Parental Influence: Is it really their fault?


In the Developmental Psychology unit of the AS we look at a longitudinal study of children who have been maternally deprived (Hodges and Tizard). Prior to the Hodges and Tizard study it was thought (mainly as a result of Bowlby’s research) that those children who were maternally deprived as children would become affectionless psychopaths. Last year I wrote about research that suggested, contrary to what Bowlby thought, that it might actually by fathers who have the most influential effect over children’s development.

Judith Rich Harris has written an article (Why home doesn’t matter) which argues that parents are not the most influential factor over a child’s development. In response to the “why do children turn out the way they do” question she thinks that parents matter less than you think and peers matter more.

The BBC series “Child of Our Time” assumes that studying children with their parents will help us understand how their personalities develop. But this is a mistake: parents influence their children mainly by passing on their genes. The biggest environmental influences on personality are those that occur outside the home.

… This made no sense to most parents, and it will make no sense to most viewers of Child of Our Time, because anyone can see that children’s experiences at home do have visible effects on them. The child whose mother is a poor and inconsistent disciplinarian is disobedient. The child whose father is about to undergo major surgery is anxious and clingy.

But wait. One of the subjects of Child of Our Time is a boy named James, whose mother is a poor disciplinarian. As we would expect, he is a problem child at home. At school, however, Winston informs us, “James is a very different boy.” According to his teacher, James’s behaviour in school is quite acceptable, “on a par with the rest of the class.” [Quote]

What Harris proposes is that the most influential factors on the development of children and their relationships with others is actually their peers not their parents. One thing that she dones’t contend though is that having a good relationship with your parents does seem to benefit the children.

She bases this on research suggesting that children can and do adapt their behaviour according to whether they’re with their parents, with others, in the home, or otherwise. Harris suggests that child behaviours that remain the same across various environments are more likely to be influenced by genetics.

In other words, she argues that the idea we relate to others in specific ways because we’ve learnt certain core relationship styles with our parents is mistaken, and in fact, we develop context and person specific relationship patterns that can be seen even from an early age. [From MindHacks]

What is meant by these context and person specific relationships are that we can and will develop in different ways in different situations. The older brother who is dominant in the house – maybe bullying and intimidating to his younger siblings – will not necessarily take this behaviour into another context. On the play ground he may be a small fish in that much larger pond.

So, can we really put all the blame on the parents? Your thoughts in the comments.

You can read more about this in Harris’ books: The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do and the more recent No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality or you can read the Why home doesn’t matter article online.

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3 Responses to “Parental Influence: Is it really their fault?”

  1. Bim June 8, 2008 at 4:15 pm #

    I’d agree with Harris completely, I think that it is evident even in ourselves – that different environments make us behave differently.
    However, I do think that our core responses and overall reaction to enviroments are effected by our primary carer and genes. For instance the studies of Genie and other privitation can atest to that.

  2. Jamie Davies June 10, 2008 at 8:24 pm #

    I believe you have hit on an interesting point as to the influence of genes and the primary care giver on behaviour and, some may argue, personality, in later life.

    Thanks for your comments Bim.

  3. London Counselling September 6, 2011 at 5:40 pm #

    Parenting is done by couples who is raising a child, even if it’s theirs or not, biologically. Genes are just genes but I don’t think that is reasonable enough for the parents who are the main foundation to be taking all the blame for the overall result of every children’s behavior.

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