Debate Rises on Parents’ Influence Over Children

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Does parenting really matter?

When Judith Rich Harris published a book late last year arguing that it did not, she mostly drew cries of outrage and disbelief.

Then came the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo. The massacre carried out by two adolescents from families with no apparent signs of dysfunction startled child-development experts. Harris’ contention that peers, not parents, shape children’s personalities suddenly got a new look, in the process reigniting the age-old argument over nature versus nurture.

Cliques, Adolescent Rejection Studied

New studies are pouring out.

The U.S. surgeon general, in a report on school violence that President Clinton ordered after Littleton, is expected to focus on the roles of classroom cliques, adolescent rejection and school size.


The National Research Council--a consortium of scientists that advises the federal government on academic research--recently hosted two professional groups that rarely meet together--criminologists and experts on early childhood development--to talk about peer group influence. The Carnegie Corp. is midway through a six-year study mapping the causes and consequences of conflict among teens.

Although the reasons the two Littleton teens went on a rampage are far from clear, many parents are reassessing the balance of power between them and their children’s friends and tormentors.

Harris’ thesis in “The Nurture Assumption” is that after an all-too-brief period of babyhood, the tribal--and sometimes secret--world of a child’s friends and schoolmates exerts a potent and even decisive influence.

Mary Moore of Torrance, a teacher and a mother of 10- and 14-year-old boys, said in a telephone interview that the Littleton massacre “brought this idea a little closer to home”--that children’s friends often overwhelm the best efforts of their parents.

“I don’t think it would ever happen to mine,” she added with trepidation. “But it’s real tough to call.”

For mothers like Moore and academics as well, there is cold comfort in the theory that a child’s “real” world exists separately and hews to different rules than that of his parents. But how else to explain the murderous rampage of two teenagers who appeared to have experienced what one psychologist called “parenting within the normal range”?


As the picture of children and their worlds comes into sharper focus, scholars hope that they can begin to construct a science with some predictive powers. Although predicting a school shooting will almost certainly be beyond them, they hope at least to identify the conditions that make such violent outbursts more likely.

Within the psychology establishment, “what’s been underappreciated, underdiscussed, is the role of context, peers being a subcategory,” said Cornell University’s James Garbarino, author of “Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and What We Can Do About Them.” Columbine presents an example of “a kind of evil chemistry,” he said, combining elements of troubled youth, toxic environment and peer dynamics.

Harris’ own experience as a parent was instrumental in leading her to the thesis that a parent’s power “ends at the front door.” The mother of two daughters--one hers by biology, the second by adoption--she struggled to understand why her second child turned out so differently from her first, since both had the same kind of parenting. Harris began to focus on the two factors--genes and peer groups--that distinguished them from one another. As she did so, she grew to question the research that standard psychology texts, including ones she had written, cite as evidence of parents’ influence over children.

“I believed the evidence too. But then I looked at it more closely and to my considerable surprise it fell apart in my hands,” Harris wrote.

In her book, Harris reviewed several decades of research in the fields of behavioral genetics and socialization, finding no direct evidence that a parent’s behavior toward his or her child has “any important long-term effect.”

By contrast, she wrote, a vast body of research from studies of the effects of spanking to comparisons of identical twins reared apart demonstrates the decisive influence of genes and peers.


“Parenting matters zilch,” she said recently. Asked what lesson parents should take from the Columbine shootings, the New Jersey author, now a grandmother, added: “I think parents are already doing the best they can. They should continue to do it and worry a little bit less about it.”

Although resistance to Harris’ thesis has softened, she still has plenty of critics. “What she says is just silly,” said Jerome Kagan, Harvard University’s venerable child psychologist. “Any parent knows that intuitively.”

Kagan and others acknowledge that a child’s friends and social circumstances will have a powerful effect on what he does--whether it is running for senior class president or shooting up his school. But behavior, they believe, is more broadly influenced by personality and temperament--forged in a child’s early years, when parents dominate the social universe.

“Parents get the first crack and the first crack counts more than the second crack,” said L. Rowell Huesman of the University of Michigan, who studies the way children model their behavior on the social “scripts” they see played out around them.

Harris’ critics reserve their greatest disdain for the potential effect that her thinking could have on parents. If parents are told that children are immune to their efforts to nurture, stimulate, guide, model and teach, the critics warn, why should they bother trying?

“This book is not just silly, but dangerous,” said Wade Horn, a clinical child psychologist and director of the Fatherhood Institute.


Still, peer groups “are more important now than ever because of the withdrawal of adults from the lives of kids,” said James Fox, dean of Northeastern University’s School of Criminology. With the explosion of single parenthood and parents having to spend more time at work, among other factors, peer groups are flourishing with more autonomy than ever from adults’ influence, he added.

“Kids with the wrong situations and the wrong sets of friends can do bad things. Often it’s not the individual’s character in cases like this but the character of his friendships,” Fox said.

Deadly Influence of Friends

However forcefully they resist this idea, parents of adolescents have long suspected as much. In the wake of Littleton, many say that they are confronting evidence all around them that friends can have a deadly influence.

“Sure, I’ve asked myself, could it happen to my family,” Seana Campos, a Rancho Palos Verdes mother of a 10-year-old son and a 15-year-old daughter, said in a telephone interview.

Like other parents, Campos said she scanned the news from Littleton with a sense of urgency, looking for evidence that the violence could be laid at the doorstep of the shooters’ parents. She found none.

“Everybody said it--these were good families,” Campos said. “But good parents have children who go astray. People who aren’t good parents have children who grow up to be wonderful. There’s no telling.”



As they age, children increasing turn to their peers for help when they face problems, a survey found.


If they are sad:

6-12 yrs old

Mother: 88%

Father: 24%

Friend: 7%

13-17 yrs old

Mother: 69%

Father: 15%

Friend: 31%

If they are in trouble:

6-12 yrs old

Mother: 84%

Father: 28%

Friend: 7%

13-17 yrs old

Mother: 77%

Father: 27%

Friend: 22%

Don’t know what to do about a problem:

6-12 yrs old

Mother: 82%

Father: 32%

Friend: 6%

13-17 yrs old

Mother: 69%

Father: 30%

Friend: 29%

Note: Percentages do not add up to 100 because more than one answer was accepted.

Source: Whirlpool Foundation

For More Child Care Information

* An extensive list of child care resources and the complete Caring for Our Children series are available on The Times’ web site:

* American Psychological Assn., 750 First St. N.E., Washington, DC 20002-4242

The web site includes links to information on children and parenting:

* “Facts About Violence Among Youth and Violence in Schools” April 21, 1999 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

* Work-Family-Life Interactions provides parents, employers and employees access to information on balancing work and personal lives:

Compiled by MALOY MOORE / Los Angeles Times