A new book, "The Nurture Assumption" (Free Press, $26) by Judith Rich Harris, is causing a stir among psychologists. Though Ms. Harris has no professional credentials, her research won an award from the American Psychological Association. Her controversial thesis: Beyond contributing genes, parents have little influence on a child's personality development. It's the peer group, she claims, that matters.
Parents, she writes, "don't have any important long-term effects on the development of their child's personality." Well, maybe inside the home, but once a child is with peers, he's likely to toss off his parents' values "as easily as the dorky sweater his mother made him wear."
Of course, Ms. Harris is right. Peers have great influence. Any parent with a brain knows this. Peer influence begins to wax between the third and fourth birthdays, and it "rules" by age 12. In effect, one has 12 years, give or take, in which to score "parenting points," and the better part of them need to be compiled by age 7 or so.
And of course Ms. Harris is wrong. Parents do have influence, as all responsible parents know, and whether this influence is or isn't greater than the peer influence is a matter of deployment.
When Eric -- my 29-year-old married son -- was 14, I discovered he was running with the wrong crowd. I subsequently made him an offer he couldn't refuse, which resulted in his completely shucking one group of associates and taking up with another, more to his parents' liking. Eric might have been influenced by his peers, but his choice of peers was significantly influenced by his mother and me.
In the final analysis, however, the whole debate conceals something psychologists are reluctant to admit: namely, that sometimes the only cause behind a child's behavior is the child himself.
In scientific circles, "determinism," in which every effect has a cause, is slowly going the way of the dinosaurs. The new view, simply stated, is that things just happen. For purposes of our discussion, children simply choose.
Ironically, this view isn't new at all. One of the oldest stories, in the Bible, features two children who simply choose to disobey. When they attempt to blame their transgressions on "peer pressure," their Father says, in effect, "There is no excuse" and holds them both fully responsible. My parents used to say that same thing when I attempted to pass the buck of my misbehavior. So, I take it, did their parents.
When it comes to misbehavior, today's kids have been supplied with too many excuses already. Now Ms. Harris comes along and gives credence to the oldest excuse of 'em all, the very one God rejected from his first children. She claims her thesis frees parents of guilt. That's laudable, if it were the case. In fact, however, Ms. Harris' thesis frees parents of responsibility, which is downright chilling.
In the real world, a world relatively few mental health professionals inhabit, people are not driven to behave in certain ways by forces outside their control.
Parents make good choices and bad ones and ones that range in between. These choices greatly influence the choices their children make, including choices concerning peers. It's called free will, and as our foremothers and forefathers clearly understood and taught their children, free will ain't free.
John Rosemond is a family psychologist in North Carolina. Questions of general interest may be sent to John Rosemond at P.O. Box 4124, Gastonia, N.C. 28054 and at http://www.rosemond.com/parenting on the World Wide Web.
If you or someone you know has parenting problems, call the Parents Anonymous 24-hour confidential Help-Line at 892-2172.