Do Parents Matter?

In my neck of the woods (Boston---where there are more therapists per capita than anyplace else in the world), the ground shook when Judith Rich Harris' controversial book, The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do hit the stands at the local Barnes and Noble. This book suggested that if you left children in their homes and social milieus and you switched parents, it would matter little which parents they had.

Of course, all of us (therapists) had been functioning under the assumption that parents do matter, and that they have a powerful effect on the mental health of children (and later, adults). Some, of course, simply dismissed the claim as ludicrous. Years of anecdotal evidence provided by clients suggested to all of us that parents mattered a great deal. Our clients were injured; we could see that. We also knew what parents had said and done to our clients. The connection seemed obvious.

Yet, Steven Pinker of MIT (author of How the Mind Works) who I know and trust supported Harris' claim. In fact, he believed Harris' find would be one of the most important psychological discoveries of our time. With such praise, how could I simply dismiss it?

Most researchers agree that 50% of the variation in personality has genetic causes. This is no surprise to parents who have had more than one child. Children have a core temperament that appears from birth. Can a parent change an extrovert to an introvert? Probably not. It seems to me one would be constantly paddling upstream, and that more sophisticated measurement might still reveal a closet introvert.

But even if parents cannot influence whether a child is an introvert or an extrovert (or other personality variables), does this mean that individually they have little effect? Should we forget all parenting advice? Are we being good enough if we, as Harris suggests, provide the right peer group for our children and help them fit in? In order to answer these questions, I believe we must make a clear distinction between personality and mental health. If personality represents the "infrastructure" of our emotional functioning, mental health reflects, in part, how we employ that infrastructure in response to others. And here, I think, parents can have a substantial effect.


As I have suggested in many essays on this site, parent-child relationships are replete with subtext. This subtext can be facilitating, damaging, or neutral. A person's generalized response to this subtext is carried from relationship to relationship (the psychoanalysts call this transference; another popular term is "baggage"). However, the "parents matter less" contingent suggest that this is not true: they argue that children adapt to whatever environment they are placed in, and ultimately peers are far more powerful than parents. Still, my clients who were raised by narcissistic parents tell a different story: they say their parents, not their peers, injured them by depriving them of "voice." And this lack of "voice" has affected their capacity to choose appropriate partners and to maintain satisfying relationships. Who's right?

Let me propose a study that might help answer the question. Use the standard subject pool for studies of this kind--identical twins separated at birth (and who are now adults). Conduct a psychological evaluation of the twins' adoptive mothers. Identify two subsets of mothers from within this group: 1) those that are strongly narcissistic, and 2) those that score high in empathy (i.e. capable of giving their child "voice.") Independently, have a professional, expert in the nature and quality of relationships, interview both twins about their current and past adult intimate relationships. After the interviews are completed, ask the expert to pick which twin grew up in the family with the narcissistic mother, and which grew up in the family with the empathic mother.

Could the expert pick the twin who came from the family with the narcissistic mother more than half the time (at a level that reached statistical significance) on the basis of his or her knowledge of the twin's adult relationships? In other words, did the twin's relationship with his or her narcissistic mother affect the quality (and/or choice) of his or her adult attachments in an obvious way? If so, this study would provide evidence that parents (or at least mothers—the same study could be done about fathers as well) do matter. (Of course, this is just the bare bones of a study—the measures and procedures would have to be designed carefully for purposes of validity.)

My bet is that the expert would be right most of the time. What do you think?

About the author: Dr. Grossman is a clinical psychologist and author of the Voicelessness and Emotional Survival web site.

next: Voice Lessons: Littleton, Colorado

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2009, January 3). Do Parents Matter?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 15 from

Last Updated: March 29, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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