The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, September 9, 2001

Peers matter much more than parents
Mohinder Singh

PEERS matter much more than parents. And so whatever our parents do to us is overshadowed, in the long run, by what our peers do to us.

The above in a nutshell is the argument advanced by grandma Judith Rich Harris in her book The Nurture Assumption (1998), a book carrying enthusiastic blurbs from some of the world’s top psychologists.

What Harris makes out runs counter to nearly everything that a century of psychology has told us about child development. Freud put parents at the centre of the child’s universe, and there they have remained ever since.

"That’s the way I was raised," is quite a common comment, by which we mean that children instinctively and preferentially learn from their parents and parents prove good or bad role models for children. Child development has been, in many ways, concerned with understanding children through their parents.

Since genes account for about half of personality variations among people, parent’s contribution in the nature part is obvious. What about the nurture part? The accepted wisdom is that parents mould the personality of their children by doing all the right things.


They provide them with every lesson and every experience , buy them right toys and say the right words and help them in work and games, and do not spank or publicly scold them. The nurture assumption places the credit and blame squarely on parents. In the process it turns modern parenthood into a high-responsibility, high-anxiety undertaking. Those who fail to measure up to the strictest standards of supposedly optimal parenting often labour under a sense of guilt. "The frightening thing about heredity and environment is that parents provide both," is quipped.

Harris does not see children as delicate vessels and does not believe they easily damaged by the missteps of their mothers and fathers. "Kids are not that fragile," she writes. "They are tougher than you think. They have to be, because the world out there does not handle them with kid gloves. At home, they might hear ‘what you did made me feel bad,’ but out on the playground it’s ‘you shithead!’"

Observing teenagers around, it began to dawn on Harris that adolescents were wanting to model themselves more on their peers than parents. Children were identifying with and learning from other children. And so her realisation that in a key sense, what’s important is not what children learn inside the home but what they learn outside the home.

Harris argues that we have been in the grip of what she calls "nurture assumption," a parent-centred bias that has blinded us to what really matters in human development.

She cites the story of Cinderella. "Cinderella learned when she was quite small that it was best to be meek when her stepmother was around, and to look unattractive to avoid arousing her jealousy," Harris writes. But outside the house Cinderella learned that she could win friends (even a prince) by being pretty and charming. She concludes: this lesson — that away from parents children can reconstruct themselves — is one that all children learn very quickly. It is an important limitation on the power of parents.

Even when they do succeed in influencing their children, those influences very often don’t travel outside the home. And Harris pulls together an extraordinary range of studies and observations in support of the idea.

Just the fact that a child wasn’t getting along with his mother didn’t necessarily mean that he wouldn’t get along with his peers. (Children, after all, are born with individual temperaments. Some children are easy to rear from the start and others are more difficult. And those innate characteristics can strongly influence how parents treat them.)

In one Swedish study of picky eating among primary-school children cited by Harris, some kids were picky eaters at school, some were picky at home, but only a small number was picky at both home and school. A child who pushes away carrots at home might gobble them down in the school cafeteria.

In the same way, a child might stay reserved at home but be a chatterbox in school. In families, the eldest child does seem more serious, responsible and bossy, while the youngest behaves in a more carefree fashion. But outside the home, the younger brother (no longer cowed by his older siblings) is perfectly capable of being a dominant, take-charge figure when he’s among his friends.

"Socialisation research has demonstrated one thing clearly and irrefutably: a parent’s behaviour towards a child affects how the child behaves in the presence of the parent or in contexts that are associated with the parent," Harris concludes. "I have no problem with that — I agree with it." But this doesn’t necessarily cross into the life a child leads outside the home.

That brings us to one of the Harris’ central observation: namely, that kids aren’t interested in becoming copies of their parents. Children want to be good at being children. How, for example, do you persuade a preschooler to eat something new? Not by eating it yourself and hoping that your child will follow suit. A preschooler doesn’t care what you think. But give the same food to a bunch of preschoolers who like it: It’s quite probable that your child will happily follow suit. Children like to wear the kind of clothing other kids are wearing, not the kind their parents are patronising.

From the very moment children meet other children, they take their cues from them. There is a real, strong emotional satisfaction in copying, sharing things. Even for a child of three or four, the group is critical. Advertisement people know it well: ads targeted at children always show children merrily consuming the advertised product.

Here Harris poses the question: "And, from an evolutionary perspective, who should children be paying attention to? Their parents — the members of the previous generation — or their peers, who will be their future mates and future collaborators? It would be more adaptive to be better tuned to the nuances of their peers’ behaviour. That just makes a lot of sense."

That’s why neighbourhoods and schools play such a crucial role in the development of a child, a role often as potent as that of home, if not more. Is Harris right in challenging people’s cherished ideas about parenthood ? She herself admits that what she has provided is only a theory: the same calls for a multi-million dollar, multi-year research to back up. Yet she has helped wrench psychology away from its single-minded obsession with parenting — one that sees the development of children almost entirely a story of their parents. To Harris, parents matter but peers seem to matter more.