is there something about their environment and training that produces fanatics ? I would hate to think they are pre-ordained and that a kinder-gentler culture couldn't lessen their fury.

David Bradley writes:

From what I understand, one of the author's theses is that early peer group relations shape a person's future relations with other people. If that is the case, then she is already ceding that how a person is treated at age 10 has more long-term generalized effects compared to how that person is treated at age 30. Of course, having never read the book, it's very possible I'm mischaracterizing her argument.

BTW, I've been reading EconLog for a few weeks now, and have found it very enjoyable. This is my first comment, only because you've wandered into a territory I know a little about (especially compared to my knowledge of economics!).

Tracy W writes:

But she is working on ther kids' behavior and manners!

Good luck to her.

I always thought a young child's behavior and habits were to some extent shaped by childhood experiences and also by the feedback gotten from parents and friends.

Judith Harris presents a good deal of evidence that a young child's personality is shaped by:
- their parents' genes
- their peers (eg children learn the accent of their peers, not their parents, if the two sets of accents are different)

With the influence of parents only having about a 10% impact, if that, on the child's adult personality.

A parent can of course shape their child's behaviour when the parent is around, but Judith Harris presents some strong evidence that this ability does not have much effect on how the child behaves when the parent is not around. Judith Harris also presents some evidence that the child can shape their parents' behaviour. Imagine you had two kids, one of whom was extremely shy, cautious and retiring, and the other who charges into everything with no fear of life and limb. Would you behave differently towards those two kids?

A current issue might be: could Islamic leaders "raise" their children without quite as much of the hatred that makes them suicide bombers? Are those children born that way--wanting to strap bombs on their bellies--or is there something about their environment and training that produces fanatics ?

Judith Harris's work implies that if there is something about their culture, then it's the influence of their peers, not their parents directly. A couple of Palestinian parents who are opposed to suicide bombers may well find they have a child who becomes a sucicide bomber because of the influence of the child's peers. But a child of fanatics who grows up in a kinder, gentler broader culture is rather less likely to turn out to be a sucide bomber.

If that is the case, then she is already ceding that how a person is treated at age 10 has more long-term generalized effects compared to how that person is treated at age 30.

Firstly, there is a difference between general statements about how a person is treated at age 10 having more long-term generalised effects, and saying that a parent can treat their child differently at age 10 and have a known impact on what that child is like at age 30.

Secondly, Judith Harris explicitly notes that all the studies she refers to address "competent" parenting. They do not address the influence of parents who shut their children in the cellar for years or are so violent towards each other that the kids are effectively living in a war zone.

And of course if I hit my husband over the head with the cast-iron frying pan, I would expect to change what he would be in ten or twenty years. But only because I expect to have severely damaged his brain. This is different from the effects expected from a normal range of behaviour.

John Fast writes:

Your link about unintended consequences goes to a Gray Lady site that requires registration. Why did you do such a thing?

[John: I changed it to the NYT permalink at
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/20/magazine/20wwln-freak-t.html?ex=1358485200&en=fe5f88c5188a1a95&ei=5124&partner=permalink&exprod=permalink
Does that work better? It's not easy to find public-access links for sites that require even free registration.--Econlib Ed.]

Dan Weber writes:

I have no doubt that a lot of my kids' behavior is already hard-wired into them.

That doesn't mean it's all hard-wired into them, of course.

Matt M. writes:

The link to Amazon for the book contains two reviews. One praises the book, as does everyone (so far) on EconLog. The second review, from Publishers Weekly, criticizes the book as having no research to back up Harris's hypotheses, that it's all anecdotal evidence and is simply self-affirming for parents who want to shed responsibility. Is that true? If so, how does this book make it onto an economics blog which emphasizes the need for hard evidence to back most any claim?

8 writes:

Parents can control who their children interact with, if they choose to.

Jason Malloy writes:

... criticizes the book as having no research to back up Harris's hypotheses, that it's all anecdotal evidence and is simply self-affirming for parents who want to shed responsibility. Is that true?

Yes and no, actually. The book really doesn't cite the research from behavior genetics which supports the relative unimportance of the "shared environment" (i.e. parents). Harris's book takes this literature for granted, and is really about her own ideas about the powerful influence of peers, and how findings from social psychology and ethology mesh with her theory. (Incidentally, I don't believe the empirical literature supports Harris's theory either)

On the other hand, there really is plenty of data showing parents don't matter much, it just hasn't been collected into one place by anybody yet. This is something I've been working on.

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