Are your students misbehaving? Teacher handbooks, school of education gurus and school administrators agree: The first course of action for the frazzled teacher is to get on the phone to parents. If a student disrupts class, tell his parents to make him stop. If a child is lazy, ask them to help you get him working. But new psychological research suggests that this classic tack is a waste of everybody's time.
In her book "The Nurture Assumption," Judith Harris, self-styled nonacademic and author of college textbooks on child development, now suggests that it is peers much more than parents who shape children's behavior. Mom and dad provide the genes, but beyond that there is minimal connection between their own and their child's character.
Harris' research, which has been praised by such luminaries as Stanford's Robert Sapolsky and MIT's Steven Pinker, explodes the myth that children are influenced by a combination of nature and nurture. She argues that 50 years of focusing on child-rearing techniques as the basis for understanding children's behavior has blinded psychologists to the influence peers have in shaping character. Harris calls this the "nurture assumption."
While the American Psychological Assn. reels over the implications of her theory, no high school teacher I know will be much surprised. Like many of my colleagues, I have never had much luck changing student behavior through parent intervention. More often than not, I dial the phone hoping to get help with persuading a teenager to exhibit a bit of self-control and instead find myself counseling frustrated parents. Mothers tend to apologize profusely as though they are the ones who have let me down. Fathers interrupted at work assure me that everything will be "handled." I worry that rather than solving a problem, I have created a new one.