From screaming babies to screaming college students

Introducing Camille on Campus: 'The Nurture Assumption' is a rambling, anecdotal memoir that reinforces America's lazy parenting

Published September 23, 1998 7:37PM (EDT)

Dear Camille:

I'm curious to hear your opinion of Judith Rich Harris' new book, "The Nurture Assumption," which has received extensive media attention from publications like the New Yorker and Newsweek for its claim that "parents matter less than you think and peers matter more." While I agree that one's genetic inheritance as well as one's peers have a major impact on one's development, I find preposterous Harris' claim that parenting matters not at all. For one thing, the only one of my grade school peers to have committed suicide grew up under the "care" of a notoriously abusive stepfather. And although this fellow was not popular with teachers or classmates, it was obvious that his problems started at home.

Insofar as she demolishes the tendency of some zealots to blame all society's
ills on bad parenting, I think Harris performs an important function. But
what bothers me is that she merely substitutes one reductive fallacy for
another. I also fail to see what is "scientific" about the work of either
Harris or her ideological opponents. It seems to me that most social
scientists can make "science" prove whatever the hell they personally want it
to prove. Am I just being paranoid? Or have my peers made me
into the skeptic I am today?


Dear Chris:

Media reports about "The Nurture Assumption" have been confusing and
overblown. I have indeed dutifully looked at Harris' book several times in
stores, but quite frankly, I found it too rambling, anecdotal and
contradictory to purchase or take seriously. Apparently originating as an
article in a psychology journal three years ago, it is yet another example of
minor effusions puffed up too rapidly into full-scale books by publishers who
know how to offer contracts but not how to develop substantive projects.

Character and personality have always fascinated me, and they inspired the
psychological orientation of my writing on art and culture. My understanding
of the formation of adult personae comes from wide-ranging sources, such as
Sir James George Frazer's survey of tribal rites of passage in "The Golden
Bough"; Freud's conflict-based analysis of the psychodynamics of "family
romance" in bourgeois society; and even Babylonian astrology (revived in the
1960s), which as a practical discipline over the millennia has accumulated a
stunning mass of psychological insights.

After more than a century of the nature-nurture debate, the libraries are
packed with a rich variety of commentary informed by anthropology, psychiatry,
social psychology and evolutionary biology. In the past 30 years, there has
been increasing evidence of a genetic component in characteristics of
personality like shyness and aggression. The discoveries of science have made
little impact, however, on academic humanities departments, where extreme
social constructionism (via feminism and post-structuralism) has been the
dominant credo since the 1970s.

"The Nurture Assumption" offered a tremendous opportunity to change the
intellectual climate in the U.S., but it is too poorly executed to do so. Its
claims are simply absurd that parents have no influence on child development
and that Harris has made a dazzling new discovery about peer pressure -- which
has been studied and documented for 50 years.

Parents are permanently shaping and imprinting a child's mental and emotional life from his or her earliest weeks and months. The first three to six years in particular are critical in training a child how to process information, express thoughts and feelings and channel energy and desire constructively. Coping behavior -- how one handles frustration and stress -- must be systematically taught by the primary caretakers.

Since I am the product of a supportive, attentive and yet highly structured
Italian-American family, where whining was not tolerated, I have no patience
whatever with the kind of loud, annoying displays and tantrums that are
ignored by unembarrassed or ineffectual American parents in grocery stores and
other public spaces. Such undisciplined behavior by children would cause
vergogna or "shame" to Italian families, bringing discredit on the entire clan and its ancestry. Prudent parents know how to give the tiniest toddlers clear signals about appropriate limits in public, hushing or hustling them out immediately when they disturb others. Persistence and consistency are crucial -- with children or with animals like horses and dogs.

In my tumultuous visit to PC-saturated Brown University in 1992, where I
needed security guards to shepherd me through the seething mob, I saw the
disgraceful results of permissive, "progressive" early parenting -- screaming,
spoiled, infantile young women whose sense of objective reality had never
gelled. Affluent American students these days are either hysterics or

Harris gives precisely the wrong message. As a teacher for 27 years, I think American children need more parental attention and control, not less. Harris' book, which is about one woman's painful struggle with health and family problems, should have been marketed as what it is -- a memoir.

By Camille Paglia

Camille Paglia is the University Professor of Humanities and Media Studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.  Her most recent book is "Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt to Star Wars." You can email her at

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