tl;dr: I explore the ideas of Judith Rich Harris as they apply to the roles of parents and schools in Howard County, Maryland, and elsewhere.

How exactly do schools and parents matter? To what degree are the actions of parents responsible for how their children turn out, and how? What do children really learn in school, and what might they learn? And how do these questions relate to issues that Howard County is facing today, including housing affordability, school redistricting, raising students’ test scores, and the like?

Judith Rich Harris was once a Harvard graduate student in psychology before being kicked out of the program on the grounds that she would not “develop into our professional stereotype of what an experimental psychologist should be.” Prevented by chronic illness from obtaining her doctorate elsewhere, she first found employment as a writer of psychology textbooks and then began a second career as a independent researcher after coming to disbelieve conventional wisdom about the role of parents in child development. Her death last December at the age of 80 prompted me to explore her work and write this post.

Nothing that Harris wrote, or that I write here, should be taken as gospel. The state of psychology as a science right now is very unsettled, and (as I discuss below) it will likely take some while for the discipline to come to a consensus on how well Harris’s ideas explain the world. But her ideas are certainly plausible and consistent with other things we know about family, school, and society, so if nothing else you can consider this an interesting thought experiment about how the world might be different than we think, and our education and related policies likewise different.

How do parents affect their children’s development?

Harris’s chief interest as a researcher was in how children develop their personalities and become socialized to live and work in the world. Why is this such an important topic?

In my “seven answers” article on liberty and equality I discussed how even in the world of Major League Baseball, in which everyone might be expected to perform at an equally high level, there are large differences in players’ performances. Some of these can be chalked up to differences in raw athletic ability, but others are plausibly due to differences in personality and resulting behavior: how willing are players to practice? Do they listen to their coaches’ instructions and follow them? Are they leaders in the clubhouse, or disruptive to team cohesion?

As in baseball, so in life: conscientiousness, likeability, willingness to cooperate, and other factors help determine how successful people will be in their careers. Other aspects of personality, like altruism, community spirit, kindness, and so on, affect our judgements of how morally good a person is.

The traditional view (which is actually relatively recent in historical terms) is that parents’ guidance is the most important factor in molding children’s personalities: that if children are studious or kind it is supposedly because their parents “raised them right,” and if they fall short in any area then it is allegedly due to their parents failing to do their job.

In the course of writing psychology textbooks and reviewing the research on which they were based, Harris concluded that the traditional view was wrong: that parents’ actions in and of themselves have relatively little influence in how their children turn out, and that to the extent children resemble their parents in personality it is in large part because parents pass those personality traits on to them, in the same way parents pass on their facial features and hair color.

Harris spends much of her book The Nurture Assumption building the case for this. One key argument has to do with children who are adopted: that such children’s personalities do not typically resemble those of other children born into the same families, while identical twins have similar personalities even if they are adopted into other families and raised apart. In baseball terms, it’s unlikely that the average Little Leaguer would have become an MLB prospect if adopted by Ken Griffey, Sr. However, it’s likely that Ken Griffey, Jr., would have found athletic success even away from his father’s influence, if he had been given the opportunity to develop his talent (a key point to which I’ll return).

This is not to say that parents do not and cannot positively influence their children in any way—an extreme position that many of Harris’s critics ascribed to her, and a reaction that she herself sometimes inadvertently provoked by taking an “everything you know is wrong” attitude.

First, parents can and should provide their children the things we’d expect all children to have in a civilized society: adequate food and shelter, medical care, physical security and freedom from abuse of all kinds, and so on.

It is in turn the mark of a civilized society that it makes it possible for all parents to do this: that parents can earn wages sufficient to provide for their families (or be financially assisted if they cannot), that they can provide health care to their children without bankrupting themselves, that their homes and water supplies are free of lead and other poisons harmful to children’s development, and that they are subject to a system of policing that both protects and respects their persons.

Parents also influence their children by their actions in acknowledging and reinforcing the personalities already inherent in the children: if a child appears to be studious and interested in reading their parents buy them books and take them to libraries, if they show artistic inclinations their parents take them to the theater and museums, and if they like physical activity their parents play with them more and sign them up for youth sports.

This behavior is very much influenced by the parents’s own inherent personalities passed down to their offspring: for example, parents who are athletic will tend to have children who are also athletic, and then (being athletic themselves) will tend to further encourage those children in athletic activities. But again the larger society also plays a role, by providing opportunities for parents to influence their children in these ways, for example by funding public playgrounds and athletic fields.

Finally, through their actions parents can influence the behavior of children within the family itself, including children’s attitudes toward their parents: parents who treat their children with kindness and respect will be more likely than harsh and cruel parents to have their children respect them and treat them kindly in turn. This influence may not carry over into children’s behavior in the outside world—indeed Harris argues that children’s behavior in the outside world often bears little or no similarity to their behavior in the home—but it can improve the quality of the parent-child relationship.

How does the outside world influence children’s development?

If parents do not greatly influence their children’s personalities (beyond whatever personality traits were passed down from parent to child at birth), what does?

Harris contended that the major influence on children’s personality development and socialization is the world outside their families, and in particular the peers they encounter at school and elsewhere. One of Harris’s key arguments is based on the example of language learning, particularly when parents are immigrants and speak a different language than society at large.

Immigrant parents may speak their own language at home, and their children will learn that language and use it when speaking to their parents. However at the same time those children will learn the language of the outside world, because it is the language spoken by the other children who are their peers, and they will adopt the accent, vocabulary, and vocal mannerisms characteristic of those peers.

Harris explained this by pointing out that the ultimate goal of children, the goal that drives their behavior, is not to succeed at home (which they will someday leave), but to succeed in the wider world outside the home. To achieve that goal children emulate other children of their own age or slightly older, modeling their own behavior on theirs. They also categorize themselves in relation to other children, and join peer groups consistent with those categorizations: the studious child becomes a “nerd,” the athletic child allies themself with the “jocks,” and so on.

In modern societies the place where children encounter other children is in school, and therefore the school environment is the primary driver of children’s socialization, together with after-school environments both in-person and (increasingly) online—both of which are often just continuations of school interactions in other contexts.

What roles does this leave for parents, if they wish their children to develop into successful adults? The first possibility is that parents can indirectly help influence their children by the parents’ actions in the larger world. Children emulate older children, who in turn emulate older children still, until children who are almost adults emulate actual adults. Thus the values and attitudes of the parents’ neighborhood and the broader society flow down and become the values and attitudes of children. To the extent that parents can help shape those values and attitudes, they help shape those of their children.

However parents are severely limited in how much they can do. Whatever they themselves can do in the home or in the world is far outweighed by the influence exerted by others. In the final analysis they have little power to stop their children adopting the values and attitudes of their peers, just as immigrant parents cannot stop their children from learning the languages spoken outside the home.

What parents can realistically hope to do is to help determine who their children’s peers are, by their choices of where to live and where to send their children to school. This plays out in various ways depending on the parents’ income.

Wealthy parents have it the easiest: they can afford to live anywhere, and to send their children to exclusive private schools in which they will encounter only other children of the wealthy (and perhaps a few carefully-selected scholarship students).

Parents at the other end of the income spectrum have it the hardest: it is difficult for them to move to places other than where they grew up, and if they are not satisfied with their children’s school experiences then their only hope is that someone else will provide them a no-cost alternative, like the choice of a public school in a different neighborhood or a publicly-funded charter school.

Middle-income parents have a different strategy: They cannot necessarily afford to send their children to private schools, but they are able to move to jurisdictions where the public schools are filled with the children of other middle-income parents with similar values and attitudes. Those other children will then be their own children’s peers and (collectively) the primary influence on their values and attitudes.

This is the dynamic that has played out in Howard County: educated middle-class parents are attracted to the county by housing and job opportunities, and they pass on their talents and personalities to their children. Those children are then successful in Howard County public schools in large part due to those talents and personalities and their reinforcement by the presence of other children with similar talents and personalities. Howard County public schools then get a reputation as “good schools,” yet more educated middle-class parents are attracted to the county based on that reputation, and the cycle begins again.

This would seem to be an entirely positive dynamic, but it has its unfortunate aspects. First, it ties parents’ hopes for their children to the schools they attend, and to the neighborhoods within those school’s attendance boundaries. This makes fights over Howard County school redistricting more divisive than they otherwise might be.

Moving students from one school to another does not just change students’ teachers, it changes the peer groups that determine students’ socialization. Some parents may be concerned about their children being moved to a school with students whose values and attitudes may be different (or at least perceived to be so), and other parents may be concerned about the possibility of such students being moved into their own children’s schools.

This dynamic also makes Howard County less affordable and less open to those pursuing upward mobility. As Howard County becomes more known for its “good schools” (which would be better termed “schools with good students”) that increases the demand for housing, which in the absence of increased housing supply will raise the prices of houses and apartments in the county. This in turn means that the county will become affordable only to those of higher incomes, or in other words people who have the talents and personalities that are a good fit for jobs enabling them to command such incomes.

The Central Branch of the Howard County Library System in downtown Columbia recently hosted an “Undesign the Redline” exhibit tracing the history of legal and corporate attempts to restrict housing opportunities in the United States by race. The library’s hosting the exhibit was consistent with the founding story of Columbia as a “garden for growing people” (to quote its founder Jim Rouse), open to people of all races and income levels.

The experience of Howard County today, now past Columbia’s 50th birthday, shows that it is possible for similar patterns of residential segration to emerge in a more spontaneous manner. Unlike past redlining these new patterns are ostensibly race-neutral (because they are based on household income) and the restrictions on housing supply and housing types that drive them can be justified as supporting worthy goals like preventing school overcrowding, reducing over-development and the influence of developers, ensuring adequate public facilities, preserving open space, and protecting the character of the county and its neighborhoods.

Is it possible to break this cycle, to make Howard County once again affordable to a wider range of people and ensure that Columbia will fulfill Jim Rouse’s vision? That is a longer discussion than this article can contain, but surely part of the solution is to ensure that all Howard County schools are equally attractive to parents, so that some neighborhoods are not disadvantaged relative to others, and that all parents can feel good about the socialization their children will undergo in those schools.

How can schools do this, above and beyond their ostensible function of teaching students academic knowledge that will (supposedly) be useful to them as adults. At a minimum they should provide what we would expect parents to provide: an environment in which students are adequately cared for and are safe from physical and emotional abuse of various kinds, including bullying both off-line and on-line.

We’d also expect schools to provide an environment in which learning of all kinds is supported, and in which students who wish to learn are able to do so without interference or interruption. What can schools do to ensure this? Harris had some relatively unformed ideas about this, and I speculate about this a bit in the next section.

How can schools help children succeed?

Going back to my baseball example, suppose we lived in a country where playing baseball were the only way to succeed in society, with anyone who couldn’t play baseball at a high level unlikely to rise out of poverty. Suppose also that politicians in that country urged children facing such poor prospects to “learn to hit or pitch,” and proposed to help them succeed by providing every child free tuition to baseball camps.

Most people would probably consider this to be an inadequate response to the problem, and such a country to be a less than ideal place for children to grow up. (In fact, there are countries where lack of economic development means that playing baseball is the only way out of poverty. We don’t consider generally consider those countries as models for the US to emulate.)

What does this have to do with child development? In addition to considering personality attributes passed down from parent to child, and socialization of children by their peer environment, Judith Rich Harris also sought to understand why children develop different personalities even in cases (as with identical twins) where we might expect their personalities to be very similar.

In her book No Two Alike Harris argued that the answer to this question lies in children’s quest for status within the groups to which they belong. Per Harris, socialization within peer groups causes children’s values and attitudes to match those of their peers, but achieving higher status requires that they act in ways that make them stand out from their peers.

This in turn drives the evolution of children’s personalities: for example, the child who is studious and rewarded for doing well in academic subjects is motivated to study more, and the child whose extraversion and likeability makes them popular will seek more opportunities to display those attributes and achieve further popularity. This evolution is influenced not just by children’s own personality predispositions, but also by the socialization they receive (e.g., do the child’s peers consider academic or athletic success to be something worth pursuing?) and the opportunities open to them.

Our schools can then be seen not just as an environment for children’s socialization, but also as providing a set of opportunities for children to measure themselves against others and achieve higher status in one way or another. If that set of opportunities is relatively limited then children will seek other ways to achieve status, some of which may not be desirable from the point of view of the school or of society at large.

My tentative conclusion is then that our schools should not be like the countries where baseball is the only path to success. In addition to providing a positive environment for children’s socialization and a grounding in topics everyone should know (mainly basic literacy and numeracy), schools should strive to provide as many opportunities as possible for children to find something they’re good at and pursue the achievement of status in positive ways. Beyond traditional academic subjects for the studious and sports for the athletic, that might include opportunities for students to express themselves through arts of various kinds, to work with their hands, to learn how to run a business, to learn how to care for others, and so on.

Opportunities like this are often a feature of today’s schools, but they exist at the margin, under constant threat of funding cuts (like the arts), seen as less prestigious and desirable (like vocational programs), and in general considered to detract from the primary goal of driving children’s academic achievement as measured by standardized test scores.

Fully implementing the vision above would thus require a total rethinking of the way schools are organized, especially in late middle school and high school, corresponding to the years in which (according to Harris) children develop their adult personalities. It would also require a different way of measuring the success of schools and teachers—or perhaps abandoning the idea of measurement entirely, beyond ensuring that schools meet some base-line goals in terms of providing a safe and supportive environment for students.

Of course such a major rework of schools could not occur in a vacuum. Beyond state and Federal educational policies that might hamper such a change, it’s of no use for schools to offer alternative paths to students if society at large does not value people who take those paths. There must be opportunities and (if needed) support for them to live lives of dignity and worth and to provide for themselves and their families. I addressed this topic in other posts, so I won’t comment further on it here.

Looking to the future

As I mentioned at the beginning, this post is a thought experiment: if Judith Rich Harris was correct then these are some implications for parents, schools, and society. I happen to think her theories are plausible, but at present they are not generally accepted, particularly by the people who are most concerned with child development and who drive education policy.

Could this change, and if so, how long might such a change take? At this point it’s been over twenty years since Harris first laid out her hypotheses and the arguments for them. I suspect it may be almost as long until Harris is definitively proved right or wrong to the satisfaction of most of the people whose opinions count, and perhaps longer than that for her ideas (if correct) to be reflected in education policy.

First, people deemed to be child development experts would have to come to a consensus that children resemble their parents in personality and talents for the same reason they resemble them in appearance. As consumer DNA testing becomes more popular and its applications move beyond those that are primarily ancestry-focused or entertainment-oriented (“wine recommendations . . . scientifically selected based on your DNA”), it’s possible that ordinary people will come to this conclusion before most experts do.

Second, psychologists would need to test and confirm (or disprove) Harris’s ideas regarding children’s socialization and personality development. Right now psychology as a discipline is in the midst of a battle over whether past experiments underlying accepted theories were actually conducted properly,1 and what if anything needs to be done to put psychological theories on a sounder scientific footing. Resolving these controversies will take some time, and probably depend to a large degree on researcher turnover within the field.

Finally, even if Harris’s ideas come to be accepted by experts and ordinary people alike, policymakers will not respond to those ideas until they have some compelling reason to do so. For now policymakers appear to be committed to the idea that what America needs most are more STEM professionals, that the primary if not only goal of our educational system should be to provide them, and that we can best measure public schools’ success in promoting that goal through students’ scores on standardized tests and their acceptance into four-year colleges and universities.

Policymakers will likely change their minds only if and when that strategy clearly proves insufficient to address the challenges that the Americans will face in the 21st century. I wrote this post in the belief that that day will come.

For further exploration

The best source for information on Judith Rich Harris is the web site maintained by her husband Charles Harris. The site includes a biography of Harris and an extensive set of links to articles and related material for her two major works, The Nurture Assumption and No Two Alike.

Geting the full flavor of Harris’s argument really requires reading her books, since popular summarizations often distort what she was saying—most notably that she claimed that “parents don’t matter” in any way whatsoever. However if you don’t have time to read the books here are some sources in which Harris defends her theories in her own words:

If you do have time to read Harris’s books, the first part of No Two Alike recaps the arguments of The Nurture Assumption, so reading that book alone might seem like a shortcut. However some people might not like the way No Two Alike is structured (like a mystery novel), and the book omits the in-depth discussion in The Nurture Assumption of how Harris came to believe that conventional theories of child development were incorrect.

Finally, those who like Malcolm Gladwell’s popularizations can read his New Yorker profile of Harris, “Do Parents Matter?” written on the eve of publication of The Nurture Assumption.

  1. As one example, Harris herself often referenced the results of the 1950s “Robbers Cave” experiment in which boys at a summer camp were organized into two groups that subsequently fell into conflict. More recently the researchers conducting that experiment have been accused of deliberately manipulating the results, including ignoring previous experiments that failed to support their preconceived theory. ↩︎