2006 : WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

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Independent Investigator and Theoretician; Author, The Nurture Assumption; No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality
The idea of zero parental influence

Is it dangerous to claim that parents have no power at all (other than genetic) to shape their child's personality, intelligence, or the way he or she behaves outside the family home? More to the point, is this claim false? Was I wrong when I proposed that parents' power to do these things by environmental means is zero, nada, zilch?

A confession: When I first made this proposal ten years ago, I didn't fully believe it myself. I took an extreme position, the null hypothesis of zero parental influence, for the sake of scientific clarity. Making myself an easy target, I invited the establishment — research psychologists in the academic world — to shoot me down. I didn't think it would be all that difficult for them to do so. It was clear by then that there weren't any big effects of parenting, but I thought there must be modest effects that I would ultimately have to acknowledge.

The establishment's failure to shoot me down has been nothing short of astonishing. One developmental psychologist even admitted, one year ago on this very website, that researchers hadn't yet found proof that "parents do shape their children," but she was still convinced that they will eventually find it, if they just keep searching long enough.

Her comrades in arms have been less forthright. "There are dozens of studies that show the influence of parents on children!" they kept saying, but then they'd somehow forget to name them — perhaps because these studies were among the ones I had already demolished (by showing that they lacked the necessary controls or the proper statistical analyses). Or they'd claim to have newer research that provided an airtight case for parental influence, but again there was a catch: the work had never been published in a peer-reviewed journal. When I investigated, I could find no evidence that the research in question had actually been done or, if done, that it had produced the results that were claimed for it. At most, it appeared to consist of preliminary work, with too little data to be meaningful (or publishable).

Vaporware, I call it. Some of the vaporware has achieved mythic status. You may have heard of Stephen Suomi's experiment with nervous baby monkeys, supposedly showing that those reared by "nurturant" adoptive monkey mothers turn into calm, socially confident adults. Or of Jerome Kagan's research with nervous baby humans, supposedly showing that those reared by "overprotective" (that is, nurturant) human mothers are more likely to remain fearful.

Researchers like these might well see my ideas as dangerous. But is the notion of zero parental influence dangerous in any other sense? So it is alleged. Here's what Frank Farley, former president of the American Psychological Association, told a journalist in 1998:

[Harris's] thesis is absurd on its face, but consider what might happen if parents believe this stuff! Will it free some to mistreat their kids, since "it doesn't matter"? Will it tell parents who are tired after a long day that they needn't bother even paying any attention to their kid since "it doesn't matter"?

Farley seems to be saying that the only reason parents are nice to their children is because they think it will make the children turn out better! And that if parents believed that they had no influence at all on how their kids turn out, they are likely to abuse or neglect them.

Which, it seems to me, is absurd on its face. Most chimpanzee mothers are nice to their babies and take good care of them. Do chimpanzees think they're going to influence how their offspring turn out? Doesn't Frank Farley know anything at all about evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology?

My idea is viewed as dangerous by the powers that be, but I don't think it's dangerous at all. On the contrary: if people accepted it, it would be a breath of fresh air. Family life, for parents and children alike, would improve. Look what's happening now as a result of the faith, obligatory in our culture, in the power of parents to mold their children's fragile psyches. Parents are exhausting themselves in their efforts to meet their children's every demand, not realizing that evolution designed offspring — nonhuman animals as well as humans — to demand more than they really need. Family life has become phony, because parents are convinced that children need constant reassurances of their love, so if they don't happen to feel very loving at a particular time or towards a particular child, they fake it. Praise is delivered by the bushel, which devalues its worth. Children have become the masters of the home.

And what has all this sacrifice and effort on the part of parents bought them? Zilch. There are no indications that children today are happier, more self-confident, less aggressive, or in better mental health than they were sixty years ago, when I was a child — when homes were run by and for adults, when physical punishment was used routinely, when fathers were generally unavailable, when praise was a rare and precious commodity, and when explicit expressions of parental love were reserved for the deathbed.

Is my idea dangerous? I've never condoned child abuse or neglect; I've never believed that parents don't matter. The relationship between a parent and a child is an important one, but it's important in the same way as the relationship between married partners. A good relationship is one in which each party cares about the other and derives happiness from making the other happy. A good relationship is not one in which one party's central goal is to modify the other's personality.

I think what's really dangerous — perhaps a better word is tragic — is the establishment's idea of the all-powerful, and hence all-blamable, parent.