Do Parents Matter?

Joyce Dryfoos
November 1, 1998

The above headline was the question on the cover of a recent Newsweek. Just when you think the nation has had its fill of media-stimulated controversies, along comes a new one. Now the press is having a field day with a significant subject for youth advocates. A new book has the provocative title, “The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do. Parents Matter Less Than You Think and Peers Matter More.” According to the previously little-known author, Judith Rich Harris, parents influence their children at birth only through genetics, after which peers take over as the central instrument for shaping social and emotional development. “Imagine getting no blame and no credit for the child you raise,” said the lead to the story in USA Today. “It won’t be your fault if the kid becomes a serial killer. But you won’t get to brag if she wins a Nobel Prize.”

Back to the nature versus nurture argument, a dispute that never seems to go away. Harris has incited psycho-social development gurus to new wars just when it seemed that consensus had been reached. Don’t we have ample evidence that the early years of parenting are crucial factors in child development, that IQ reflects the social environment as much as the DNA, and that older teens need responsible adults in their lives to help them deal with peer pressures?

In all the hype, youth work is virtually left out. The argument is posited as though there was only two factors that might shape the way young people grow up, parents and peers (and in Harris’s view, only the latter count). She advises caring parents to move to a neighborhood where their children will find nice other children with whom to play and go to school.

Many aspects of current youth work are at stake here. Students of high-risk youth behavior know that inadequate parental attention is a marker of vulnerability. Many programs make an intense effort to involve parents rather than dismiss them as inconsequential. The record is excellent for early parenting programs. Parents learn about child development, often from trained home visitors who assist parents with new babies and continue to advise as they become toddlers. This kind of effort has been shown to work even with parents of adolescents when trained family workers come into the home to help the child and the parents negotiate their differences.

We know that it is much more difficult to assist parents of older children. Offerings of lectures on child psychology are poorly attended by over-burdened families. But parents vote with their feet. When family resource centers open in schools and community agencies, parents flock in for all kinds of guidance, health services and educational opportunities — programs they perceive to be useful. Parents respond to invitations to work as classroom aides or attend school/community events. This brings them into contact with the people who are working with their children in a non-adversarial way. Intensive wrap-around case management and Big Brother/Big Sister mentoring may provide a more significant impact than peer groups, especially with high-risk kids.

It will not help this generation of young people to write off their parents and other adults as insignificant. Parents need all the support they can get. Granted, this new wave of pop-psychology follows on a period of intense parent-bashing, as if all the problems of today’s youth could be attributed to poor parenting skills and working moms. The framework of contemporary youth work is built around the concept that family, school, peers and community all have profound interrelated impacts on children’s well-being. It’s not a simplistic “either-or” matter.

Youth workers would be wise to grab this moment and share with the media their role in supporting America’s youth. Youth work encourages parents to do a better job, and when that doesn’t work out, helps young people to form attachments to responsible adults. Youth workers recognize the importance of peer influences by teaching young people social skills for healthy relationships. Parents do matter, and so do a lot of other grown-ups.

Dryfoos, Joy. "Do Parents Matter?." Youth Today, November 1998, p. 54.

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