Thursday, April 10, 2008

Some Thoughts on "The Nurture Assumption" Ch. 1

I'm afraid it just took me chapter 1 of Judith Rich Harris' "The Nurture Assumption" to see where the argument is going and where the flaw in reasoning occurs. It especially occurs in the first two of her three observations that bothered her (10) -- the third being a complaint about Freudianism that is mostly justified.

The first observation was that the children of immigrants speak and dress "like ordinary American kids." The second observation was that upper-class British males, though raised away from their fathers, ended up behaving like them. She uses these to debunk the "nurture assumption" but fails to notice a pattern underlying both situations: expectations.

My wife is Mexican-American and a teacher, and she has observed that in homes where parents expect their children to learn perfect English, they do; but in homes where there is no such expectation, they children typically speak both bad English and bad Spanish. The recent trend in schools not expecting children to assimilate has made this problem worse. Those homes which expect their children to learn good English and good Spanish produce children who can indeed do both. Now certainly in a home where only Spanish is spoken, or English is spoken but poorly, the children will have to get the better English elsewhere, but it is the parents' expectation which results in the English spoken being good or bad, with or without an accent, or being present at all.

I can also use a personal example of this. My mother was from South Bend, Indiana and spoke with a neutral midwestern accent. My father was from Kentucky and, when I was four, our family moved from Indiana to Kentucky. When I came home from Kindergarten one day, I said that I'd seen a "dawg." My mother's response: "You know how to say 'dog' properly." Her expectation was that my brother and I would speak without an accent and, despite the fact that everyone around us spoke with a Southern accent, we met her expectation. Harris cannot possibly explain this with her theory. I tin fact refutes it soundly.

We can see this too in the examples Harris gives. THe Russian parents emigrated to the U.S. to assimilate into American culture. Thus, they expect their children to assimilate -- and they do. Parents who don't expect their children to assimilate have children who don't -- at least, not completely. If the parents expect their children to retain certain Russian holidays or customs, those children will more often than not retain them. And if we take the example of the British upper class, everyone's expectation -- from the nanny to the school teachers -- is that the boys will all grow up to act like a gentleman. And the boys typically don't disappoint.

Naturally, not all expectations can be met. You can't get a child with a 100 IQ to become a quantum physicist simply through your expectation of him to become one. That is too specific an expectation. Rarely do children meet our narrow expectations, but they do at least try to meet our broad expectations. My parents expected me to go to college, and I did. There was also the expectation that I would become a doctor or a lawyer. I have a Ph.D. in the humanities. Sometimes a child faces conflicting expectations -- sometimes from those who are raising them. My wife was raised by her grandparents, who expected her to start working right out of high school and to not attend college. But they also let her attend a magnet high school that was designed to prepare her for college. She managed to meet their unstated expectations rather than their stated expectations -- actions speak louder than words. Children rarely disappoint us in meeting unstated expectations.

Harris does touch on this in chapter 1, but uses it to disprove "socialization," where we tell children not to act like adults. Again, she fails to see the larger pattern in the specifics given. Everything we teach a child to do or not to do has later applications as a basic principle. As a child becomes older and more responsible, the specific rules change, though the general rule never does. My 16 month old toddler will walk down the aisle of a store and not grab a thing, even though she has seen her mother and I shop. It's because I taught her not to touch anything not hers. This will get expanded to "without someone's permission" as she gets older, so she will be able to play well with others and not be rude to others -- we still retain this if we see something we like at someone's house and ask, "Do you mind if I look at this?" It thus teaches respect for other people's things, meaning as adults they don't take things without permission, etc. Children not taught not to touch things grow up to be adults who take things without permission and show a general disrespect for people's things. So a specific rule for a child is shown to develop into a broader rule for adults, contra Harris' thesis. She's so concerned abut the specifics of each tree, she fails to see the forest.

The rest of the book should be interesting.
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