Books / Culture / It's my life! / People / Psychology

Never mind genes. I still believe that parents play a role.

My siblings and I have always been different from our 14 cousins. Being different does not mean that we are better or worse than them. It’s just that we are different in terms of mind-set, conduct, life priorities and culture. I believe that we are different because of our parents.

It’s no wonder that I bristled when I read Judith Rich Harris’ essay on “Zero Parental Influence” in John Brockman’s 2006 book, “What is Your Dangerous Idea?”. With that essay, she demeans the influence my parents had on me and my siblings. She came to that conclusion just because scientists in the field cannot give her research evidence to prove the said parental influence on children.

Well, all right. That might be true. Behavioural studies are difficult to conduct; difficult to get experimental subjects under controlled environments and difficult because of the long experimental periods. But, looking at the other spectrum, is there such equally strong evidence to prove that parents don’t influence their children at all?

Both of my parents are the only ones in their respective families to get university degrees. So, Harris’ theory might be true in their case. After all, that means my parents are the oddballs and their getting degrees cannot be solely credited to my grandparents.

But, does that mean my grandparents didn’t influence my parents? I beg to differ. A child can be influenced by parents in different ways. For example, I have my father’s taste in music (in addition to being people who wear many masks) with my mother’s interest in gardening. My sister has my dad’s willful character and my mom’s passion for sewing and cooking. My brother has my dad’s love for technology and gadgets with my mom’s understanding and empathetic character.

I am not a qualified researcher, but I would dare say: Having no evidence does not mean that it’s a myth. It just means the evidence hasn’t been found yet.

I do agree that we might be overestimating the role of parents. If Harris had been wiser in her choice of words like what Bryan Caplan did, I might have supported her more. But, she didn’t. So, I cannot agree with her.

I will leave it to your choice on whether you support Nature or Nurture, and to what degree. Here are some useful readings.

Judith Rich Harris’ interview in Scientific American:

Bryan Caplan supports her to a milder degree here:

Sceptical accounts on Caplan’s views:

I do think parents and close family members such as siblings make a difference to your character. In fact, Jeffrey Kluger talked about ‘The Sibling Bond’ in TEDxAshville. If siblings play a role in building who you are, I think that it is illogical to say that parents have no influence on you at all.


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