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Caring for Our Children

Debate Rises on Parents' Influence Over Children

Much-criticized thesis that their effect is nil gained ground after Littleton, Colo., massacre. New studies focus on peer pressure.


WASHINGTON — Does parenting really matter?

When Judith Rich Harris published a book late last year arguing that it did not, she mostly drew cries of outrage and disbelief.

Then came the Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colo. The massacre carried out by two adolescents from families with no apparent signs of dysfunction startled child-development experts. Harris' contention that peers, not parents, shape children's personalities suddenly got a new look, in the process reigniting the age-old argument over nature versus nurture.

Cliques, Adolescent Rejection Studied

New studies are pouring out.

The U.S. surgeon general, in a report on school violence that President Clinton ordered after Littleton, is expected to focus on the roles of classroom cliques, adolescent rejection and school size.

The National Research Council--a consortium of scientists that advises the federal government on academic research--recently hosted two professional groups that rarely meet together--criminologists and experts on early childhood development--to talk about peer group influence. The Carnegie Corp. is midway through a six-year study mapping the causes and consequences of conflict among teens.

Although the reasons the two Littleton teens went on a rampage are far from clear, many parents are reassessing the balance of power between them and their children's friends and tormentors.

Harris' thesis in "The Nurture Assumption" is that after an all-too-brief period of babyhood, the tribal--and sometimes secret--world of a child's friends and schoolmates exerts a potent and even decisive influence.

Mary Moore of Torrance, a teacher and a mother of 10- and 14-year-old boys, said in a telephone interview that the Littleton massacre "brought this idea a little closer to home"--that children's friends often overwhelm the best efforts of their parents.

"I don't think it would ever happen to mine," she added with trepidation. "But it's real tough to call."

For mothers like Moore and academics as well, there is cold comfort in the theory that a child's "real" world exists separately and hews to different rules than that of his parents. But how else to explain the murderous rampage of two teenagers who appeared to have experienced what one psychologist called "parenting within the normal range"?

As the picture of children and their worlds comes into sharper focus, scholars hope that they can begin to construct a science with some predictive powers. Although predicting a school shooting will almost certainly be beyond them, they hope at least to identify the conditions that make such violent outbursts more likely.

Within the psychology establishment, "what's been underappreciated, underdiscussed, is the role of context, peers being a subcategory," said Cornell University's James Garbarino, author of "Lost Boys: Why Our Sons Turn Violent and What We Can Do About Them." Columbine presents an example of "a kind of evil chemistry," he said, combining elements of troubled youth, toxic environment and peer dynamics.

Harris' own experience as a parent was instrumental in leading her to the thesis that a parent's power "ends at the front door." The mother of two daughters--one hers by biology, the second by adoption--she struggled to understand why her second child turned out so differently from her first, since both had the same kind of parenting. Harris began to focus on the two factors--genes and peer groups--that distinguished them from one another. As she did so, she grew to question the research that standard psychology texts, including ones she had written, cite as evidence of parents' influence over children.

"I believed the evidence too. But then I looked at it more closely and to my considerable surprise it fell apart in my hands," Harris wrote.

In her book, Harris reviewed several decades of research in the fields of behavioral genetics and socialization, finding no direct evidence that a parent's behavior toward his or her child has "any important long-term effect."

By contrast, she wrote, a vast body of research from studies of the effects of spanking to comparisons of identical twins reared apart demonstrates the decisive influence of genes and peers.

"Parenting matters zilch," she said recently. Asked what lesson parents should take from the Columbine shootings, the New Jersey author, now a grandmother, added: "I think parents are already doing the best they can. They should continue to do it and worry a little bit less about it."

Although resistance to Harris' thesis has softened, she still has plenty of critics. "What she says is just silly," said Jerome Kagan, Harvard University's venerable child psychologist. "Any parent knows that intuitively."

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