• February 2010

"NurtureShock:" Are We Screwing Up Our Kids?

Review by Hope Katz Gibbs

Award-winning science journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman made headlines last fall when they released “NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children.”

In fact, this anti-parenting manual is an insightful exploration of themes and issues that transcend children’s (and adults’) lives: intelligence, racism, civility and aggression, honesty and deception, morality and kindness, peer pressure, risk-taking, and the growth of family relationships.

The authors argue that when it comes to children, we have mistaken good intentions for good ideas. “Many of modern society’s strategies for nurturing children are in fact backfiring because key twists in the science have been overlooked.”

“In a world of modern, involved, caring parents, why are so many kids aggressive and cruel?” they ask. “Where is intelligence hidden in the brain, and why does that matter? Why do cross-racial friendships decrease in schools that are more integrated? If 98% of kids think lying is morally wrong, then why do 98% of kids lie? What’s the single most important thing that helps infants learn language?”

From Shock to Awe

The book opens with an introduction entitled, “Why our instincts about children can be so off the mark.”

The authors explain: “Nurture shock, as the term is generally used, refers to the panic — common among new parents — that the mythical fountain of knowledge is not magically kicking in at all. This book will deliver a similar shock — it will use the fascinating new science of children to reveal just how many of our bedrock assumptions about kids can no longer be counted on.”

Ten chapters follow covering these topics:

Chapter 1: The Inverse Power of Praise. Sure, he’s special. But new research suggests if you tell him that, you’ll ruin him. It’s a neurobiological fact.

Chapter 2: The Lost Hour. Around the world, children get an hour less sleep than they did 30 years ago. The cost: IQ points, emotional well-being, ADHD, and obesity.

Chapter 3: Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race. Does teaching children about race and skin color make them better off or worse?

Chapter 4: Why Kids Lie. We may treasure honesty, but the research is clear. Most classic strategies to promote truthfulness just encourage kids to be better liars.

Chapter 5: The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten. Millions of kids are competing for seats in gifted programs and private schools. Admissions officers say it’s an art: new science says they’re wrong 73% of the time.

Chapter 6: The Sibling Effect. Freud was wrong. Shakespeare was right. Why siblings really fight.

Chapter 7: The Science of Teen Rebellion. Why, for adolescents, arguing with adults is a sign of respect, not disrespect — and arguing is constructive to the relationship, not destructive.

Chapter 8: Can Self-Control Be Taught? Developers of a new kind of preschool keep losing their grant money — the students are so successful they’re no longer “at risk enough” to warrant further study. What’s their secret?

Chapter 9: Plays Well With Others. Why modern involved parenting has failed to produce a generation of angels.

Chapter 10: Why Hannah talks and Alyssa Does Not. Despite scientists’ admonitions, parents still spend billions every year on gimmicks and videos, hoping to jump-start infants’ language skills. What’s the right way to accomplish their goal?

In Conclusion

Finally, we find an essay called, “The Myth of the Supertrait,” in which the authors describe their initial wish list of children’s supertraits: gratitude, honesty, empathy, fairness.

“Then Victoria Talwar taught us that a child’s dishonesty was a sign of intelligence and social savvy. Nancy Darling explained how teens’ deception was almost a necessary part of developing one’s adolescent identity,” they write. “And of course, there was that study about imprisoned felons having higher emotional intelligence than the population as a whole.”

Despite these contradictions, Bronson and Merryman agree, “the goal of having a deeper understanding of children is not futile. In fact, it’s by studying these apparent contradictions very closely that deeper understanding emerges.”

Indeed.

Don’t miss this book: NurtureShock is available at amazon.com.


About Po Bronson

Po Bronson is the author of NurtureShock, a new book released in September by the publishing company Twelve. He has built a career as a successful novelist and as a prominent writer of narrative nonfiction. Bronson has published five books, and written for television, magazines, and newspapers, including Time, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, and for National Public Radio’s popular broadcast, Morning Edition. He is currently writing regularly for New York magazine in the United States and for The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom. For more visit http://www.pobronson.com.

About Ashley Merryman

Ashley Merryman is a writer and attorney living in Los Angeles. She previously served in the Clinton Administration in various positions, including as a speechwriter / researcher to then Vice-President Al Gore. Her play, “Metanoia”, has had staged readings in Los Angeles and Chicago, while her editorials appear in the National Catholic Reporter and other publications. She has a JD from Georgetown, a BFA from the University of Southern California, and a Certificate in Irish Studies, from Queen’s University, Belfast, in Northern Ireland.