Book Review: Nuture Shock: New Thinking about Children




            This new book is aptly named. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman are investigative journalists who have done their homework searching recent research on child development and have presented it in an organized and readable format. Most of what they present is surprising, if not shocking, and counter-intuitive. While you may not agree with all that is said, the contents deserve consideration by those who deal with children as parents, educators, doctors, and therapists.

            In the Introduction, Bronson and Merryman present the concept that our intuitions and instincts about raising children contain flaws. They identify the instinct to nurture and protect one’s child as the strongest biological drive. Contemporary research has demonstrated that certain types of nurturing and following our instincts and intuitions can compromise parenting, teaching, and training. Read more…

The Inverse Power of Praise: The belief that children’s self-esteem is important has lead to an increase of praise. Paradoxically, it was found that praise can reduce children’s performance and self-esteem. Children who are praised for being smart tend to have decreased performance and to give up sooner. Children who are praised for their effort demonstrate enhanced performance and resilience. Current research does not confirm that high esteem improves grades or career achievement. Praise can be beneficial when it is specific and when it is sincere. Praise is often interpreted by teenagers, however, as a sign that the adult is trying to motivate and manipulate performance that is deemed sub-par. Praised students tend to become risk-averse and lack autonomy. This is consistent with the conclusions of Daniel Coyne in The Talent Code.


The Lost Hour: “Around the world, children get an hour less sleep that they did thirty years ago. The cost: IQ points, emotional well-being, ADHD, and obesity.” For all of the problems that adults suffer due to inadequate sleep, children have even less resistance to the effects of fatigue. Research demonstrates that the loss of an hour of sleep can degrade the performance of a sixth-grade student by two years to the equivalent of a student in fourth grade. One surprise is that the amount of television watched by children has not gone up in the last thirty years and cannot be blamed, by itself, for the increase in obesity. Also, there is no statistical difference between the number of hours of television watched by heavy and thin children. The leap in obesity started in 1980 before the use of video games and the internet became significant. Recent research has demonstrated that lack of sleep causes a hormonal cascade which links sleep deprivation to obesity. The increase in children’s activities and the times at which they are scheduled contribute to the epidemic sleep deprivation.


Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race: It is accepted wisdom that young children are color-blind and that prejudice needs to be taught. The reality is that young children are sensitive to differences and their perceptual development causes them to categorize. “Essentialism” is the name of the tendency to assume that people with similar traits are more like you than people without these traits. Skin color is an obvious trait. Parents carefully avoid mentioning these differences because they want their children to be color-blind, but it does not work. Just putting children of different races together has also been shown to be ineffective. Children self-segregate. Specific lessons about race and historical discrimination are effective. As children should not be taught a sanitized version of the history of our country, they should not be taught a sanitized history of race relations. It eliminates an opportunity to learn important lessons about human nature.

Why Kids Lie: This may be the most surprising chapter. Research not only demonstrates that children lie more than most of us assume and at much younger ages, but also demonstrates that adults are very poor at detecting when children are lying, even their own children. In one test of lying, one-third of three-year-olds lied and most of them confessed their lies. By age four, however, 80% of the children lied and over 80% of those who lied then lied about lying. One problem that has been detected is that adults model lying inadvertently. While we may not see a “white lie” as a lie when we are trying not to hurt someone’s feelings, pre-school children do not yet have the ability to distinguish between categories of lies. Ironically, children who lie successfully are developmentally advanced in both cognitive and social skills. Children who are still lying by age seven seem to be hooked and the behavior is resistant to change. Children do not recognize until age eleven that lies hurt other people. Research has demonstrated that telling children that lying is wrong is not effective. Instruction in the value of honesty, which can be done through stories such as George Washington and the cherry tree,  have been proven to be more effective in decreasing lying.

The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten: Children in our country are tested at early ages to get into special schools and classes. All of these tests are astonishingly ineffective at predicting future academic success which is not realized by most schools. Current understanding of intelligence is that it is not innate and stable. Environment is a big factor as is the differing rates of brain maturation amongst children. Emotional intelligence is also not a good predictor of future academic success. Research provides strong indications that children who develop later may have a long-term advantage. Persistence may be a more important factor than intelligence and, as Stanislas Dehaene discusses in Reading in the Brain, there are greater brain differences as a result of reading than those that cause differences in the ability to learn to read.

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The Sibling Effect: Being an only child has been considered a disadvantage for learning social skills and the rate on one-child families in the United States has doubled in the last two decades. There are now more one-child families than two-child families. As it turns out, research has demonstrated that children with siblings may learn more poor social skills from their thousands of sibling interactions than good social skills. Assumptions about why siblings fight center around parents’ attention, but research has determined that 80% of fights are about possessions. “Getting what you want from a parent is easy. It’s getting what you want from friends that forces a child to develop skills.” It has always been assumed that children learn social skills from dealing with their siblings and transfers them to dealing with friends. Research demonstrates that this is the other way around. Fantasy play has been demonstrated to be most important in developing social skills. It represents the highest level of social interaction, attention, and commitment by young people.

The Science of Teen Rebellion: We recognize that teens have to rebel. While most of us intensely dislike arguing with our teens and view it as disrespectful, they tend to view it as constructive as problems are brought into the open and compromises worked out. Teens brains have a tendency to be bored and to seek emotionally-charged excitement while, at the same time, teen brains are not adequately developed to gauge risk and foresee consequences. Their brains require more chemical stimulation to prevent boredom and are predisposed at the same time to be very sensitive to the opinions of their peers. Their brains have the ability to think abstractly but not to feel abstractly which could prevent them from doing things that would not feel right.  

Can Self-Control be Taught? In this chapter, Bronson and Merryman share statistics on accepted programs whose outcomes are surprisingly poor. One example is drivers’ education. By eliminating drivers’ education and making it more difficult to get a license, accident rates were dropped by 27%. Teenagers get in fatal accidents at twice the rate of the rest of the population. Their problem is not that they do not know the rules which are taught by drivers’ education. They make poor decisions. Statistics for intervention programs, such as D.A.R.E., to change behaviors tend to be abysmal. A program which has demonstrated marked success is Tools for the Mind. The crucial component of this program is 45 minutes of planned play every day. In addition to excellent outcomes for academic achievement, the behavior ratings have been even better. The Tools of the Mind program accepts that important skills can be learned more effectively during structured play than in a traditional classroom. Important examples are symbolic thought and holding multiple thoughts in your head at the same time (working memory). These skills are important for almost all learning and children learn abstract thinking through play. Self reflection requires holding opposing alternatives in one’s mind at the same time. This cannot be done without an adequate working memory in this area. Many tasks which have become automatic for us require multi-tasking and effective working memory to be accomplished by children. Other tasks in Tools of the Mind classrooms require impulse control and attention to the background such as playing Simon Says. Insights from the research indicate that “When a child seems to be lacking in control, it’s not that her brain can’t concentrate – she’s not aware she even needs to concentrate…. She’s literally not paying attention to how well she’s doing.” “Just like the science of intelligence, the science of self-control has shifted in the last decade from the assumption that it’s a fixed trait – some have it, other’s don’t – to the assumption it’s malleable.”


Plays Well With Others: “According to the science of peer relations, there’s one big problem with lumping all childhood aggression under the rubric of bullying. It’s that most of the meanness, cruelty, and torment that goes on at schools isn’t inflicted by those we commonly think of as bullies, or “bad” kids. Instead, most of it is meted out by children who are popular, well-liked, and admired.” “Aggression is not simply a breakdown or lapse of social skills. Rather, many acts of aggression require highly attuned social skills to pull off, and even physical aggression is often the mark of a child who is “socially savvy”, not socially deviant.” Children can learn conflict resolution through observation of parental conflict that is not cruel and is resolved. Moving conflict away from children so they do not see the resolution may not be in their best interest.


Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn’t: In this last chapter, research is presented that conflicts with accepted wisdom derived from landmark research in the 1970s. This research found a strong correlation between the amount and nature of language in the home and young children’s speech and language development. Further observation and evaluation, however, demonstrated that it is not the parents’ speech that matters but the encouragement of the child’s speech. Baby DVDs have been shown to be ineffective because they do not encourage the baby to speak and are not interactive. Baby DVDs do not tend to show people talking. “Babies learn to decipher speech partially by lip-reading: they watch how people move their lips and mouths to produce sounds. One of the first things that babies must learn – before they can comprehend any word meanings – is when one word ends and another begins.” “The information flow that matters most is in the opposite direction we previously assumed. The central role of the parent is not to push massive amounts of language into the baby’s ears; rather, the central role of the parent is to notice what’s coming from the baby, and respond accordingly – coming from his mouth, his eyes, and his fingers.” “In fact, one of the mechanisms helping a baby to talk isn’t parent’s speech at all – it’s not what a child hears from a parent, but what a parent accomplishes with a well-timed, loving caress.”

Dad Labs: Po Bronson interview