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The Nurture Assumption

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The Nurture Assumption

The Nurture Assumption
Author Judith Rich Harris
Publisher The Free Press
Publication date

The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do is a book written by Judith Rich Harris, with a foreword by Steven Pinker,[1] originally published 1998 by the Free Press, which published a revised edition in 2009.[2] It has been published in at least 20 languages.[3] The book was a 1999 Pulitzer Prize finalist (general non-fiction). Its answer to "Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do" is that "Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More".

The use of "nurture" as a synonym for "environment" is based on the assumption that what influences children's development, apart from their genes, is the way their parents bring them up. I call this the nurture assumption. Only after rearing two children of my own and coauthoring three editions of a college textbook on child development did I begin to question this assumption. Only recently did I come to the conclusion that it is wrong.

Chapter 1, p. 2.[4]


In this book, she challenges the idea that the personality of adults is determined chiefly by the way they were raised by their parents. She looks at studies which claim to show the influence of the parental environment and claims that most fail to control for genetic influences. For example, if aggressive parents are more likely to have aggressive children, this is not necessarily evidence of parental example. It may also be that aggressiveness has been passed down through the genes. Indeed, many adopted children show little correlation with the personality of their adoptive parents, and significant correlation with the natural parents who had no part in their upbringing.

The role of genetics in personality has long been accepted in psychological research. However, even identical twins, who share the same genes, are not exactly alike, so inheritance is not the only determinant of personality. Psychologists have tended to assume that the non-genetic factor is the parental environment, the "nurture". However, Harris argues that it is a mistake to use "'nurture' ... [as] a synonym for 'environment.'"[4] Many twin studies have failed to find a strong connection between the home environment and personality. Identical twins differ to much the same extent whether they are raised together or apart. Adoptive siblings are as unalike in personality as non-related children.

Harris also argues against the effects of birth order.[5][6] She states:
Birth order effects are like those things that you think you see out of the corner of your eye but that disappear when you look at them closely. They do keep turning up but only because people keep looking for them and keep analyzing and reanalyzing their data until they find them.[7]

Harris' most innovative idea was to look outside the family and to point at the peer group as an important shaper of the child's psyche. For example, children of immigrants learn the language of their home country with ease and speak with the accent of their peers rather than their parents. Children identify with their classmates and playmates rather than their parents, modify their behavior to fit with the peer group, and this ultimately helps to form the character of the individual.

Contrary to some reports, Harris did not claim that "parents do not matter". The book did not cover cases of serious abuse and neglect. Harris pointed out that parents have a role in selecting their children's peer group, especially in the early years. Parents also affect the child's behavior within the home environment and the interpersonal relationship between child and parent.

Critical reaction

The Nurture Assumption received mixed responses. Neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University says her book is "based on solid science".[8] Psychologist Steven Pinker of Harvard predicts that the book "will come to be seen as a turning point in the history of psychology".[9]

However, Frank Farley of Temple University claims that "she's taking an extreme position based on a limited set of data. Her thesis is absurd on its face, but consider what might happen if parents believe this stuff!"[8] Wendy Williams of Cornell University, who studies how environment affects IQ, argues that "there are many, many good studies that show parents can affect how children turn out in both cognitive abilities and behavior".[8] Jerome Kagan of Harvard University argues that Harris "ignores some important facts, ones that are inconsistent with this book's conclusions".[10]

Harris rejects the idea that her book will encourage parents to neglect or mistreat their children.[11] She maintains that parents will continue to treat their children well "for the same reason you are nice to your friends and your partner, even though you have no hopes of molding their character. For the same reason your great-grandparents were nice to their children, even though they didn't believe in the nurture assumption".[12]

See also



  1. ^ The nurture assumption: why children ... - Google Books. Free Press. 2009-02-24.  
  2. ^ "The Nurture Assumption website (Judith Rich Harris)". Retrieved 2011-05-24. 
  3. ^ "The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris: other languages". Retrieved 2011-05-24. 
  4. ^ a b The Nurture Assumption, Chapter 1
  5. ^ "Judith Rich Harris on Birth Order". 2002-02-08. Retrieved 2011-05-24. 
  6. ^ The nurture assumption: why children ... - Google Books. Free Press. 2009-02-24.  
  7. ^ Harris, Judith Rich (2009-02-24). The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Revised and Updated.  
  8. ^ a b c Begley, Sharon (1998-09-29). "The Parent Trap". Newsweek. 
  9. ^ Harris, Judith Rich (2009-02-24). The nurture assumption: why children ....  
  10. ^ Kagan, Jerome (1998). "A Parent's Influence Is Peerless". Harvard Education Letter 14 (6). 
  11. ^ Harris, Judith Rich (1996). "The idea of zero parental influence". Edge: What is your dangerous idea. 
  12. ^ Harris, Judith Rich (1998). "Nature or Nurture: The Parenting Debate". Plano Star Courier. 
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