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The power of peers

It’s a world out of a fanciful children’s book: a place where parents and teachers don’t matter, where the company of other kids is most meaningful, where nothing much would change if we left children in their homes and schools ‘but switched all the parents around.’ That doesn’t describe an imagined never-never land, however, but the environment that every one of us grows up in, contends Judith Rich Harris. The maverick writer and theoretician believes that peers, not parents, determine our personalities, and her unorthodox views have made the very real world of psychology sit up and take notice.

Harris, who is unaffiliated with any university or institution, laid out her radical theory in a 1995 Psychological Review paper, which was later cited as one of the year’s outstanding articles by the American Psychological Association. Like behavioral geneticists, Harris believes that heredity is a force to be reckoned with. But she sees another powerful force at work: group socialization, or the shaping of one’s character by one’s peers.

Central to this theory is the idea that behavior is ‘context-specific’: we act in specific ways in specific circumstances. ‘Children today live in two different worlds: home and the world outside the home.’ says Harris. ‘There is little overlap between these two worlds, and the rules for how to behave in them are quite different.’ Displays of emotion, for example, are often accepted by parents but discouraged by teachers or friends. Rewards and punishments are different too. At home, children may be scolded for their failures and praised for their successes; outside the home, they may be ridiculed when they make a mistake or ignored when they behave appropriately.

Preferring peers
As children grow older and peer influence grows stronger, says Harris, they come to prefer the ways of peers over those of their parents. She likes to use language as an example: the children of immigrants, she notes, will readily learn to speak the language of the new country without an accent.

They may continue to speak in their parents’ tongue when at home, but over time the language of their peers will become their ‘native’ language.

Adopting the ways of their contemporaries makes sense, says Harris, because children will live among peers, and not among older adults, for the greater part of their lives. ‘Parents are past, peers are future,’ she says. It’s evolutionarily adaptive, too. ‘Humans were designed to live not in nuclear families, but in larger groups,’ observes Harris. ‘The individuals who became our ancestors succeeded partly because they had the ability to get along with the other members.’

The group continues to influence us in a number of ways: we identify ourselves with it, and change our behavior to conform to its norms. We define our group by contrasting it with other groups, and seek to distinguish our group by our actions and appearance. Within the group, we compare ourselves to others and jockey for higher status. We may receive labels from our peers, and strive to live up (or down) to them. Finally, we may be most lastingly affected by peers by being rejected by them. People who were rejected as children often report long term self-esteem problems, poor social skills, and increased rates of psychopathology.

Parents don’t matter?
Our personalities become less flexible as we grow older, says Harris, so that ‘the language and personality acquired in childhood and adolescent peer groups persist, with little modification, for the remainder of the life span.’ It’s a startling conclusion, but Harris claims that her greatest challenge lies not in persuading people that peers matter, but in convincing them that parents don’t. She calls the belief in parents’ enduring importance ‘the nurture assumption,’ and her forthcoming book by that title will argue that it’s simply a myth of modern culture. She doesn’t deny that children need the care and protection of parents, and acknowledges that mothers and fathers can influence things like religious affiliation and choice of career. But, she maintains, ‘parental behaviors have no effect on the psychological characteristics their children will have as adults.’ In fact, she says, ‘probably the most important way that parents can influence their children is by determining who their peers are. The immigrants who move their children to another country have provided them with a completely different set of peers. But a less dramatic shift – simply deciding which neighborhood to live in – can also make a difference.’ From one area to another, she notes, there are substantial variations in the rates of delinquency, truancy, and teen pregnancy – problems parents can try to avoid by surrounding their offspring with suitable friends.

Beyond that, however, children will make their own choices. ‘It’s pretty easy to control the social life of a three-year-old.’ says Harris. ‘But once the kids are past age 10 or 12, all bets are off.’

Reported by Annie Murphy Paul in Psychology Today