How Many Environments Does a Child Have?
Harvard Education Letter, Volume 15:3 (May/June 1999), pp. 8. Copyright (c) 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission
by Judith Rich Harris
The persistent focus on parents as the primary source of influence on children has left major gaps in our understanding of why children turn out the way they do. Too much emphasis has been placed on the parents and not enough on the other people in the child's life--teachers, for instance. Too much attention has been paid to the home and not enough to the child's other environments.
My book, The Nurture Assumption, has been widely attacked because I had the temerity to suggest that parents lack the power to shape their child's personality (See Jerome Kagan's essay, "A Parent's Influence Is Peerless," HEL, November/December 1998.) I supported this counter-intuitive view with evidence from anthropology, sociology, and several subfields of psychology. But what has been overlooked in the commotion surrounding my book is its positive message. If the parents' child-rearing style matters little in the long run, that doesn't mean that nothing matters in the long run. The conclusion I drew from my overview of a great deal of research is that people who are interested in the long-term effects of a child's environment should look not at the home, but at the world outside the home. And the most important part of that world is the school.
Here's what I said in The Nurture Assumption: "If, in this book, I seem to rob parents of much of their power and responsibility, I cannot be accused of perpetrating the same crime against teachers. Teachers have power and responsibility because they are in control of an entire group of children. They can influence the attitudes and behaviors of the entire group. And they exert this influence where it is likely to have long-term effects: in the world outside the home, the world where children will spend their adult lives."
An important premise of my theory is that children learn separately how to behave in their various environments--they do not assume that what works in one place will work somewhere else. That is why parents are often surprised by what they hear from their child's teacher. The differences in behavior may be subtle in a child from a "typical" home. They are most noticeable in the one whose parents belong to a different culture from the others in the neighborhood--the child of immigrant or deaf parents, for instance. Such children quickly pick up the language and culture of the world outside their home and, as they get older, leave the language and culture of their home behind.
How do children learn how to behave in the world outside the home? I believe they do it by identifying with a group of others they see as similar to themselves. Our society conveniently provides them with such a group: their classmates. In fact, all societies provide children with such a group, but in some parts of the world children associate chiefly with their agemates, in others with a group that spans a range of ages.
As educators are well aware, children's group associations influence their attitudes toward schoolwork. A study by Thomas Kindermann showed that 5th-graders who belonged to a clique of high achievers had more positive attitudes toward schoolwork than members of other cliques. No surprise here. The interesting part is what Kindermann discovered about children who switched cliques: their attitudes toward schoolwork shifted to match those of their new companions. They still had the same parents--their IQs probably hadn't changed, either--but within a single year their attitudes toward schoolwork had been revised.
Groups can be influenced from within or without; a talented teacher is a leader who can influence a group without being a member of it. There are teachers--for example, "Miss A," whose lasting influence on her first-grade students was documented by Eigil Pedersen and his colleagues in a 1978 Harvard Educational Review article--who can change their students' lives.
Outstanding teachers like Miss A seem to have a remarkable ability to form their students into a single group of motivated learners. One characteristic of their classrooms is the way the better students act toward the slower ones: instead of making fun of them, they cheer them on. When a poor reader shows signs of progress, the whole class celebrates.
How do these teachers work their magic? I don't know. But I'm hoping my book will inspire the kind of research that can answer such questions. Researchers have spent far too much time, with far too little to show for it, looking at the home environment. It's time they noticed that the child has a life outside the home, and other environments that, in the long run, may be more important.
Judith Rich Harris is author of The Nurture Assumption and co-author of The Child: Development from Birth through Adolescence.
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