The Corner

Judith Rich Harris

Harris’s career was made by an article by Malcolm Gladwell in the August 17, 1998 issue of The New Yorker. The article is available at Gladwell’s website. Money grafs:

Judith Harris and her husband, Charles, have two children. The first, Nomi, is their biological daughter, and the second, Elaine, is adopted….Nomi, the elder, was quiet and self-sufficient as a child, a National Merit Scholar who went on to do graduate work at MIT. “She is very much like me and Charlie,” Harris says. “She gave us no trouble while she was growing up. She didn’t require much guidance, because she didn’t want to do anything that we didn’t want her to do….

Elaine was different….”We started getting bad reports from the school right away….As the girls got older, Nomi became a brain and Elaine became a dropout. Nomi was a member of a very small clique of intellectual kids, and Elaine was a member of the delinquent subgroup. They went in opposite directions”….

[H]er younger daughter seemed out of control. “We had very bad years with her in her teens,” she recalls. “We didn’t know how to handle her.” Harris says that she began motherhood as a classic environmentalist, meaning she believed that children would reflect the environment in which they were reared. Had she stopped with Nomi, she says, she might have attributed Nomi’s studiousness and self-sufficiency and success to her own enlightened parenting. It was Elaine who made the puzzle posed by the adoption studies seem real. “I assumed that an adopted child would represent her environment, and that if I could give Elaine the same kind of environment I gave to my first child she would turn out–of course, not the same…” She thought for moment. “But I certainly didn’t expect that she would be so vastly different. I couldn’t see that I was having any effect on her at all.” Harris seems a little reluctant to talk about those years, particularly since Elaine turned out, as she puts it, “amazingly well” and is now happy and married, with a toddler and a career as a licensed practical nurse. But it’s not hard to imagine the kind of guilt and frustration she must have felt…There are a hundred ways of explaining Nomi and Elaine, and there is, of course, something very convenient about the explanation that Harris arrived at: it’s the kind of thing that the mother of a difficult child wants to believe. Harris has constructed a theory that lets herself off the hook for her daughter’s troubled childhood.

I remember this so well because I found it so distasteful and upsetting at the time.

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