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The Nurture Assumption

Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do

By Judith Rich Harris
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The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris

The Nurture Assumption (1998) addresses the long-standing debate about the role of nature and nurture. These blinks explain the different factors influencing a child’s development and debunk the prevailing stance that children are a product of their upbringing.

Key idea 1 of 9

The nurture assumption – that parenting plays the key role in a child’s development – is dead wrong.

Ever wonder how you became the intelligent, charming specimen you are today? Maybe it was your genes or the way you were raised. In general, though, we lean more toward the latter, the nurture assumption. People tend to believe that parents play a major role in how their children turn out.

For decades, people have stood by the apparently self-evident fact that a child’s personality is the product of two things: nature (her genes) and nurture (the way her parents brought her up). In fact, the belief that a child’s upbringing shapes her character is such a deep part of our culture that even academic sociologists and psychologists have never really doubted it.

However, as you’ll see, the evidence amassed by developmental psychologists to support the nurture assumption has been biased from the get-go.

The nurture assumption is a huge cultural myth. That’s because a child’s environment is about a lot more than the way her parents raise her. Think about all the important people in a child’s life who are outside her family, such as friends, peer groups, an adoring teacher or an authoritarian football coach.

In that sense, parents are clearly not the only influential factor in a child’s life and, even if research happens to find connections between a child’s character and her upbringing, the results tend to be unreliable. That’s because scientists can’t just take 500 children away from their parents for the sake of research.

Instead, researchers are resigned to looking for real-life correlations between a trait like shyness and an environmental factor like how often a child is punished. In the process, other factors in a child’s environment, for example bullying, fall by the wayside and it’s difficult to find multiple studies that show the same correlation.

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