Nurture a child�s self-esteem

I recently got a letter from a mother with three children, aged six, ten and 17, who had read about Judith Rich Harris�s research. She said that she suspected that the truth about whether peers or parents were more influential on their children lay somewhere in the middle. But she also thought that the debate highlighted a more interesting question about the power of the parent to influence a child�s peer group. She had no say in her 17-year-old�s choice of friends, she said, most of whom she�d never met. Did I think his choice of peer group was based on good parenting, genetics, pot luck � or all three?

Harris�s view is that, genetics aside, there is little parental influence. Her position, naturally, has raised a few eyebrows. Frank Farley, the former president of the American Psychological Association, has said that Harris�s views are �absurd� and dangerous because they could give permission to the uninterested parent to neglect their child, or to the abusive parent to abuse their offspring, because they might embrace the notion that what they do as parents will have no impact on their children anyway.

Harris has argued her point passionately for many years and with the vigour of someone who is used to having her ideas shot down in flames. She asserts that far from increasing the risk of families becoming neglectful or abusive, families who accept her ideas will be freed to behave naturally rather than in a �phoney� fashion. So, her argument goes, rather than praise our children in a manic and insincere way because we believe that this will bring out the best in them, we should use praise that comes from our heart rather than as a strategic parenting tool. She has said before that she believes the current culture of child-rearing and development encourages a faith in parental influence over a child�s development and leads to a tragic situation where parents are made all-powerful � and hence all-blameable.

I can understand that such a theory could strike fear into the heart of any parent as it could leave us all feeling fairly powerless and almost useless in the shaping of our child. Certainly Harris�s theories are well evidenced in the families of immigrants where there can often be a huge tension that grows out of a clash of culture and expectation among the older generations who wish to retain the values, beliefs and behaviours of their culture and their offspring who may rebel and adopt the social mores of their peer group � dress, accent, speech patterns and behaviour. In these cases it is clear to see how the peer group would have an enormous impact on the young person�s behaviour as they struggle to fit in.

Related Links Do pals matter more than parents? However, Harris also points out that parents can have an impact on the peer group that their children join by what kind of school they send them to. They can, of course, also affect how their children may choose to respond to those peer groups. They have a role in developing their children�s belief systems and their abilities to reason and make choices � and these are all factors involved in choosing their friends.

The difficulty I have with Harris�s argument isn�t that I think she is wrong but only that she is polarised in her thinking, as is anyone who becomes defensive about their ideas and engages in a theoretical debate that becomes infused with emotion. Taking such a position can only lead to further extreme and overtly simplistic claims being made in the already heated and long-running nature/nurture debate.

What concerns me, as I often write about when it comes to theories of parenting, is the belief that one theory can explain the all the complexities of human nature. This attitude is both absurd and shortsighted given that we are very limited in our knowledge about the mind and the link between the mind and the brain and how all this fits together in our understanding of human behaviour.

Neat theories dispel the anxieties associated with living (and the fact that we are mortal) yet actually do very little to really enhance the quality of our lives. Saying this, however, I often see cases in my clinic in which aspirational parents create problems with children by trying to push and mould them too quickly (including their choice of friends) so that the child�s abilities and behaviour reflect favourably on them, the parents.

Life is about balance � a balance in all things including a balance in argument and theoretical positioning. Parenting is also about finding a balance between our desire to shape our children and a recognition that they are individuals who will be influenced in many other ways � including by their peer groups. Because of this we need to aim to nurture children who are independent thinkers with a strong sense of self and self-esteem � these are the protective factors that will mediate against the influences on them that we are powerless to control.

However, we also, as parents, need to educate ourselves in the aspects of life that our children may come up against if we are to have an understanding of what pressures and risks they might be facing � and of how we can help them make the wisest and safest choices and be there to support and protect them should the outside peer pressures become overwhelming.

Tanya Byron
9 August 2007

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