The Nurture Assumption | Judith Rich Harris

Summary of: The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do
By: Judith Rich Harris


In ‘The Nurture Assumption’, Judith Rich Harris questions the commonly held belief that parents play a significant role in determining how their children turn out, putting forth the idea that our environments are shaped not just by parenting but also by peers, teachers, and other influential figures. This captivating book summary delves into the fallacies of the nurture assumption and explores factors such as genetics and social dynamics, which also influence the development of a child’s personality. By breaking down complex concepts and presenting thought-provoking perspectives, the summary will leave readers with a broader understanding of child development and the myriad of factors beyond parenting that contribute to shaping us into who we are.

The Myth of Parental Influence

The belief that parents shape a child’s personality is a cultural myth, as research reveals that a child’s environment involves factors outside their immediate family. While academic psychologists and sociologists have supported the nurture assumption, evidence amassed by developmental psychologists points out that it is biased. Researchers struggle to find real-life correlations between a child’s character and upbringing, relegating other crucial factors in a child’s environment to the sidelines. Real-life correlations tend to be unreliable due to the difficulties in finding multiple studies that point to the same correlation. Therefore, parental influence is not the only influential factor in a child’s life. Friends, peer groups, teachers, coaches, and other persons in the child’s life have a significant impact on their development. Ultimately, the idea of parents shaping a child’s personality is an oversimplification.

The Genetic Impact on Personality

Genes influence personality traits, as proven by the similarities between genetically identical twins regardless of their upbringing. Parental behavior has a minimal impact on their children’s character.

Growing up with siblings often leads one to believe that they’re nothing alike, only to realize later on that they share some similarities after all. The reason behind this is that genes are responsible for our personality traits. Studies have shown that even genetically identical twins who grow up separately in different homes usually end up with remarkably similar traits. One such study is the famous Minnesota Twin Family Study, conducted between 1979 and 1999 by the behavioral geneticist Thomas Bouchard. The study investigated a pair of twins named Jim who were genetically identical but raised in different environments. Despite their differing upbringing, they both had the same habits and preferences for woodwork, car, brands, and even named their respective sons “James Alan” and “James Allan.”

What’s fascinating is that twins’ similarities exist regardless of whether they grew up together or not. Contrary to popular belief, growing up in the same home doesn’t produce any more similarities between twins. The similarities between twins depend entirely on their genetic makeup, not their upbringing.

Even identical twins who grew up in the same house have corresponding personality traits, such as shyness, conscientiousness, or agreeableness, that correlate by only 50 percent. Statistically speaking, this means that they have no more similarities than twins who grew up in different homes.

Parents’ behavior in everyday life may influence their children’s character, yet this incongruence might be challenging to believe given the previous information. Nevertheless, the data shows that parents have minimal control over how their children turn out because the similarities between twins depend entirely on their genetic makeup, not their upbringing.

Adapting Behavior to Situations

Humans have an instinctual ability to discover and adapt to new rules based on changing circumstances. Unlike cats who stubbornly stick to adopted rules, humans adjust their behavior to fit different situations, especially when interacting with others. From a young age, humans instinctively seek out new rules. Humans also recognize that different situations have different rewards and consequences which guide us in our behavior. Although a child’s behavior may depend on their parents in certain situations, it doesn’t mean their personality is entirely determined by them. For example, a child might act sad when around a depressed mother, but be the happiest kid in daycare with a caring teacher. Thus, humans are adaptable beings who alter their behavior in response to changing circumstances.

Understanding the Imitation Proclivity of Humans

Humans have a strong inclination towards imitation compared to chimpanzees. Research conducted in the early 1930s, including a study that involved a psychologist named Winthrop Kellogg raising a chimpanzee named Gua alongside his son, Donald, showed that humans acquire language skills by imitating words spoken by others. In the experiment, Donald began to speak and behave like a chimpanzee due to consistent imitation of the animal. He fell behind in learning English, suggesting that humans don’t require their parents’ help to learn language. Since humans have a natural inclination towards imitation, they can learn languages either from socially communicated sources or by interacting with their playmates. Factors such as hearing impairment or immigration do not hinder their ability to learn language skills.

The Power of Mother-Child Bonding

Young children cling to their mothers because they provide a sense of security in times of danger. Scholars believe that this bond is the basis for all future relationships. However, studies show that peers can easily substitute a child’s mother. This was observed in six children who were rescued from a Nazi concentration camp. Despite losing their parents and caregivers, they formed a close-knit group where they took care of each other. In conclusion, the mother-child relationship is powerful, but in the absence of a mother, peers can fill the same role and help children grow up healthy.

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