Monday, June 22, 2009

Parenting, Peer Groups and Keeping Kosher

Judith Harris, in her very interesting The Nurture Assumption, argues that children's personalities are formed primarily by their peer group, not their parents, hence that parental child rearing has a surprisingly small effect on how the children turn out. By her account, the contrary opinion comes in large part from confusing genetic influence with environmental influence. She mentions, however, an interesting special case—where the family is the peer group.

I was reminded of this reading comments to several posts on my adult son's blog, in which he and commenters argue about whether and why one ought to have children, a discussion set off by his discovery that his views had over time become more nearly "socially conservative." I was struck by the number of people who seem to take for granted serious conflict between parents and children, both in their own background and in their concerns with what might happen if they had children.

That doesn't fit my experience. I cannot remember any point in my childhood at which my parents did not seem more nearly my sort of people than my age peers. The closest I came to rebellion, at some point in my teens, was informing my father that I had been feeling put upon, had considered the division of duties within the family, had concluded that I was getting off very lightly considering how much more my parents had to do, and had concluded that my feelings were due to adolescence not unfair treatment. I felt he should be warned, in case any of those unjustified feelings showed up in our interaction. Nor has there been any point so far in my interaction with my children—in particular the two I and my wife brought up (Patri's mother and I separated when he was an infant)—when they didn't feel like "us" not "them." Since the older is now in college, I think it's reasonable to conclude that that situation is not going to change.

My guess is that both as a child and as a parent, I was in a family that fit Judith Harris' special case—and I can see that parenting might be a lot less pleasant if I were not.

Which gets me to another book, one I have recently been rereading—Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish. While organized as a list of words with detailed commentary, what it actually is is a picture of Ashkenazi-American culture in the first half of the Twentieth century, the world within which the author, and my parents, grew up. Features of that world included not only linguistic differences from the surrounding society but a lot of ritual, things done at particular times for particular reasons.

My friend and ex-colleague Larry Iannacone long ago raised the question of how, in a society like the U.S. with open entry to the religion industry, a religion can survive that imposes costly requirements on its adherents, requirements that do not produce any matching benefit. Why isn't such a religion always outcompeted by a new version that keeps everything else but dumps the costly restrictions—Judaism without koshruth rules, LDS with beer and coffee? His answer was that such restrictions do produce a "benefit"—they make it more difficult for adherents to interact outside of the religious community, and thus give them an incentive to spend time and effort producing community public goods, doing things that make being part of that community attractive.

It occurs to me that what I am seeing in Leo Rosten's affectionate description of the world he grew up in may be a special version of that relevant to the first half of this post. If you are brought up in an environment which is sufficiently special to make your age peers at school feel like "them" rather than "us" and your parents and siblings and relatives like "us" rather than "them," that may result in your identifying with the latter group. If their norms are better than those of the surrounding society, at least by their standards, they will see that as a good thing. Keeping their children is a benefit that may more than balance the costs of rules and rituals.

It doesn't have to be done through religion, of course, and in both of my cases it wasn't. My parents once raised the question, long after I was an adult, of whether they should have tried to bring me up in that same world, despite the fact that neither of them believed in their parents' religion. My response was that I preferred to have been brought up in the religion they did believe in—roughly speaking, 18th century rationalism, the ideology of Hume and Smith.

Which, of course, might be just as effective a way of making most of the outside world, including my age peers as I was growing up, feel like "them."


Tom Courtney said...

I'm wondering if I misunderstood Harris' thesis. I had thought she thought that most traits were primarily genetic, and that one's peer group contribution, except in cases of things like what language you end up with, was a fairly distant second.

I'd thought she had some sort of breakdown along the lines of 1/3 direct genetic, 1/3 interaction between the combination of the parents' genes, and 1/3 social environment.

Justin said...

Great post. A few points.

1. Tom, nope, although I think a lot of people mistake her as a genetic determinist. Her thesis is that it is about 50:50. For example on page 32 of the second edition she mentions the correlation between personality traits of identical twins reared in the same home is only about 50%. That means that 50% must come from influences out of the home - the peer group.

2. David, I think that is an interesting point. The research is obviously pretty blunt and may not be suited for outliers. Unusually intelligent people may not be socialized by their peers when they have so much more in common with their parents!

As a social conservative I more or less welcome her research. The belief in the importance of cultural values has motivated me ever since my conversion. The libertarian argument of "if you don't like the culture then turn off the TV" has never carried much weight for me. Her arguments put that intuition on a rigorous footing.

I think the biggest weakness of her book is that she doesn't engage why some groups are different than others. Animal spirits? I think this is where parents do enter the picture. Within-groups, parenting practices don't make much of a difference. Between-groups, they do. I'd like to see that tested by researchers using, for example, schools as the unit of analysis and regressing on things like marriage, maternal education, and parenting practices.

Aretae said...


I've been talking this point (family as peers) with my (unschooling) wife for years...both before and after reading The Nurture Assumption. But I don't recollect where in the book the "Family as peers" bit came up. Do you remember where it was in the book?


Granite26 said...

Slightly to the Left of Topic:

Is there any discussion of what role parents have in choosing a child's peer group?

Moving often changes the roots a person has with ones peer group, and that is 100% under the control of the parents.

Choice of community also affects this. Etc.

David Friedman said...

I read the book a while ago, but I believe the relevant bit involves a black working class father who decided, early on, that his four daughters were going to be doctors. The family functioned as a unit and the daughters all ended up as professionals of one sort or another.

But I've also corresponded with the author, and concluded that her childhood, like mine, fit that pattern.

I think she does discuss somewhere the fact that parents can influence children by affecting the environment in which they form a peer group.

Francis said...

Funny. I outlined the same reasoning as does Mr. Friedman in a tribute I wrote for the 50th anniversary of my parents.

I wrote that my own experience as a child was unlike that of the kids in the neighborhood, that is, my parents offered us (my siblings and myself) a value system and a family environment that made us feeling our family was "us" and the external world was "them". In retrouspect, I think the permanent discussion and mutual respect between parents and children were key to the success of the family project.

Eric Rasmusen said...

Good post. My childhood and my children so far (pre-teen still tho!) match your experience. My father was a professor too-- I wonder if that is part of it? I suspect professors tend to treat their children more as little adults, rather than as a separate, inferior, species.

gcallah said...

It is good that you recognize 18th century rationalism as a religious faith. In fact, as Eric Voegelin noted, it is a form of Gnosticism.