Do parents actually matter?




Genetically, your parents affect you enormously. But what about the way they raised you?

Research says it doesn’t make a difference.

Via Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference:

Parents are powerfully invested in the idea that they can shape their children’s personalities and behavior. But, as Judith Harris brilliantly argued in her 1998 book The Nurture Assumption, the evidence for this belief is sorely lacking…does the specific social environment that we create in our homes make a real difference in the way our children end up as adults? In a series of large and well-designed studies of twins — particularly twins separated at birth and reared apart — geneticists have shown that most of the character traits that make us who we are — friendliness, extroversion, nervousness, openness, and so on — are about half determined by our genes and half determined by our environment, and the assumption has always been that this environment that makes such a big difference in our lives is the environment of the home. The problem is, however, that whenever psychologists have set out to look for this nurture effect, they can’t find it.

Looking at one of the most rigorous studies on the subject:

On things like measures of intellectual ability and certain aspects of personality, the biological children are fairly similar to their parents. For the adopted kids, however, the results are downright strange. Their scores have nothing whatsoever in common with their adoptive parents: these children are no more similar in their personality or intellectual skills to the people who raised them, fed them, clothed them, read to them, taught them, and loved them for sixteen years than they are to any two adults taken at random off the street.

So if nature and nurture both shape you, but the nurture doesn’t come from your parents, where does it come from? Peers.

…all of the results strongly suggest that our environment plays as big — if not bigger — a role as heredity in shaping personality and intelligence. What it is saying is that whatever that environmental influence is, it doesn’t have a lot to do with parents. It’s something else, and what Judith Harris argues is that that something else is the influence of peers…

I found these examples striking:

Why, Harris asks, do the children of recent immigrants almost never retain the accent of their parents? How is it the children of deaf parents manage to learn how to speak as well and as quickly as children whose parents speak to them from the day they were born? 

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