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Raising children for the wrong reasons

Pulling the Wool
    By Ben McGrath

headshotAmericans, contrary to the "fat-and-lazy" stereotype often heaped upon us by foreigners, are an aggressive bunch when it comes to child-rearing. So much so, in fact, that we tend to get carried away with our kids' countable achievements and successes and lose sight of what parenting is all about.

Soon after researchers at the University of California at Irvine concluded that preschoolers who listen to classical music (Mozart in particular) develop stronger spatial reasoning skills than those who don't, the governor of Georgia instituted a program through which every newborn in the state is sent home from the hospital with a free compact disc entitled, "Build Your Baby's Brain Through the Power of Music." One company marketing a kids' video by the name of Baby Mozart (a sequel to its first hit, Baby Einstein) makes even greater claims: early exposure to classical music can also have a positive impact on physical health, improve coordination, and boost immune functions, among other things. Parents, you see, are wasting no time these days in preparing their children for success.

A controversial new book suggests, however, that such aggressive parenting may be futile. In The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do; Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More, Judith Rich Harris argues that traditional wisdom has greatly overemphasized the role parents play in a child's development. Genetic inheritance and peer groups are the factors almost entirely responsible, she claims, for the way children turn out. Parents of Ivy-Leaguers should stop patting themselves on the back, and parents of delinquents should rest easier.

The book has understandably upset a number of people, especially conservative pundits who have been lamenting the rise in unwed mothers and divorce rates. Had this book come out a few years earlier, Murphy Brown might have escaped the charges leveled against her by Dan Quayle. Moreover, roughly half of all movies shown on Lifetime--about the heart-wrenching effects of bitter custody battles, parental abuse, and the like--would be invalid.

I'm not qualified to say anything about the science involved in Harris's theory (I haven't even taken Intro Psych), but like most people I've spoken with, I disagree with its central argument at the intuitive level. I like to think that the way my mom reacted when I lied about having practiced the piano while she was at the supermarket had a greater impact on my life than did the time I spent with my hockey team throwing eggs at cars. I'm also grateful to have grown up in a stable, two-parent family.

But, the relative validity of Harris' argument aside, what's most interesting about The Nurture Assumption is the defeatist reaction it has elicited, one which reveals an overly pragmatic and success-driven approach to raising children. A writer for The Seattle Times reacted, "Great. I'll just turn over the keys to the house and the car to my 14-year-old and his friends and leave for an extended vacation." Other critics have feared that child abuse and neglect may increase if a "parents don't matter" philosophy is accepted. But why is this the case? Do we view parenting as such a measurable job or chore that the minute we discover we have less control over the final results than we think, we throw up our hands in despair? Or worse still, take out our frustrations with those same hands?

Raising children may be tough at times, but I thought it was supposed to be rewarding and bring joy, or else so many people wouldn't bother in the first place. Not being able to guarantee our children successful business careers shouldn't lead us to jeopardize their safety (as the Seattle writer was inclined to do by leaving his teenager unsupervised). Don't we (most of us, I hope) refrain from beating our children because it's cruel and not simply because it could hurt their chances of marrying well?

Harris, it turns out, is guilty of the same obssessive attitude toward parenting despite her unusual conclusions. And she does believe parents can make a significant difference in one thing: their children's appearance. Clothe your children in the going fashions, she argues, so as not to make them appear different. That way, they'll be accepted by the "right" kind of peer group. If they look particularly odd--and your health insurance is extensive enough--she even recommends plastic surgery.

After all, as she told Newsweek, the "goal should be to make [children] look as normal and attractive as possible." That's fine if your goal is to manipulate your child's identity--even if it comes at the expense of his originality. But I suspect that if Mozart's parents had followed such advice a long time ago, we wouldn't be listening to his music today.

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