Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do
Coming across a book that fundamentally challenges mainstream ways of thinking and the foundations of society is rare. The Nurture Assumption is a book of this kind; going against the tide to introduce new ways of thinking.
The Nurture Assumption sets the record straight regarding how we become socialized in our roles in society and who socializes us.
As the title of the book suggests, for many years we’ve tolerated the assumption that children get socialized through a process of nurturance. The way we are raised it is believed ultimately determines who we become. But this is just an assumption according to Harris. An assumption that causes great harm and distress to many parents most of who are tasked with the heavy responsibility of nurturance. Many times parenting goes wrong and children fail to grow up as expected. Parents are forced to shoulder the blame.
The nature vs nurture debate forms the bedrock of this assumption where nurturance determines the outcomes of children. Proponents of nature argue that our genes and heredity factors determine who we become and that parents should be absolved of any responsibility. Proponents of nurture on the other hand argue that human beings are a clean slate waiting to be molded by designers. The designers are our parents and the myriad of environmental experiences that shape us.
Both of them are wrong since human outcomes are determined by both processes. But a few problems on the nurture side often go unnoticed and will be the basis of this article.
Harris believes that the proponents of nurture have gotten a few fundamentals wrong. First, the word nurture implies caring for something the way mothers care for their children. The use of the word restricts the environment to the home where most of the child-rearing takes place. It also implies that parents are at the forefront of this process of nurturance.
But the word nurture doesn’t mean home environment or parenting. According to behavioral genetics, nurture encompasses a wide variety of environments most of which are outside the influence of parents or the home. It could be schools, the neighborhood, or something in the water like lead. When lead poisoning affects a child who’s cognitive function is afterwards impaired, the source of the problem is classified as environmental or nurture. But most people don’t use the word nurture correctly leaving the nurture argument on shaky foundations.
The idea that nurture is restricted to the home environment is what forms the basis for the nurture assumption. A serious error that Harris believes underlies modern sociological theories, policies, and influences on parenting. The error leads to a lot of misunderstanding regarding how children should be raised and the role of parents in this process.
The error underlies the belief that the way children are raised determines how they become. A child raised a certain way is believed to grow and become an adult who is adjusted or maladjusted depending on how he or she was raised. A child who is neglected becomes maladjusted in adulthood, gets poor grades in school, and may even turn into crime and drug use. Similarly, a child who is showered with praises may become narcissistic and selfish. This understanding of the socialization process is what leads gurus to recommend parenting techniques aimed at helping parents raise their children in ways that minimize harm while maximizing good outcomes.
Diana Baumrind originated three of the four parenting styles as we know them today. These styles emphasized the role parents play in determining the outcomes of children. To Baumrind, neglectful parents will very often raise maladjusted children. Authoritarian parents who do not give their children enough freedom are also believed to interfere with their growth and development. Baumrind settles on authoritative parenting as the ideal method of raising children. It demands parents be neither authoritarian nor passive with their children and is therefore at the middle of both extremes. Don’t be too good and don’t be too bad to children, it asserts.
Harris believes there are several blind spots to these theories presented by sociological researchers. One blind spot is exposed by nature and our understanding of genetics. Part of what determines our life outcomes is genetics. We inherit genes from our parents and it’s those genes that partly determine how tall we become, the personalities we develop, and even how beautiful or ugly we become. Children are neither blank slates nor pieces of clay waiting to be molded. Children come with genes that determine important aspects of their life.
Evidence for this comes from the first law of behavioral genetics which states that all traits are heritable. Harris begins her critique of the nurture assumption with this law, which posits that most of our traits and behaviors have significant genetic influences. Intelligence is a trait that is highly heritable. Human personalities like openness, neuroticism, conscientiousness, extraversion, and agreeableness are also influenced by genes. Behaviors and traits like obesity, divorce, anti-social behaviors, and mental health have been observed to be strongly influenced by genetics. These traits whenever and wherever they occur cannot be attributed to environmental influences alone.
If the aforesaid traits are influenced by genes then it means a large number of human behaviors and subsequent outcomes share significant genetic influence. Traits like intelligence, personalities, and mental disorders affect human lives in important ways. An intelligent person will in most instances score higher grades in school and go further with education. A conscientiousness personality is also known to predict the socioeconomic status among individuals. Neuroticism happens to be a risk factor for depression and anxiety disorders. All these are behaviors that define our lives and which are influenced significantly by our genes.
The first blow to the nurture assumption comes from heritability as an important influence on outcomes of children. Some outcomes like good health, successful education, and better marriages are directly influenced by the genes we get from our parents. Equally bad outcomes like criminality, drug abuse, low socioeconomic status, and promiscuity can partly be attributed to inherited genes from parents. Genes tell us why children tend to become like their parents. Smart parents give birth to smart children and abusive parents may also give birth to abusive children.
What is blamed on poor parenting can sometimes be explained by the shared genes between parents and children. Many socialization researchers rarely go this far to find how genetics influence human outcomes. Instead, many focus their research on the home environment and how it affects children despite the fact that parenting and the home environment has little impact on the outcomes of children.
But one could argue genes tell a small part of the story. What about the environment? Isn’t the environment just as important in determining the outcomes of children? The environment influences human behavior but the extent of this influence is minimal. One weakness arises from how we understand or measure our environments. According to behavioral genetics, most measures of the environment are actually measures of genetics. Genes not only influence human behaviors but also human environments. People tend to organize their lives and homes based on their genetic predispositions. An intelligent parent is likely have a lot of books at home. Considering that intelligence is a heritable trait, counting the number of books in a home as a measure of how “books at home influence academic performance” is mostly an indirect measure of genetics and not an environmental influence of the home. Children raised in homes with a lot of books don’t excel in school because of the books, but because of the genes they share with their intelligent parents who loved reading and thus bought books.
There are many examples of these measures of the environment that involve significant genetic confounding. The number of calories that a person eats in a day can be a good reason for their obesity. But what goes unnoticed is the impulsivity and lack of self control influenced by genetics.
Harris lays a lot of groundwork to show why some measures of the environment are second tire measures of genetics. She relies on twin and adoption studies.
Identical twins share 100% of their genes. If the home environment was important in determining the outcomes of children, twins raised in different homes would become different over time. But they don’t.
Twin and adoption studies show that children born of alcoholic parents were likely to become alcoholics even if raised in adoptive homes where nobody drunk alcohol. Children born of divorced parents were also likely to become divorced even when adopted in stable families. The idea that the home has a significant influence on the outcome of children turned out to be false. Children were more likely to become like their biological parents regardless of where they were raised.
First, we noted that children inherit genes from their parents which makes them similar to them. Second, we found out that most measures of the environment are actually measures of genetics. Third, from twin studies, it is clear that the home where children are raised may have negligible effects on their outcomes. According to Harris, the idea environments affect how children turn out is true; just not the home environment. The home environment is not where children are socialized.
Since the usage of the word nurture is wrong, and that the home environment has negligible effects on the outcomes of children, Harris proposes her group socialization theory. She uses this theory to explain why children turn out the way they do and what role the environment plays. The environment remains important since no trait is 100% heritable. However, the part of the environment that influences human outcomes is what Harris believes needs to be re-looked and changed. Something outside the home environment is shaping how children develop.