Judith Rich Harris: Do Parents Matter?

Judith Rich Harris, a psychologist, was writing college textbooks on child development when she suddenly realized she didn’t believe what she was telling readers about why children turn out the way they do.

She had her own theory: that children are influenced more by their genes and peers than by their parents. It was a revolutionary thought and ran counter to what most psychologists — and most parents — believed. She wrote it up for an academic journal and won a prestigious prize from the American Psychological Association.

Ms. Harris, who died on Saturday at her home in Middletown, N.J., at 80, was dismissed by some. She did not have a doctorate, was not writing from an academic perch and was belittled by some critics as little more than “a grandmother from New Jersey.”

But with encouragement from others, she turned her article into a book, “The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do” (1998). It grabbed the world’s attention, became a best seller and caused a sensation in the news media.

I found the work of Judith Rich Harris invigorating and it has prompted me to challenge a long standing faith in the power of parents to influence children, and therefore the power of therapy to undo parents influence. I like that we are challenged to rethink dominant ideology and perhaps come up with new ways of thinking about who we are. CM