Who needs experts?

Our children are more magical and far more precious than the reductionist equation 'genes plus peers.'

Published September 18, 1998 4:52PM (EDT)

Two-thirds of the way through "The Nurture Assumption," author Judith Rich Harris breathlessly puts us ringside at her Very Major Moment. "Except for the dog, I was alone in the house," she remembers, no detail here being too small to spare. "I was sitting at my desk on a dark winter afternoon, reading an article about adolescent delinquency. It was January 20, 1994." Shortly, without due warning, a fiery inspiration pierced Harris' skull and seized her brain -- an insight so startling and effulgent that even she felt staggered by the light.

"Teenagers aren't trying to be like adults: They are trying to distinguish themselves from adults!" Harris recounts her thinking. "The thought blossomed like a magician's bouquet. Within a few minutes I had the basic outline of group socialization theory -- the theory that children identify with a group consisting of their peers, that they tailor their behavior to the norms of their group, and that groups contrast themselves with other groups and adopt different norms. Only after I had gotten that far did I realize the full implications, and then I had to go back and reconsider the evidence before I was willing to accept the second half of my epiphany. 'Hey, it's not the parents! It's not the parents at all!'"

It's hard to settle on the more confounding factoid -- that Harris actually felt she'd entered original terrain by recognizing that peers play a role in children's lives, that Harris could justify tying this "conceptual breakthrough" to a noncategorical statement of "fact" regarding the overall value of parenting or that Harris' thesis could be taking media types by storm -- plopping her center stage on TV shows and magazine covers, earning her folk-heroine status in some circles and sending her book into multiple printings.

It's enough to make a person shudder. Closer inspection of Harris' work further exacerbates one's shaken spirits. "You've followed the (advice givers') advice and where has it got you?" Harris presumptively exhorts. "They've made you feel guilty if you don't love all your children equally, though it's not your fault if nature made some kids more lovable than others. They've made you feel guilty if you don't give them enough quality time, though your kids seem to prefer to spend their quality time with their friends ... They've made you feel guilty if you hit your child, though big hominids have been hitting little ones for millions of years. Worst of all, they've made you feel guilty if anything goes wrong with your child. It's easy to blame parents for everything; they're sitting ducks."

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Forgive me for quoting ad nauseam. It's just hard to find a better argument against Harris than Harris herself. For what do Harris and those center-staging her "theories" take us for: fools? Does she -- do they -- really believe that thinking parents are guiding their every decision by the latest guilt-mongering or guilt-free book to hit the shelves? That our own sense of accomplishment or joy, as parents, is dictated by so-called experts? That we are tossed, like spores in the wind, from one set of values and behaviors to the next -- unwilling, unable to draw a few conclusions of our own? That all we're after, in every sense, is absolution, abnegation, supremely unaccountable lives? Was a consensus reached when the rest of us weren't looking that today's generation of parents is devoid of instinct and intuition, basic common sense, ideas about how to raise the children they live with, a desire to help them become their very best selves?

One would like to think that there's something redeeming about Harris' motivations, but read on. "I want to tell parents that it's all right," Harris told the New Yorker's Malcolm Gladwell. "A lot of people who should be contributing children to our society, who could be contributing very useful and fine children, are reluctant to do it, or are waiting very long to have children, because they feel that it requires such a huge commitment. If they knew that it was OK to have a child and let it be reared by a nanny or put it in a day-care center, or even send it to a boarding school, maybe they'd believe that it would be OK to have a kid."

Here -- and can it really be disputed? -- Harris has entered the theater of the absurd. Few, I think, would argue that our tortured, wrinkled, fragile planet is short plastic diapers, bottles, baby gear. Few stand up and cheer every time another gorgeous landscape succumbs to the burgeoning human species or another highway clogs or another sacred water supply grows infested with squirmy little germs. Few are lobbying for more kids in day care, more pressure on classrooms, more stress on the Social Security system. Few at-home parents are banging the drums, fervently praying for more unsupervised teens with which their own children might play.

So, why, in fact, do we have children? Why do we increasingly use every technology at our disposal in pursuit of parenthood? It's a nettlesome question made that much more prickly by those, like Harris, who suggest that once we have them and we've dressed them and we've fed them and we've paraded them, we shouldn't much fret over how we parent. Our job is virtually done. But is it? And is parenting a job, in the end? Should we, indeed, be congratulated for bringing children into this trembling world only to then proclaim our independence from their nurturing?

It's a no-brainer to assert that parents pass their genes on to their kids; that personality is innate, not environmentally determined; that a child will be influenced by his or her friends. But it is also a no-brainer to recognize -- once and for all -- that parenting matters. Children will and do remember who was there when they were bleeding, intimidated, embarrassed, anxious, sick. Children will and do look for consistent boundaries, a moral compass, companionship, friendship, encouragement, reason, a few bright, shining, guiding lights. Children want stories read to them and dads to go on field trips and moms standing on the sidelines during baseball practice not because of what all this does or does not presage about their future psycho-standing, but because they are living in the here and now, because it means something -- right this second -- to be a valued, supported human being. Like the rest of us, children want to know that they matter. They want to believe that they are worth caring for.

Children will be who children will be. Nobody's suggesting that genes or peers are immaterial. What some of us are saying, however, is that our children are more magical, more mysterious, far more precious than the reductionist equation "genes plus peers." We are saying that the answers to life's questions aren't inscripted in our children's chemistries; that choices are not made in genetic or peer-group vacuums; that dinner conversation, codes of conduct, the organization and revelation of a parent's true priority all add up to something, in the end. We are saying that, despite the hard and proven reality that the best of parenting yields less than perfect results, despite the fact that there are never guarantees, despite the fact that intuition remains the most stunningly effective tool in a world increasingly hell-bent on how-to's, we brought our children into being because we believed that they would make a difference in our lives. The least we could do is try to make a difference in theirs.

Can we? Do we? Vanquish the theory and the data and look around. Look at real life. Do you think it matters to the little boy who is the last one always to be picked up from school? Do you think it matters to the little girl whose parents fail to show for the choral recital? Do you think the neighborhood bully, or the child struggling with math, or the little boy who is the target of merciless cruelty, is better off for having parents who have utterly checked out -- fingering genes, shrugging their shoulders, telling themselves and telling others that there's nothing anyone can do? Do you think the world will be a better, safer, more moral, more comprehensible place for those who decide that life is solely and miserably about self-fulfillment, that children won't remember the weight and shape of their own childhoods?

Not so long ago, I overheard a mother defending her son. The little boy appeared to be 9 or 10 years old, and he had, I could surmise, a long, fierce track record of poor behavior headlined by name-calling, tripping, punching, biting, pulling down a whole slew of children's pants -- a record exacerbated by the fact that his mother, an apparent daytime TV fan, was rarely around; no discipline had been exerted. The boy, it seemed, had terrorized an entire playground, and one of the infuriated mothers of one of the little-girl victims was finally letting her frustrations be known. In as calm a voice as I imagine she could muster, the mother of the girl related her concerns, her fears, her issues, ultimately asking the mother of the boy if a solution might be found. "My son has one job and one job only," the boy's mother retorted, while he stood there, listening, gleaming, at her side, "and that's to tell on another child if harm has been somehow done to him. If he has done that today, then he's done what we've taught him. I don't need to hear about these other goings on." And then they turned and strode away, the boy and his mother, arm in arm. Lesson giver and lesson taker, triumphant.

Who, I had to wonder, will that little boy grow up to be? Will his genes or peers alone be accountable for the behaviors he's already learned to justify? How much will others suffer because his conscience has been left a void?

By Beth Kephart

A recipient of an NEA grant this year, Beth Kephart is the author of "A Slant of Sun: One Child's Courage," a 1998 National Book Award finalist. Her new book, "Into the Tangle of Friendship," will be released in the fall.

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