NEW YORK — Judith Rich Harris, a psychologist, was writing college textbooks on child development when she suddenly realized she didn’t believe what she was telling readers about why children turn out the way they do.
She had her own theory: that children are influenced more by their genes and peers than by their parents. It was a revolutionary thought and ran counter to what most psychologists — and most parents — believed. She wrote it up for an academic journal and won a prestigious prize from the American Psychological Association.
Mrs. Harris, who died Saturday at her home in Middletown, N.J., at 80, was dismissed by some. She did not have a doctorate, was not writing from an academic perch, and was belittled by some critics as little more than “a grandmother from New Jersey.”
But with encouragement from others, she turned her article into a book, “The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do” (1998). It became a best seller and caused a sensation in the news media.
In it, she argued that parents play less of a role than they think they do in shaping their children. Many of the questions that frazzle new parents and guilt-trip mothers, such as whether the child will be damaged if sent to day care while the mother works, are essentially meaningless, Mrs. Harris suggested, because being in day care or having the mother at home is less important than the child’s genes and social group.
Her central insight, which she said came to her while reading a psychology paper in 1994, was that adolescents are not trying to be like adults, they are trying to be like other adolescents. “If they really aspired to ‘mature status,’ they would be doing boring adult things like sorting the laundry and figuring out their income taxes. Teenagers aren’t trying to be like adults: they are trying to distinguish themselves from adults!”
It was her work as a textbook writer that gave her the broad perspective across disciplines to develop her thesis. Because she was not affiliated with a university, she was in no position to undertake large studies herself. But she was deeply familiar with the literature.
“And she was so damn smart,” Steven Pinker, the Harvard psychologist and author who has championed Mrs. Harris’s work, said in a phone interview. “Her gift was she could understand the technical aspects of behavioral genetics and at the same time was a psychologist and a very sharp observer of human behavior.”
Moreover, he said, she was by nature a realist, someone who rejected the comforting platitudes about parents and children, allowing her to develop her unsentimental views.
Because her writing was so accessible, and because it touched a third rail of modern American life — optimal child rearing — her book sparked a national conversation.
“Do Parents Matter?” asked the cover of Newsweek. Yes, Mrs. Harris said, parents do matter; a parent’s behavior toward a child will affect how the child acts, at least in the parent’s presence, and it will help define what kind of relationship the two will have as the child grows up.
But genes and peers play an even bigger role, she said. Some undeniable pieces of evidence: The children of immigrants sound like their peers, not their parents; the children of deaf parents can speak without hindrance; adopted children do not resemble their adoptive parents in intelligence or personality. “The idea that we can make our children turn out any way we want is an illusion,” she wrote. “You can neither perfect them nor ruin them.”
Her theories ran smack into the academic establishment, which at first ignored and then criticized her work and bemoaned her lack of credentials. She was that unusual student who had been kicked out of Harvard while working on her doctorate. The letter dismissing her in 1960, signed by George A. Miller, the acting chairman of Harvard’s psychology department, said, “We are in considerable doubt that you will develop into our professional stereotype of what an experimental psychologist should be.”
In an irony that even Miller would come to appreciate, the prestigious award that Mrs. Harris received in 1998 from the American Psychological Association was named for Miller.
Yet these days, her ideas are still not accepted in the mainstream of academic psychology.
“It’s not so much that her theories have been refuted,” Pinker said. “Her main findings are abundantly replicated, but her message goes over people’s heads. It is so ingrained that parenting shapes the child that her message just doesn’t penetrate.”
She leaves her husband, Charles, whom she met at Harvard; two daughters, Nomi and Elaine; a brother, Richard; and four grandchildren.
Mrs. Harris hoped her theory would calm down anxious parents whose children turned out badly. She also advised grown children to accept responsibility for their lives, concluding her book with this advice: “As for what’s wrong with you: Don’t blame it on your parents.”