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#16: Parents Don't Matter

August 17, 2010, 12:00 AM

When psychologist Judith Rich Harris wrote in 1998 that "parents have no power, in the long run, to shape their children’s personalities," she was attacked from all sides by the scientific community and the media.

Why should this statement invoke such ire? It might have to do with the fact that what it means to be a parent has changed dramatically over the past century. In the past 15 years alone, the amount of time mothers spend attending to the needs of their children has gone from about 12 hours per week to 21.2 hours for college-educated women and 15.9 hours for those without college degrees. Parenting has become even more of a full-time job, which might explain why parents need to feel like they are having an impact on their child's development.

The dogma of parenting ever since Freud has been that an infant’s relationship with its parents, especially its mother, dictates the type of relationships and personality the child will have as an adult. But Harris tells Big Think that this is just not the case: “What children learn in one relationship is not automatically carried over to other relationships. A baby who has learned that Mommy will come running when he cries doesn’t expect the same response from other people he encounters.”

Harris’s theory is based on studies from various fields: sociological studies of the children of immigrants, comparative developmental psych studies, as well as twin and adoptee studies by behavioral geneticists. What these studies all have in common is that “once you take into account the contribution of genes, the home in which these people were reared had little or no effect on their personalities.” What resemblances there are amongst family members—conscientious parents having conscientious kids or even-tempered parents having even-tempered kids—is due to heredity, not environment, Harris tells us. “Once you skim off the contribution of genes, family members are no more alike than a bunch of strangers.”

Harris is not saying that parents don’t matter at all: “They have a good deal of influence on the way their children behave at home and on family relationships in general.” But parents don't matter in the way we've always assumed they matter. It’s really kids’ peers, teachers, and coaches outside the home that shape their personalities, Harris says.

The recent trend towards "helicopter parenting," a reference to the parents' tendency to hover at all times, distresses Harris. “One of my goals in writing 'The Nurture Assumption' was to make parenting a little less burdensome, a little less fraught with anxiety,” Harris tells us. "It hasn't happened yet, but the increasing amount of criticism of 'helicopter parents' gives me hope for the future.” 


Parents don’t have as much impact on their kids as they think. Yet the amount of time parents, especially moms, spend with their kids has risen dramatically. This would make sense if kids were providing their parents with commensurate increases in joy, but the sad fact is that kids don’t make us happier. In fact, a study by sociologist Robin Simon from Wake Forest says that parents are, across the board, more depressed than non-parents.

Parents need to take a step back and reconsider their priorities. So-called helicopter moms are sacrificing friendships, communities, and even marriages to hyper-manage their children’s lives, says sociologist Margaret Nelson from Middlebury College. And while some studies say helicopter parenting can lead to neurotic kids, Nelson is worried less about the kids and more about the mothers' sanity.

Why We Should Reject This

Parents absolutely have an effect on how their kids grow up, says British psychologist Oliver James, author of “How Not to F*** Them Up.” In an interview with Arena magazine, he cited an adoption study to prove his point: “If a child from a working-class home is adopted from a young age into a middle-class home it will have, on average, an IQ ten points higher than its [biological] parent.” James says that the attention and love a parent or caregiver lavish upon a child is crucial to his or her healthy development, especially during the first three years of their life.

In an op-ed for the Guardian, James described a study measuring the amount of cortisol, the stress hormone linked to our flight-or-fight response, in babies left at daycare facilities. On the first, fifth, and ninth days, the babies’ cortisol levels doubled from their home levels. Five months later, the levels, though no longer doubled, were still significantly elevated. And these effects appear to be long lasting, he says: “When cortisol is measured at age 15, the longer a child was in daycare when small, the higher its levels. As high cortisol has been shown many times to be a correlate of all manner of problems, this is bad news.”

More Resources

“All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting” in New York Magazine

"The Rug Rat Race": a study about changing trends in parenting


#16: Parents Don't Matter

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