Although I was vaguely aware of NurtureShock from mentions in the press, I was inspired to read it by a review at Book Dads. The idea behind the book, written by journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, is that many common strategies for childrearing are backfiring, and that scientific studies do exist to explain why that is. Personally, I'm a sucker for things that seem counter-intuitive, but make sense on closer inspection. And I found this book fascinating.
After a brief introduction, the following ten chapters each tackle a particular aspect of parenting, from coping with kids who tell lies to encouraging multicultural acceptance. All of the chapters discuss scientific research studies, and are extensively referenced. The detailed notes and references are all confined to the end of the book, however, keeping the main text of the book accessible to the casual reader.
The first chapter includes what is probably the best-known claim of the book: that the modern-day practice of constantly praising children for being smart is counter-productive. Bronson and Merryman argue that being praised for being smart takes away kids' intrinsic motivation (why should they work hard when they're smart?) and sets them up for failure when they do run across something that they find difficult. They suggest instead that it's much better to praise kids for working hard, and to offer praise that is specific, rather than general. That way, you help kids to develop the confidence to try increasingly difficult tasks, and give them the skills that they need to develop. I have to say, this just plain makes sense to me.
The other chapters are full of interesting ideas, too. Chapter 2 discusses sleep deprivation in teens, and makes a strong case for shifting high school schedules to run a bit later. The authors also cite research tying sleep deprivation to obesity. Chapter 3 talks about why white parents generally don't talk about race with their children at all, and how that can backfire. There's also research that suggests that in more diverse school environments, kids are actually less likely to form friendships with students of other races (they self-segregate). Chapter 4 investigates the reasons that kids lie, and finds that many of the strategies that parents use to encourage honesty actually encourage kids to become better liars. And so on.
Readers of this blog may be particularly interested in Chapter 10, about language development in infants and toddlers. The authors discuss the reason that so called "baby videos" (like Baby Einstein) were found to actually impair infants' vocabularies (because they tend to show images that are disconnected from the audio track, and babies need the reinforcement of seeing someone's face while words are being formed).
Bronson and Merryman also take on the famous Hart and Risley study, which looked at how many words per hour kids in different families heard, and the resulting language deficit of preschoolers from working class families vs. kids from professional class families. They cite more recent studies that suggest that it's not so much the flow of words circling around a young child that matters, but rather, the responsiveness of parents to the child's early attempts to verbalize. Here's a quote:
"The variable that best explained these gaps (in developmental language milestones, among children who were all from parents with high vocabularies) was how often a mom rapidly responded to her child's vocalizations and explorations. The toddlers of high-responders were a whopping six months ahead of the toddlers of low-responders. They were saying their first words at ten months, and reaching other milestones by fourteen months". (Page 208)
As you can imagine, this isn't a book that all readers are going to be comfortable with. It challenges a lot of widely held ideas, and presents some unpalatable statistics (for instance, that 96% teens lie to their parents). But me, I flagged dozens of passages with post-it flags (turning my copy into a "porcupine book", though I cannot, alas, recall who coined that phrase).
While I found some chapters more interesting than others, I thought that the overall premise of the book was compelling. NurtureShock was a book that I thought about, and wanted to get back to. I was tripped up by awkward phrasing here and there, probably a result of much of the book's content having been originally published as magazine articles, and then re-edited for the book form. But for the most part, I found NurtureShock to be an engaging, enjoyable, and thought-provoking read. I recommend it for parents, or anyone interested in social sciences and child development.
© 2010 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. All Amazon links in this post are affiliate links, and may result in my receiving a small commission on purchases (with no additional cost to you).