Judith Rich Harris, Who Played Down the Role of Parents, Dies at 80

Judith Rich Harris, Who Played Down the Role of Parents, Dies at 80

She updated her theory about parental influence in her book “No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality” (2006).

But 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,” Dr. 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.”

Judith Rich was born on Feb. 10, 1938, in Brooklyn. Her father, Sam L. Rich, was briefly a businessman and her mother, Frances, was a homemaker. Because her father had an autoimmune disease called ankylosing spondylitis, an inflammatory disease of the spine, the family settled in the mid-1940s in Tucson, where the climate was easier on his ailments.

Judith graduated from Tucson High School and briefly attended the University of Arizona before transferring to Brandeis, where she graduated magna cum laude in 1959 with a degree in psychology. She later became a member of Phi Beta Kappa. She went to Harvard, and although she was booted out of the doctoral program, she was awarded a master’s in psychology in 1961.

She met Charles S. Harris at Harvard, where he was also studying psychology, and they married in 1961. She worked briefly as a teaching assistant at M.I.T. and as a research assistant at the University of Pennsylvania.

With their two daughters, Nomi and Elaine, the couple settled in New Jersey, where they both worked for Bell Labs, she as a research assistant and he as a basic researcher for 23 years. Because one of the daughters was adopted, and had a rocky adolescence, some criticized Ms. Harris as fashioning her theory playing down the role of parents to absolve herself of responsibility, but her adherents said that was nonsense and that her work was supported by multiple studies.

Since 1977, Ms. Harris had suffered from a chronic autoimmune disorder, which can affect any organ in the body. One of its more serious complications is a heart-lung condition known as pulmonary arterial hypertension, which was diagnosed in 2002. Her husband said in a telephone interview that these conditions most likely played a role in her death, but the exact cause was not clear.

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