To the Editor:
In “What are Parents For?” [December 1998], Mary Eberstadt expresses an understandable frustration with America’s cult of scientific child-rearing and its tendency to reduce parenting to a utilitarian and technical exercise. And she does a masterful job of enumerating Judith Rich Harris’s many successful criticisms of conventional expert pronouncements in her book, The Nurture Assumption. However, Mrs. Eberstadt’s attempt to turn the book into a moral treatise on the “elemental simplicity” of the parent-child bond is like trying to turn B. F. Skinner into a latter-day Rousseau.
Mrs. Eberstadt writes that it “defies comprehension” that someone reading The Nurture Assumption would conclude that how parents treat their children is of no great import. But what else is a reader to make of Judith Rich Harris’s assertion that early experience is “irrelevant” to children once they step outside the house, or of statements like “Occasionally families do socialize their children. But usually they don’t”? And what other conclusion could be drawn from Mrs. Harris’s list of children who were abandoned, mistreated, or ignored but who nevertheless “turned out all right” and grew up to lead “effective lives”?
In fact, Mrs. Harris has publicly proclaimed her purpose in writing The Nurture Assumption, and it is strikingly at odds with Mrs. Eberstadt’s concerns. “I want to tell parents that it’s all right,” she told the New Yorker. “If they knew that it was OK to have a child and let it be reared by a nanny or put in a day-care center or even to send it to a boarding school, maybe they’d believe it would be OK to have a kid.” Doubtless most kids who go to boarding school or are reared by nannies “turn out all right.” But these words are far more consistent with those experts who are “putting children last,” to use the title of a previous article by Mrs. Eberstadt in these pages (May 1995), than with a philosopher interested in getting us to ponder the “elemental bond.”
Judith Rich Harris makes much of (and Mrs. Eberstadt seems impressed by) the fact that she is an outcast from the child-development priesthood. But between her announced purpose and her actual argument, it is clear that her book is a fine example of the hubris and shallowness that infects much research in the field. Like her colleagues, she is ready to draw broad, even radical, conclusions from meager data and pass them off as crystalline truth. And while she may question her colleagues’ conclusions, she never doubts their bald categories of human behavior, though they so poorly evoke the nuances of inner life. When she, as Mrs. Eberstadt notes, is unable to distinguish between “personality” and “character,” she demonstrates the limitations of her field. Research psychology is a business that can measure superficial behavior—impulsiveness, say, or aggression—but it has no way to measure the inner conflict that goes along with controlling these tendencies. Likewise, Mrs. Harris stays on the surface when she addresses the kinds of influence parents might have on children. She seems satisfied to define “turning out all right” as having husbands and wives, children and careers—becoming “socialized.” One study of Eritrean orphans, she informs us, found they too turned out OK. “The only important difference was that the orphans were unhappier.” Catch that word “only”
“Bad science in the service of a good cause is no service at all,” Mrs. Eberstadt tells us in criticism of America’s nearly century-long expert recitation of the idea that parents control their children’s development. But surely bad science in the service of a bad cause—the idea that it does not much matter what we do with our children—is even worse.
Kay S. Hymowitz
New York City
Mary Eberstadt writes:
The thoughtful letter of Kay S. Hymowitz amounts to a single polemical point: that Judith Rich Harris’s The Nurture Assumption is fatally flawed by its author’s supposed intention to produce a popular brief for parental laxity and neglect. This line of attack restates a theme popular among many of the book’s critics, who similarly chose to focus on Mrs. Harris and her supposed personal motivations rather than on the argument and analysis in her book.
I disagree with this approach, for two reasons. First, and most generally, it seems obvious to me that whatever Judith Rich Harris thought she was proving (and the record is more ambiguous here than the quotations from the New Yorker interview would indicate), the more interesting point is what her book does prove. The weight of argument, as I indicated in the piece, is “positively subversive” of some current cherished ideas, including the notion that prolonged parental absence, especially during the crucial early years of development, is not harmful.
Second, it seems that Kay Hymowitz, like many other critics, fails to grasp the purpose behind Judith Rich Harris’s observation that many neglected and even traumatized children do “turn out all right.” Such examples are produced in the book as evidence of a general point—that “there is no law of nature that says misery has to have sequelae.” In other words, if parents do indeed have the kind of power to determine their children’s lives that we commonly assume they do, then we should expect that battered children, for example, will invariably batter their own offspring; that the children of unhappy homes will go on, ipso facto, to form unhappy homes of their own; and so on. Yet obviously this does not always happen, and in fact happens much less frequently than any version of the nurture assumption would predict. To ask why, as Judith Rich Harris does, and to conclude from such an inquiry that parental influence is more limited than we commonly suppose it to be, is not at all the same thing as sanctioning neglect and abuse. To conflate these points as so many critics have chosen to do is a dereliction not easily explained.
Kay S. Hymowitz is right: The Nurture Assumption is no moral treatise. But it is surely legitimate to draw a moral from the book’s sustained and compelling attack on the past century or so of developmental psychology. As Judith Rich Harris herself summarizes her case near the end of her book: “Children are not empty canvases on which parents can paint their dreams. . . . Love your kids because kids are lovable, not because you think they need it.” Many people, as the debate over the book shows, have found this to be an amoral, perhaps even immoral idea. I believe, for reasons outlined in my essay, that it is something else—a bracing corrective to the current model of enlightened child-rearing, one whose main result thus far has been, however paradoxically, the production of a generation of the best-off, most driven, most worried-over, and most heavily-scheduled and -schooled neglected children in historical sight.