We’ve heard the debate all of our lives. Are children born the way they are and therefore destined to be good or bad adults, or do their parents shape and mold them into civilized human beings? I have always held the personal belief that it was a little bit of both. Now that I’ve read The Nurture Assumption by Judith Rich Harris, I agree with her argument that there is another equally important factor at work in the process- the role of peers. It makes perfect sense to me, especially when I look closely at the dynamics of my own childhood and the students in my classroom.
According to the accepted notion of the nurture assumption we have been taught for generations, it is the parents who “transmit cultural knowledge, including language, to their children and who prepare them for full membership in the society in which they will spend their adult lives.” But as Harris points out this idea doesn’t stand the test of immigrant families in which the parents do not speak English or understand the culture of the country they have adopted. Their children learn the language and accepted practices of their new home predominantly from other children and from the environment outside their home.
We all accept that children reared in the same home are not alike, but most of us having differing views on why that is so. I’ve expressed my ideas before about my own three children and my belief that they were actually raised by three “different” mothers because of the changes in my life and my maturation over time. And many of the differences in children are due to genetic factors. We respond to and treat children in different ways because they are different. We may choose to have children, but we don’t choose anything about the ones we get- we respond to who and what they are, from gender to intelligence to personality.
If “good parenting” and early training were all that is required to produce a responsible, self-sufficient adult our task as parents would be obvious and so much easier. But we all know good Christian parents who seem to do everything right and still have children who become dysfunctional adults. We all know children of dead-beat alcoholic criminals who have turned out to be model citizens. It is a fact of life that children in any home can “go either way” and that there are exceptions to any and all parental influences that defy our understanding. Genetics must play a role in the outcome, parents aren’t the only adults in a child’s life, AND children have other environments besides home, environments that are much more important.
Children learn much of what is expected of them by imitation and while our egos prompt us to believe that they are imitating us, evidence points to the fact that most of the time they are imitating each other. Children look to older siblings, children in the neighborhood, and children in daycare to see what “works” and what gets punished. In many instances behaving like an adult would get them into serious trouble. Even speaking like an adult is usually grounds for discipline. Yes, a child’s first relationship is with his significant parent, but he quickly learns that all adults are not the same and that his needs will not be met equally by each of them. And he also learns that his closest ally in the time-honored battle between “us” (kids) and “them” (grownups) is another child. Harris says, “When they are in a social context that evokes their groupness, and the salient categories are grownups and kids, you can see signs of us-versus-them effects even at the tender age of four”. It begins in preschool folks. A parent’s first lament is always “Well he doesn’t do that at home!” Of course he doesn’t- he doesn’t have other kids to do it for or with! Ever watch a bunch of kids when the teacher’s back is turned? They perform like a pack of wolves and the alphas are quick to show themselves. In a paper on Social Dynamics in Early Childhood Classroom author Kathleen C. Gallagher states it quite well: “During early childhood, a primary developmental task for children is to coordinate the social rules, beliefs, and values that they learn from adults with their own individual social insights and their interaction with peers.” In other words they take what they have learned at home and see if it serves their purposes in the outside world. For the child that “outside world” is school and it remains their environment for twelve to twenty years. I think what many of us overlook is that for the most part adults have very little influence over what their children do at school.
Harris believed that “Somewhere around the age of seven or eight children start comparing themselves to their peers in a way they hadn’t done before.”I think she may be off by a year or two because of changes in our educational programs since she wrote her book. I’ve witnessed that with the kindergartners in my classroom and I think it is because they already have so much group experience. They understand that there are subtle differences in the personalities and abilities of their classmates. They know who will cry and who will hit them back if they are uncooperative. They know who is naughty and who is nice. But it takes a while longer before they transfer this knowledge to themselves.
“It is during middle childhood that children learn about themselves. How tough they are. How good-looking. How fast. How smart. The way they do this is by comparing themselves to the others with whom they share a social category- the others in the group of people ‘like me’…..Middle childhood is when children get typecast into roles that might last them the rest of their lives.” When I read that I thought, “Why didn’t I already know that?” Maybe I did, and it was just buried under a lot of useless psychological babble I learned in college. I’ve done some tweaking and refining over the years, but I think I’m probably the same basic person I was at twelve and many of the entries from my diary for that year back that up. It is also interesting to note that 90% of my writing concerns my friends, not my parents.
Which brings me to my own peers. While Harris discusses a LOT of other topics and spends a lot of time on teenagers (great reading if you have some!) I will stop with her conclusions about younger children because that is what concerns me most and that is where I can still make a difference in the world.
Children are naturals at categorizing others and forming groups accordingly. I can look back at photos of classes I taught over the past thirteen years and tell you with astounding accuracy who formed a clique and who didn’t. Never was that more obvious than in the class I had last year. But it was also quite evident in my own childhood. Children are adept at seeing themselves as members of different groups based on social context. While our similarities may not be evident in the photo I posted yesterday, these eighth grade students, with the addition of two others not shown, were my peers. Out of a class of twenty-five, these were the ones I spent the most time with and joined forces with against the arbitrary rule of adults! Why? Because we were working kids, country kids, neighborhood kids, and smart kids. We spent our summers toiling in the fields together. We spent our summers reading books gathered from the bookmobile. We spent our summers walking from home to home and commiserating with each other about how misunderstood we were by our parents. There are clearly advantages to forming a group: strength, protection, and power lie in numbers. And formation of a group creates loyalty to the group. So during the school year our little group was at odds with several other groups, including some violent gangs.
I know that some of you are now wondering about our many moves. And this is something Harris discusses as a powerful “negative” factor in the life of a child. Moving can be devastating to a child because with each move they must re-evaluate the environment and establish their place in it. They must find their group again and sometimes things don’t work out well for them. I know that happened a few times in my life, but for the most part our moves were pretty consistent-rural, poor. And we returned to that same school a few times- eighth grade was my third encounter with them. Most children grow up in neighborhoods where other people are similar to their own parents. They share a common culture, common values, and comparable experiences. Poor people live in poor neighborhoods, country people live in the country, military people live on bases, etc. Of course there is diversity within any community, but we are hardwired to “seek our own kind” and we usually do.
So…time to wrap this up for today with a few conclusions.
Children may be nurtured and cared for at home, but their peer group shows them how the world really “works” and how to survive in it.
Children spend the majority of their time trying to separate themselves from their parents.
Parents are absent from most of the environments their children inhabit.
Parents have the ability to change some of those environments by changing their neighborhood, their own friends (if that changes their child’s play group), or their children’s school.
“Peer pressure” isn’t as pervasive as peer acceptance. Children often do foolish or risky things simply because they are supported by their group, not coerced.
Children become adults as the result of a variety of influences and parents are not at the top of the list. For some that will be an insult, for others a relief.
Time to rest my brain and go walk in the garden…
I’m going to address this topic later on my kindergarten blog: “Teachers have power and responsibility because they are in control of an entire group of children.” A teacher can turn a diverse group of children into a united group of scholars, or let them fall apart into groups of leaders and losers.