Who Holds More Sway, Parents or Peers?

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eyerolling teens“What is he doing?” moaned my husband, cupping his head in his hands after our son missed the basket by a huge margin.

“He’s being a typical, inconsistent 12-year-old boy on the basketball court. That’s what he’s doing,” I responded flatly. “Let him be.”

“I just wish he’d ask me for some advice. I could tell him how to improve his shot,” responded my husband, defeated.

“He doesn’t want to hear it from you,” I reminded him. “Just like you didn’t want to hear it from your father.”

The older our kids get, the less they think we know. Our son appears as interested in receiving advice from his dad about sports—or anything else in life he dubs important—as my daughter looks to me for input in matters related to fashion. Zero.

So, I’m beginning to wonder: Do we as parents have any influence at all over our adolescent children? Does anything we say or do affect how seriously they take their school work, how kind they are to their peers, what they decide to put into their bodies, how they’ll conduct their lives as adults? While this question probably could be debated for years without reaching a consensus, experts today appear to be leaning toward a response that may surprise us eager-to-be-involved parents.

Take, for instance, Judith Rich Harris’s controversial book, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn out the Way They Do (Free Press, 1998), which argues that peers influence the development of kids’ personality to a far greater extent than parents do. As for similarities between parents and their children, Harris chalks them up to shared genes and culture.

Defending her assertions, Harris cites these examples of peer over parental influence: Children of immigrants develop the accent of their peers, not their parents. Children also modify their behavior to fit into a peer group, a phenomenon that Harris believes ultimately shapes children’s character. Harris does, however, stop short of saying that parents have no influence whatsoever on their children.

She acknowledges that early learning does take place in the home. But she adds this caveat: “Although the learning itself serves a purpose, the content of what children learn may be irrelevant to the world outside their home. They may cast it off when they step outside as easily as the dorky sweater their mother made them wear.”

My stomach lurched when I read that. It made me recall when my son, in second grade, would surreptitiously remove his down vest once he turned the corner of the building at school on mornings when the thermometer dipped below freezing. It didn’t matter that I told him it was important to wear a jacket when it was cold. That he deemed his down vest ‘uncool’ (maybe none of his classmates wore one) trumped my opinion. At 7 years old. Harris would give an affirmative nod at this anecdote.

She isn’t the only one to downplay parental influence. In a widely read opinion piece in USA Today, journalist Stephen J. Dubner and economist Steven D. Levitt denounce the influence of parental “technique”.

Like Harris, Dubner and Levitt don’t deny that parents influence their children. But the influence, they say, has little to do with what they call “culture cramming and competitive parenting” (think copious family trips to cultural attractions and enrollment in numerous extra-curricular activities beginning at a tender age.)

Rather, they argue, parental influence is built-in, and includes factors like income level and education that exist before adults have kids. Dubner and Levitt label this built-in influence the “privilege gap”, and they defend its impact with this example: “The child of a young, single mother with limited education and income will typically test about 25 percentile points lower than the child of two married, high-earning parents.”

The idea that parents have very little influence on their children may come as a shock to us 21st-century moms and dads who do our darndest to sway and inspire our kids every chance we get. And surely, if we dig deep enough, we’ll find opinions from respected psychiatrists and pundits that counter this notion. But I think I’ll try siding with Harris for now. If I can embrace her beliefs, even a little, maybe I’ll shed some nagging feelings of maternal guilt that I’m never doing enough for my kids.



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  1. Unfortunately, it took me the first child and half the childhood of #2 to figure out that what you are saying is totally true. Now I am a lot more laid back. Great piece!

  2. i really hate when people say ” Oh, she/he must get that from…” “they are just like…” It is rarely anything good. People are themselves

  3. I read Harris’s book when it came out. Other than the fact that it desperately needed some editing, I thought it was quite good. Her claims were grossly misrepresented in the press.

    Of course, therapy culture is also responsible for a lot of this “it all goes back to how your parents treated you” stuff. Human beings are complicated. I think it’s disrespectful to regard them as robots that can be programmed. Agree with commenter planetmom who wrote, “People are themselves.”

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