Nature vs. Nurture - What of Nurture?  

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Prospect Magazine as an article about Why home doesn't matter (available free) which explains why parents aren't as much of an influence on their children's behaviors as everyone has assumed.

Throughout the article Judith Rich Harris describes a BBC documentary series titled "Child of Our Time", which follows the lives of 25 children for the first 20 years of their lives. She compares the findings of the documentary to her own and outlines three systems that have a greater impact on children throughout their lives.

The explanation I came up with rests on a discovery made by neurobiologists and evolutionary psychologists. The human brain, it seems, is not a unitary organ: it is instead a toolbox of various devices, each designed by evolution to perform a specific function. Each "module," as these devices are called, works according to its own rules. Each responds to a specific type of information provided by the environment; each uses the information in a particular way.

This modularity of the mind can explain some of the mysteries of development. In No Two Alike, I propose that the human mind contains three different modules for collecting and responding to information from the social environment. I call them the socialisation system, the status system and the relationship system. These systems sometimes issue contradictory orders, as vividly illustrated by the Child of Our Time episode mentioned above, "Fitting In and Standing Out." The socialisation system makes us want to fit in—to conform to our peers. The status system makes us want to stand out—to be better than our peers. We can see these motivations in people of all ages.

In describing how these systems may work she gives the example of a set of identical twins from the series. The two boys have the same genetics and at home their parents say they treat them the same. Yet one of the boys' peer group is mostly other little boys, the other plays with girls. When they are led into a room separately with a doll, the first throws the doll in the trash while the other carefully puts a diaper on it. The parents were mystified. The boys were tested for their levels of the hormone testosterone, but the results showed the same levels.

She brings up developmental differences, which she says can have an impact, but states her premise of the three systems have more of an impact.

The purpose of the socialisation system is to adapt the child to his or her culture. This involves acquiring the local language and accent, the appropriate behaviours and customs, and the prevailing attitudes and beliefs. Acquiring the appropriate behaviours is tricky, because people within a culture do not all behave alike. Around the world, males behave differently from females and children behave differently from adults. A child who imitated his same-sex parent and behaved like an adult (other than in the context of a game) would be seen as impertinent or weird. So the child's first job is to figure out what sort of person he is—child or adult, male or female, serf's son or princeling. Then he has to figure out how the other people in his social category behave and adjust his behaviour accordingly. This is why children acquire the accent of their peers rather than that of their parents. This is why (in the Child of Our Time episode on gender stereotyping) the kids growing up in modern households, with both parents sharing the childcare chores, nonetheless take a traditional view of gender roles: the woman belongs at home, the man at work. Such attitudes come from the children's culture, not from the home, but in most cases you can't see the difference because the home and the culture agree.


The purpose of the status system is to enable children to compete successfully with their peers. In order to do this, they must acquire self-knowledge. Children have to discover how they compare with other children along a variety of dimensions. Am I tall or short, strong or weak, pretty or plain, smart or dull? Without answers to these questions, they would have no way of deciding whether to try to dominate others or yield without a fight, to make suggestions or follow the suggestions of others, to turn down potential mates in hopes of doing better or take whatever comes along. Based on their understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses, of the options offered by their environment, and of the particular set of other children with whom they must compete, children work out their own individual strategy of behaviour. "I'm not good in maths," James (the boy whose mother is a poor disciplinarian) admits. But he's popular with his peers. Every child has to find out what he is good at and place his bets on the things that are most likely to pay off. Even identical twins will find different niches to occupy.


The relationship system motivates us to form new relationships, to maintain existing ones if they're going well, and to find out as much as we can about new people we meet. The urge to learn new words and new facts gradually declines as we get older, but we never lose our curiosity about people. Gossip is a popular sport even in the old people's home. It is the relationship system that fuels our hunger for biographies and novels, and makes us want to look at photos of movie actors and sports stars. The appeal of a series like Child of Our Time, which focuses on specific children whom, little by little, we get to know, comes from the relationship system.

Which all seemed to make sense to me. I perform these kinds of actions daily. And it explains why even though I grew up in a very socially conservative household, I picked up very liberal attitudes early in life. It also explains why religious conservatives want to shelter their children from the world. Unconsciously they know that the predominant culture is going to end up having a bigger impact on their children than they will in the end. It's only through sheltering their children or changing the culture can they keep their beliefs from dying out.

(via onegoodmove)

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