The Destiny of Our Children: Nature or Nurture?

By Wayne Jackson

Do parents have any important, long-term effects on the development of their children? That was the question raised recently by psychologist Judith Rich Harris, author of the controversial book, The Nurture Assumption.

Her answer was a boisterous, “No!” Harris’s book is sub-titled, “Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do” and “Parents Matter Less Than You Think And Peers Matter More.” By the time you’ve finished reading the title, you know pretty much the thrust of the book!

If your kids grow up to be productive citizens, you can’t claim much of the credit. If they turn out to be bums, it certainly is not your fault. The publisher of Harris’s book offers this comment:

How much credit do parents deserve when their children turn out well? How much blame when they turn out badly? This electrifying book explodes some of our deepest beliefs about children and parents and gives us something radically [an appropriate term!] new to put in their place. With eloquence and wit, Judith Harris explains why parents have little power to determine the sort of people their children become. It is what children experience outside the home, in the company of their peers, that matters most. Parents don’t socialize children: children socialize children.

Whether intended or not, this dogma accommodates parental delinquency.

Harris defines “nurture” as meaning “to take care of” or “to rear.” Normally, she says, the term is employed as a synonym for “environment,” and it assumes “that what influences children’s development, apart from their genes, is the way their parents bring them up.” Ms. Harris confesses that she used to believe this. “Only recently did I come to the conclusion that it is wrong,” she says.

Since this popular author did not know the proper question to ask, it is little wonder that she hasn’t a clue as to what the answer ought to be. The more appropriate query might be: “Can parents have important and long-term effects on the development of their children?” The answer to that inquiry has to be—for anyone who has a remnant of respect for the teaching of Holy Scripture—“Yes, absolutely!”

Unfortunately, however, Judith Harris is closer to reality than she deserves to be. Her approach is totally wrong-headed, even though the current conditions of society are not wholly at variance with her conclusions.

The Harris Argument

There are several things that should be noted regarding Harris’s case.

First, it is fundamentally flawed because it is constructed upon an erroneous premise. The psychologist has had her brain baptized in Darwinism. She contends, for instance, that humans are the product of the evolutionary process—from molecules to man. Darwin’s principle of “natural selection,” Harris maintains, fashioned us as we are. She writes:

My [view] is based on a consideration of what kind of mind the child is equipped with, which requires, in turn, a consideration of the evolutionary history of our species (emphasis added).

Her “evidence,” in part at least, is grounded in a study of chimpanzees! Harris alleges that environment—virtually every influence other than parents—is responsible for the way we are; our childhood associates are especially influential.

Second, from a methodological viewpoint, her reasoning is skewed. She frequently yields to unwarranted extrapolation. Here is one of her examples: Children in a Boston family, being reared by parents who speak Russian principally, can converse in good English—with a Bostonian accent, rather than with a Russian accent. Thus they are being influenced more by their peers than by their parents.

This woefully limited example does not mean, however, that Boston society must necessarily exert a greater influence upon the children than the parents do in every area of life. Just because young Billy wants a hair style like his school pals, instead of like his dad’s, does not mean that his parents will have less moral persuasion than his school mates. There are some issues with which parents are considerably more flexible. Moreover, it is just possible that these immigrant parents encouraged their children to speak a purer form of English!

Third, as journalist Roy Maynard noted, Ms. Harris has employed “carefully selected” and “edited studies” to buttress her thesis. In other words, she adjusts the facts to fit her foregone conclusion.

Harris has been taken to the proverbial woodshed by some respected heavyweights in the field of psychology. Dr. Jerome Kagan of Harvard University, a pioneer in “developmental” psychology, and author of the book, The Power of Parents, concluded after a negative review of Harris’ book:

Telling parents that they have little influence on their children, in light of scientific evidence and their daily encounters, is a little like declaring on a foggy September morning that all the trees have disappeared because you cannot see them.

The Harris theory is contradicted by two basic biblical propositions:

  1. The Scriptures provide ample evidence, in the form of precedent, that parents can and do influence their children significantly.
  2. Parents are placed under divine mandate to fashion the character of their offspring.

Let us briefly develop these two points.

Biblical Precedent and Parental Influence

The Scriptures are replete with examples which demonstrate the power of parental influence—both for good and bad. Reflect upon the following cases:

Concerning Abraham, God said:

For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of Jehovah, to do righteousness and justice; to the end that Jehovah may bring upon Abraham that which he hath spoken of him (Genesis 18:19). Did Abraham and Sarah have no influence upon Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, etc.?

Joshua could confidently affirm: “[A]s for me and my house, we will serve Jehovah” (Joshuas 24:15). This great leader was not oblivious to the influence he exerted in his household.

Eli was one of the great judges of the Old Testament era. A stain on his record, however, was his conduct as a father. He had two incorrigible sons, Hophni and Phinehas (1 Samuel 1:3), who conducted themselves outrageously and brought serious reproach upon the sacred system of worship. Eli was aware of their rebellion, but he restrained them not. God’s displeasure at this circumstance was forcefully demonstrated (cf. 1 Samuel 2:12ff; 3:13).

Though he had many admirable qualities, David, king of Israel, was weak as a father. He betrayed a wife and committed adultery. In an attempt to cover the sordid affair, he had his paramour’s husband killed. The consequences of this activity, which seriously affected his family, were heartbreaking and long-lasting (cf. 2 Samuel 12:10).

Two of the most wicked persons of Old Testament fame were Ahab and Jezebel, the former being a ruler of the northern kingdom of Israel. Jezebel’s name is synonymous with evil. Their daughter, Athaliah, was as vicious as her bloody parents (cf. 2 Kings 11:1). Her son, Ahaziah was corrupt also; he “walked in the ways of the house of Ahab.” And then note this explanatory phrase: “for his mother was his counselor to do wickedly” (2 Chronicles 22:3). No parental influence?

In the New Testament, Timothy, an evangelist from Lystra, was a frequent companion of the apostle Paul. His prominence is reflected in the fact that his name is found some twenty-four times in the New Testament. The apostle gave his young friend high praise to the Philippian saints when he said of him: “I have no man like-minded, who will care truly for your state” (Philippians 2:20). Elsewhere, however, Paul acknowledged the godly influence of Timothy’s grandmother and mother in the lad’s training (2 Timothy 1:5; 3:15).

The Divine Imperative of Parental Responsibility

There is an old saying: “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.” Again: “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Shakespeare called parents “heaven’s lieutenants.”

The philosopher John Locke once observed: “Parents wonder why the streams are bitter, when they themselves have poisoned the fountain.”

These sayings did not arise in a vacuum. The Bible clearly teaches the concept that godly parents must attempt to guide their children in the path of right-living. Let us give consideration to a sampling of passages, both from the Old Testament and the New Testament.

The Hebrew people were instructed as follows:

Hear, O Israel: Jehovah our God is one Jehovah: and you shall love Jehovah your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently unto your children, and shall talk of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you are lying down, and when you are rising up (Deuteronomy 6:4-7).

The Old Testament is filled with references to the close relationship between parents and children. Alfred Edersheim, a noted scholar of Israelite culture, has observed that the Hebrews had nine different words which reflected various stages of growth in the maturation process, and that these pictorial designations indicate how keenly child-life was observed by Jewish parents. Influencing their youngsters to walk with God was a major priority among the Israelites during their periods of faithfulness. The extent of their diligence in this regard was later demonstrated in the ebb and flow of the nation’s security.

“Train up a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). It is frequently suggested that this maxim actually teaches that one is to train (Hebrew hanak—to dedicate, educate; hence, to train with purpose) a child “according to his way” (ASV fn), i.e., in accordance with his ability and potential. There doubtless is some truth in this.

However, as Professor Derek Kidner noted, while the expression may involve respect for the child’s individuality, it is not an accommodation to the youth’s self-will; the emphasis is still on parental training. Allen Ross stated that this verse plainly asserts that “there is a standard of life in which [the child] should go,” and it is the parents’ responsibility to influence their offspring in this direction. The admonition implies they are able to do this.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul admonished: “And, you fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but nurture them in the chastening and admonition of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). This challenging passage asserts unequivocally that fathers have the ability to influence their children—for better or worse.

The term rendered “nurture” (ASV) is derived from the Greek paideia, which connotes the idea of training or education, with the associated concept of discipline. Professor Nigel Turner points out that Plato used the word to describe the process of guiding children toward principles which are right—as judged by the law, and the experience of good and older people.

To contend, as Ms. Harris has done, that “nurturing” is a myth, is, in effect, to relieve parents of their responsibility for training children. One can only imagine what sort of society would prevail if this philosophy were pursued universally!

G. Bertram makes a powerful point when he calls attention to the fact that in Ephesians 6:4, it is actually the Lord who provides the nurturing; the Christian parent is merely the instrument through whom this task is to be accomplished.

If parents swallow the line that their potential influence with their children is virtually nil, hence they make no genuine effort to educate them in spiritual matters, the youngsters’ chances of gaining heaven are lessened considerably.

Qualifying Factors

While we do not want to minimize the sacred duty parents have to influence their children toward serving the Lord, to be balanced we must direct attention to a couple of mitigating factors.

The Scriptures teach that every individual has personal volition, i.e., the power of choice. It is possible for a child to be trained correctly, and then, at some point, turn from that instruction and influence to pursue a life totally adverse to all he has been taught.

Jehovah trained the nation of Israel, but at times the people abandoned him.

Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth: for Jehovah has spoken: I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me (Isaiah 1:2).

Rebels are like the poor, we will always have them with us. The general principle, however, is this: parental training can influence significantly the direction of a child’s future. Proper education involves molding the child so that when he is mature enough to make his own decisions, he will want to make the proper ones.

The reality of peer pressure cannot be denied. Paul wrote: “Be not deceived: Evil companionships corrupt good morals” (1 Corinthians 15:33). There is an old saying: “Lie down with dogs; get up with fleas.”

Our Changing World

While we have argued that parents do, and should, influence the course of their children’s lives, we must frankly admit this fact: the farther youngsters are removed from parental proximity, the less likely it is that they will be molded by the benevolent influence of father and mother.

And so, by default, when there develops an expanded distance between parents and children, the latter more likely will be shaped by the impact of their peers. Everyone is influenced by someone.

Unfortunately, our increasingly modernized world has resulted in a widening gap between parents and children. Historically, several social factors have contributed to this state of affairs.

First, there was a time, not terribly long ago, when American culture was largely agrarian. Parents (and frequently even grandparents) were closely associated with their offspring for long hours of the day. Parental influence was almost constant.

With the advent of the industrial revolution, fathers began to leave the rural domain for work in the cities. There was a decline of dad’s immediate influence. Mothers had to assume more of the domestic responsibility; accordingly, their time was consumed increasingly by material matters.

Second, two world wars, along with other embattlements, took fathers away from their families. As a consequence, many mothers went into the factories to help support their children. Again, from the very nature of the circumstances, children suffered an accelerated deprivation of parental influence.

As a result, at least in part, of these major historical developments, the following societal conditions have evolved. Some of these may, or may not, be beyond the control of the parents. That is not my place to judge. Each person must attempt to look honestly at his or her own circumstances.

(1) Many fathers are working long hours to meet their material needs. Due to the expense of city living, families have tended to move to more rural areas. Some men are commuting two to four hours a day, back and forth to their jobs. They leave before daylight and arrive home after dark. They scarcely see their children except for a few hours on the weekend. Fathers frequently work at two jobs. Many forms of employment take them on the road so that they are gone from home days on end. More and more, the father has less contact with his family.

(2) More than half of all married women now work outside the home. This means, especially for young children, that they have neither the influence of a mother nor father during most of the day. They are with baby-sitters, in day-care centers, deposited with a relative, at school, etc. Children, therefore, are exposed to parental associations only briefly—in the rushed hours of early morning, or in the weary moments of evening. It hardly needs to be emphasized that this is not an ideal environment for Christian influence.

(3) As indicated above, many of our children are in public schools for some six or more hours each day. Hundreds of teachers, under the heavy influence of the National Education Association, are desperately struggling to influence our children with ideologies that are alien to biblical truth, e.g., organic evolution, the acceptance of homosexuality, sexual permissiveness, etc.

One of the principles in the NEA’s “Code of Ethics” is that the teacher is to “make reasonable effort to protect the student from conditions harmful to learning or to health and safety” (emphasis added). What do you suppose the teacher will do, who takes this concept seriously, and who believes that Bible-teaching is a detriment to healthy education?

In a recent issue of the magazine NEA Today, Derrick Neill, an Arizona science teacher, boasts about how he was able to influence an eighth-grade student with ideas about evolution—against his parents’ will. He describes the boy, under his influence, as having an “intellectual growth spurt.”

Additionally, I would remind you of this. The public education system is not only a liability because of its influence in terms of secular humanism, it is lacking in what it does not teach. In the final analysis, all education needs to be within the framework of theology. No body of knowledge is complete without a consideration of the Creator and his purpose for humanity.

(4) Even when children are at home, and at least one parent is available, there may be little interaction. Recent studies have shown that children spend three to five hours a day watching television. And television influences children mightily.

For example, studies on television-viewing reveal that the amount of violence on TV is increasing. Viewing violent programs can make children afraid, worried, or suspicious, and may increase tendencies toward aggressive behavior. Parents should keep in mind that television often portrays sexual behavior and the use of alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs in inviting terms. Add to their television ogling the hours many of them spend playing video games. They have neither the time nor the interest for parental distractions! They may find mom and dad a bit boring.

(5) Another factor that cannot be overlooked in a discussion concerning the decline of parental influence, is the matter of divorce. Divorce has reached epidemic proportions in America. In 1900, there were three divorces for every one thousand married couples. At that point religious leaders were fearful for the future, suggesting that this “trend” was a sign of “moral decadence and social disorder.”

By way of glaring contrast, in 1997 while roughly 2.4 million people were getting married, over 1.1 million husbands and wives were obtaining divorces. In earlier times, married people frequently subordinated their personal interests and remained together for the welfare of their children. Now, says Dr. Barbara Whitehead, who has studied the matter in depth (The Divorce Culture), divorce is seen as more of an “entitlement.” Kids can fend for themselves! This wanton practice of dismantling homes, without question, is having a deleterious effect upon children—driving them, in many instances, to look for security elsewhere.

(6) Due to drastic changes in America’s work habits over the past several decades, we have become a recreation-oriented society. A half-century or so ago, organized recreation was something children did occasionally—perhaps a few hours on the weekend. Now youngsters are scurrying everywhere for baseball, soccer, basketball, football, etc. They are scarcely finished with one sport until it is time for the next one to begin. These activities consume a vast amount of our youths’ time—which means, as a matter of chronological mathematics, there is less opportunity for association with dad and mom.

Parents are off in different directions as well; there’s golf, bowling, tennis, the various clubs, crafts, and civic meetings, etc. Who has time for family any more?

(7) Another element that figures significantly in the effectiveness of parental influence is whether or not dad and mom set an example that is consistent with what they teach. Children learn with their eyes quicker than with their ears.

According to Wendell Byrd, a careful study of our youth’s spiritual development in one church found that where both parents were faithful Christians, with an active interest in the congregation’s local programs, ninety-three percent of the children remained faithful to the Lord. When only one parent was zealous, seventy-three percent remained loyal. In cases where both parents were “reasonably active,” the percentage dropped to fifty-three percent. And shockingly, in cases where both parents worshipped only infrequently, the percentage of their children who maintained their faith was only six percent.

Conclusion

Finally, we arrive at a sobering conclusion. Judith Harris is wrong in her theory; and yet, in a measure, she is right. She is wrong in her contention that the evolutionary impulses from an animalistic background have forced us to be directed by peers more than by parents. It is not a matter of “natural selection.” We are not the helpless victims of the “powers” of nature. This is “junk” psychology.

But the fact is, we have drifted farther and farther from what God, who designed the home, intended the family to be. Realistically, we must acknowledge that we can’t step back into the past century. We cannot “un-modernize” ourselves.

We could, however, with some conscientious self-discipline, drastically reform some of our social habits. We could cut out a lot of the “fluff” that crowds our lives. We could spend considerably more quality time with our children.

It’s not an easy task. There will be serious withdrawal pains. But, in the final analysis, our children will be the big winners. And they’ll be better prepared for eternity. Isn’t that what life is about (see Psalm 127:3)?

Sources/Footnotes
  • Bertram, G. 1985. Paideia. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament – Abridged. Geoffrey Bromiley, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Byrd, Wendell. 1999. Will Your Children Go To Heaven? The Crieve Hall Family Chronicle, April 11.
  • Edersheim, Alfred. 1957. Sketches of Jewish Social Life. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Harris, Judith Rich. 1998. The Nurture Assumption. New York, NY: The Free Press.
  • Kagan, Jerome. 1998. The Power of Parents. Needham, MA: Peregrine Publishers.
  • Kidner, Derek. 1962. The Proverbs: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
  • Maynard, Roy. 1999. Darwinism evolved. World, March 6.
  • Neill, Derrick. 1999. When Censorship Gets Personal. NEA Today, April.
  • Ross, Allen. 1991. Proverbs. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Frank Gaebelein, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Turner, Nigel. 1982. Christian Words. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
  • Whitehead, Barbara Dafoe. 1998. The Divorce Culture. New York, NY: Random House.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.