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Parents don’t matter?!

PARENTS DON’T MATTER!? – Perhaps a strange choice of topic just on the heels of Mother’s day!

If my last post is any indication, parents clearly do matter (“If you spare the rod do you spoil the child?” – the dangers of physical discipline). So what’s this “debate” all about? It’s an interesting look at a bit of research from Judith Harris, and you’d be surprised at how many good points she makes (even if she does support a rather extreme notion).

Before we get into her theory, we have to cover the basics. When talking about parenting outcomes we tend to think about nature and nurture; the environment – including parenting behaviors, social groups, physical place (all-encompassing nurture) versus the genetic forces (nature). With parental influence, though, we are only talking about a subsection of nurture. We tend to believe that this subsection accounts for a lot of behavior, but it might not!

My post on Gottlieb’s epigenesis describes the “nature versus nurture” debate in much more depth! 

Remember back when you were younger and still going school. If you were like me, you might have gone to a public school with a fairly large class. As I lived in the greater Houston area, my graduating class was over 500. I’ve met folks from larger and smaller schools, and we have all had a somewhat similar experience with our social groups.

If you were like me, you definitely valued your individualism, but you definitely didn’t want to be alienated. Alienation, that crushing feeling that you are all alone in your world, your views, your motivations, can really be devastating. Strangely, alienation is actually a sociological term coined by Marx in the 1800s, and psychologists may refer to it today as social isolation. Further, Durkheim’s research described links between alienation and suicides in his work in the late 1800s. It’s fairly obvious how such a force could lead to acute depression. That’s enough sociology for now – let’s get back to psychology!

Thinking back to your days in middle and high school, did you care about what people thought of you? I know I did not care what some people of my “out-group” thought of me, but the opinions of my “in-group” did matter. In social psychology, the out-group is seen a mostly heterogeneous mass of people who share a common factor. In truth, no group is so simply organized, but this is how we tend to group people automatically. Thus, I did not care what the “jocks” thought of me, I did not care what the “preps” thought of me, I did not care what the “punks” thought of me, but I did care what the “band nerds” thought of me. Ah yes, I was in band, and I was proud to be a geek. I saw my friends as unique and interesting individuals whose time I enjoyed. If they thought I was annoying, a burden, a jerk, or anything negative, I would attempt to change my behavior to be more accepted.

I think it’s fair to say we don’t expect to be liked by everyone, but we did have a group to which we belonged. Whether it was 100 people, or just a small handful of close friends, we wanted to be accepted by the people who matter to us.

Now in my explanation just now, I hope you were able to imagine those people who helped shaped who you are. I didn’t mention your parents at all, because let’s face it – Did you care more about your friends’ opinions about your behaviors, or your parents? You actually spent more time with your peer group than you did at home (if we exclude the hours you sleep of course). Even when your parents were home, they probably didn’t devote every second to you and they probably didn’t need to anyways. Most of us could handle ourselves on our own to a large degree.

This is essentially the point Harris is making. Our peer groups play a larger role in shaping our identity once we start going to school regularly. After successful attachment, we are going to be exposed to an environment which punishes and rewards certain behavior in a social manner. Our species fails to thrive in states of alienation (or social isolation), thus we tend to follow the expectations of our peer group more often than not. Granted, we tend to align ourselves with peer groups with which we share a lot in common in the first place. Otherwise we experience a lot of dissonance between our natural personality and the one forcing us to use free traits (See Brian Little’s Free Trait theory).

Here’s an example from Harris’ book, “The Nature Assumption.” Below we see five groups with different levels of externalizing behaviors (acting aggressively towards one’s peers either verbally or physically). Three of the groups are receiving an in-home intervention to help reduce externalizing behaviors, while the control groups are not receiving any intervention. One intervention group focused on the parents’ behavior at home (parent focus), another group focused on the teen behavior at home (Teen Focus), another group combined an intervention for parent & teen behavior at home (Parent & Teen group), and there were two control groups with differing levels of externalizing that received no intervention.

Harris Cropped

The chart may seem a bit confusing. We would expect that the “Parent,” “Teen,” and “Parent & Teen” groups would show a reduction in externalizing behaviors one year later, but they do not. We see that the control groups have the lowest level of externalizing behaviors. According to Harris, we are observing random fluctuations over time. Some may argue that the intervention simply wasn’t good enough, but to Harris, the outcome that was observed is essentially the only outcome that we should expect (a random outcome) when the intervention takes place in the wrong context.
That is just one example of parental influences not being observed. A few more examples are outlined in this video clip from Steven Pinker who summarizes Harris’ point of view and provides more research evidence about the limitations of parental influence.

It does sound like parent’s do not do much after successful attachment. Certainly, extremely negative parenting styles will change the behavior of the child, but according to Harris’ view, we wouldn’t expect much of an effect on behavior in the absence of trauma.

Judith Harris and other researchers fail to mention one very special ability that parents have that can drastically shape the child. The parent has the authority and power (if within their means) to change the environment to which the child will be exposed. If a parent feels that the wrong behaviors will be encouraged in a given environment, they may be best to change environments. If one school is notorious for violent behaviors, criminal activity, and drug abuse, while another local school is not, why risk exposing the child to those behaviors? Once again, not everyone has this option, but it is one powerful effect which the parent can control.

A few other factors are not mentioned by Harris. Parental involvement, for example, is correlated with academic success (Houtenville & Conway 2008) That is, parents who are aware of the child’s current school work, goals, projects, tests, and grades are considered to be involved. Children with involved parents typically have higher scores in school, and clearly your scores in school certainly change your opportunities.

In my most recent post, physical discipline was shown to have negative outcomes. I discussed how it leads to an increase in externalizing behavior to their peers, and other behavioral problems. Clearly, the behavior of the parents absolutely matters, but it is probably not as powerful as we thought it was.

As we can see, there is a lot that can be debated with this topic. As I mentioned before, Harris’ work shows us one factor that parents can use to their advantage (even though it’s more of a blind spot in her theory). The parent has executive control over what the child is experiencing. If a parent sees the wrong behaviors occurring, a simple (and sometimes not so simple) change in environment can drastically change the developmental trajectory.

Parents clearly do matter, but not always in the way we expect!


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