By: Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

A fierce controversy is raging these days over how much influence parents really have over their children. Judy Rich Harris, author of “The Nurture Assumption,” draws an unsettling conclusion from her analysis that parents have no lasting effect on the personality, intelligence or mental health of their offspring. That’s quite a statement, huh? According to the U.S.A. Today, Harris’ book has “launched the hottest debate over nature and nurture in years.” Newsweek recently did a cover story on her work.

According to Harris, children are most influenced by their peers. They adopt many behaviors of their peers in social settings in order to be accepted by their peers. She goes on to say that children’s interaction with their peers permanently modifies their inborn psychological characteristics. Thus, what they learn outside the home remains steadfast with them thorough adulthood. So, if there is a psychological characteristic or behavior that you don’t like about yourself, don’t blame your parents because you might have acquired it from your peers.

From the days of Freud, the foundation of psychological work has been based on the theory that parents are a major influence on children and that they significantly contribute to the psychological characteristics that children acquire as adults. Folk wisdom also supports the experts on this one.

All of us, sometime or the other make such statements as, “As the father is, so is the son or, as the mother is, so is the daughter.” Thus, we have psychological theory and folk wisdom on one hand that emphasize the importance of nurturing, and Harris, on the other, who totally minimizes the importance of child raising methods and the family genes. This is confusing. Who do we believe?

We live in the world of sound bytes. “Blame your peers and not your parents,” grabs everybody’s attention. It induces people to make impassioned pleas for or against this position. But, the truth often lies in the middle and often happens to be somewhat bland. In this article, I will try to separate the hype from the facts. Facts, I should warn, as they appear to me.

We human beings are obviously social beings. Babies are connected with their social world even before they are born. Later, parents, relatives, teachers, and peers all influence a child’s behavior until he or she has a “mind of his (or her) own.” When a person becomes independent minded he or she is capable of selecting and rejecting external influences. Most people gain such independence and autonomy fairly early. The fact is that we decide who we would let influence, inspire, or corrupt us.

It is true that children adopt or mimic certain behaviors in social settings in order to win acceptance of their peers. How desperate children get for peer acceptance and approval depends on the sense of individuality (or lack of it) their families cultivate in them. Children whose parents encourage them to think independently learn to question rather than to blindly follow. Such children might be less influenced by their peers.

It can be argued that parents exercise significant influence on children’s choice of peers. Children who are taught to be responsible are more likely to choose responsible peers. In the negative instance, children join gangs because they don’t have a close knit family. In a family in which siblings are close to each other, they may be more influenced by their siblings than by peers.

Parents influence at-home behavior and peers influence behavior outside the home, that is, the behavior in the social setting. We learn how to make friends and influence others by first experimenting with our peers and then we transfer these skills to the adult world of coworkers and friends. But, how we behave as partners and parents is more likely to be shaped by what we observe in our families as children.

Parents and other significant adults in our childhood may serve as negative or positive models in our adulthood. For example, people spank their children because their parents spanked them and that “helped to straighten me out.” An equal number of people say that they would not spank their children because they hated to be spanked during their childhood. A similar family experience, but some people use it for positive modeling and some for negative modeling.

So, the truth that is bland and lies in the middle may be a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Peers influence our behavior but parents play a part in which peers we choose to associate with. Our behavior in public and at work is largely determined by our childhood peers but our family behavior is determined by the early lessons we received at home.

Someone said, “Whatever I need to know, I learned in kindergarten.” When it comes to our role learning as parents and partners, we learn it even before we go to kindergarten. As adults, we either decide to follow it exactly as we experienced it or modify it according to our preferences.