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Volume 15, Number 3
May/June 1999

How Many Environments Does a Child Have?


The persistent focus on parents as the primary source of influence on children has left major gaps in our understanding of why children turn out the way they do. Too much emphasis has been placed on the parents and not enough on the other people in the child's life—teachers, for instance. Too much attention has been paid to the home and not enough to the child's other environments.

My book, The Nurture Assumption, has been widely attacked because I had the temerity to suggest that parents lack the power to shape their child's personality (See Jerome Kagan's essay, "A Parent's Influence Is Peerless," HEL, November/December 1998.) I supported this counter-intuitive view with evidence from anthropology, sociology, and several subfields of psychology. But what has been overlooked in the commotion surrounding my book is its positive message. If the parents' child-rearing style matters little in the long run, that doesn't mean that nothing matters in the long run. The conclusion I drew from my overview of a great deal of research is that people who are interested in the long-term effects of a child's environment should look not at the home, but at the world outside the home. And the most important part of that world is the school.

Here's what I said in The Nurture Assumption: "If, in this book, I seem to rob parents of much of their power and responsibility, I cannot be accused of perpetrating the same crime against teachers. Teachers have power and responsibility because they are in control of an entire group of children. They can influence the attitudes and behaviors of the entire group. And they exert this influence where it is likely to have long-term effects: in the world outside the home, the world where children will spend their adult lives."

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


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