A Parent’s Most Important Job

I remember clearly the when I first read The Tipping Point. The book was a good read and thought-provoking, but I remember the book most clearly because of a small section near the end:

This [study] is, if you think about it, a rather extraordinary finding. Most of us believe that we are like our parents because of some combination of genes and, more important, of nurture — that parents, to a large extent, raise us in their own image. But if that is the case, if nurture matters so much, then why did the adopted kids not resemble their adoptive parents at all? The Colorado study isn’t saying that genes explain everything and that environment doesn’t matter. On the contrary, 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.

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? The answer has always been that language is a skill acquired laterally — that what children pick up from other children is as, or more, important in the acquisition of language as what they pick up at home. What Harris argues is that this is also true more generally, that the environmental influence that helps children become who they are ‒that shapes their character and personality — is their peer group.

Expressed this way, I think it’s easy to come to the wrong conclusion: that parents have little influence over their children. A more useful inference would be:

A parent’s most important duty is to find the best possible peers for their children.

Atom Feed for Comments 5 Responses to “A Parent’s Most Important Job”

  1. Eric Shepherd Says:

    Hear, hear!

  2. graydon Says:

    Yeah. I read a curious set of studies on heritability of intelligence once (mostly searching for counter-arguments to people telling me I ought to have kids) and it summarized the known results similarly: that siblings who treat one another as peers (due to age similarity, say) wind up being the most closely correlated. Closer than parent-child correlation you see in in either adoptive (“all nurture”) or biological (“all nature”) studies that try to model such things as heritable. It’s all about the social environment you set up for the kid.

    (Curiously: performance correlation for socially connected, same-stage siblings was closer than either single person correlated against *themselves*, at different periods of their own life!)

    Of course, if you happen to create a social environment for your kids that’s similar to the one you got, naturally you’ll see a parent-child correlation. But it’s circumstantially mediated.

  3. Mysterious Andy Says:

    If the rest of the book is as interesting then I definitely need to put “The Tipping Point” on my to-read list. Assuming the findings are correct (and they seem to match the data), your conclusion has given me some real food for thought.

    As a brand new father, I find myself thinking a lot about what sort of role and impact I’ll have as I raise my son. My hope at this point is that I can teach him to be a rational, independent thinker without being overly jaded or cynical. I guess this means I need to nudge him towards situations and social circles that will reinforce this.

  4. Lukas Says:

    I read some of Judith Harris’ book, after reading this part of The Tipping Point – she agrees with you – that is the best thing you can do for your children, is to surround them with positive role models.

  5. atotic Says:

    In the early years you are the most important peer. As the time goes on, your influence will wane. My belief is that the early years will influence the kinds of peers they pick. You will not pick their peers, they will. Our kid has been showing strong preferences for certain kids since about 18 months.

    I have a 2 1/2 year old, and we are a work-AH dad, and stay-AH mom. Spending as much time as possible with the kid has worked out really well for us. The amount of work is brutal. It is really hard to find non-family help willing to give it 100% all of the time.

    There is so much kids literature out there, you can find advocates for every point of view. I enjoyed the scientific bent of “What’s Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life” by Lise Eliot, PhD.

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