How many metres of shelf space are taken up by books about raising children? Rich Harris sweeps away those reams of paper and tankards of ink with a grandiloquent gesture. What determines a child's behaviour? The acrimonious debates of many years over the role of genetics versus parental guidance are shown redundant by this excellent work. In short, once a child encounters peers, on the street, in school, even a working environment, it is those peers and their attitudes that nudge behaviour in various directions. Well written and firmly researched, Harris has offered a real breakthrough in understanding child development.
Harris starts out with a simple truth we all know and rarely "see". All children are different. They differ from parents and each other. Even identical twins, those mythical examples of matching traits, turn out to exhibit variations in taste, dress and habits. Clearly, she notes, there is more to child development than genes. On the other hand, why, she asks, are parents under such stress to "make children behave" [or submit, or learn the piano, or . . .]. Harris demonstrates that an outside force, one poorly perceived and often unrecognized, leads children along unexpected paths.
Her first clue was language. She notes immigrants to North America who adhere to their original language and culture norms produce children who adhere to values here from an early age. That was the pointer leading her to create the idea of "group socialization". A child's playmates and school chums can communicate at levels parents don't understand. Playground or street values aren't home values. As children progress through school or a work environment, peer forces can guide them in new directions. Parents may have some impact, but they lose much of their influence very early.
Harris recognises the novelty of her concept. There are years of study by "socialization researchers" who have arrived at various conclusions, often widely accepted, about the impact of parenting methods on children. Harris argues most of these are flawed in method or misleading in conclusions. Even one of its most recognized practitioners ultimately admitted the published findings were unsubstantiated. Of greater concern was that these studies have produced heavy guilt feelings in parents. When the recommended methods don't produce anticipated results "it must be my fault". Harris wants to set those troubled minds at rest by understanding the real forces involved.
The author doesn't absolve parents from influence on development. She merely recommends a new approach based on the new information. Peers may drive behaviour in unwanted directions, but parents still have the responsibility and power to set limits. Peer groups can be "chosen", chiefly through school choice. The evolutionary roots of a child's "normal" group of siblings and close relations has been broken down by modern society. Harris reminds us that the "nuclear family" is a recent, artificial concept. Modern social structure distinctly departure from long-established group forms. Parents must adapt to these new forms, chiefly through greater attention to how to place their children in supportive environments. It can be done; it has been done. We only need to shed long-held beliefs of parental inadequacies and take charge.
This book has, of course, proven contentious. Anyone overthrowing cherished beliefs, no matter how poorly founded, will be resisted. Her findings, however, fill a niche long unidentified or misunderstood. She's fully aware that not all the information is to hand. How big does a group have to be to influence a child? What makes a group leader? A follower? These remain unanswered questions. The value of this book is in asking such questions and demanding answers. That value will remain undiminished until the research is done. Read this book and learn the questions. It is the lives of children that are at stake. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada.]