Sunday, January 20, 2019

#20 / Doing What Is Expected, II

Judith Rich Harris, pictured above, was an American psychology researcher and the author of The Nurture Assumption, a book criticizing the belief that parents are the most important factor in child development. Harris died on December 30, 2018. In connection with a notification about her death, delivered to me by one of the many newsletters to which I subscribe, I was directed to the article I am linking right here: "Peer Pressure." 

This article provides a quick guide to Harris' rather famous book. Here is an excerpt that rang a bell with me: 

Harris's brilliant stroke was to change the discussion from nature (genes) and nurture (parents) to its older version: heredity and environment. ''Environment'' is broader than nurture. Children, like adults, have two environments: their homes and their world outside the home; their behavior, like ours, changes depending on the situation they are in. Many parents know the eerie experience of having their child's teacher describe their child in terms they barely recognize (''my kid did what?''). Children who fight with their siblings may be placid with friends. They can be honest at home and deceitful at school, or vice versa. At home children learn how their parents want them to behave and what they can get away with; but, Harris shows, ''These patterns of behavior are not like albatrosses that we have to drag along with us wherever we go, all through our lives. We don't even drag them to nursery school.''  
Harris has taken a factor, peers, that everyone acknowledges is important, but instead of treating it as a nuisance in children's socialization, she makes it a major player. Children are merciless in persecuting a kid who is different -- one who says ''Warshington'' instead of ''Washington,'' one who has a foreign accent or wears the wrong clothes. (Remember?) Parents have long lamented the apparent cruelty of children and the obsessive conformity of teen-agers, but, Harris argues, they have missed the point: children's attachment to their peer groups is not irrational, it's essential. It is evolution's way of seeing to it that kids bond with each other, fit in and survive. Identification with the peer group, not identification with the parent, is the key to human survival. That is why children have their own traditions, words, rules, games; their culture operates in opposition to adult rules. Their goal is not to become successful adults but successful children. Teen-agers want to excel as teen-agers, which means being unlike adults [emphasis added].

The point being made here, in the specific context of a discussion about child development, is a point I have made before, in several different contexts. I think it is important to realize that people, by and large, most often do what they think they are expected to do. According to the review of Harris' book, quoted above, even children do this, from their earliest age, because doing as one is expected to do is a survival strategy. We are together in this life, and we need others to accept and support us, and therefore we try to conform to the expectations those others have of us. 

In a way, this might seem discouraging, but I think of the phenomenon as amazingly hopeful. We can transform our human interactions, the way I see it, by changing (and raising) our expectations!

By and large, if we expect more of everyone, everyone will deliver more. Simple expectation, in other words, can provide the energy and impetus to transform the world!

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