NurtureShock: Review

Parents have it all wrong.

We have good intentions based on progressive ideals. We simultaneously raise our children under the influence of logic and intuition, neither of which turn out to be completely adequate guideposts for parenting. There are many facts that parents have assumed based on an intense culture shift toward success and developmental advancement, but in trying so hard, many of us have fundamentally lost our way.

One of the things I learned from NurtureShock is that I shouldn’t be assuming that my daughters are naturally innocent cherubs. According to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, kids are born with a tendency to segregate by race. My child came home from pre-school a few weeks ago telling me about a “brown” girl. I was startled to hear her identify someone by their color and quickly corrected her, but I should have used that as an opportunity to speak openly about race.

I’ll also have to deal with the fact that my child is a natural liar. It’s not her fault. All children seem to share that gift. After reading NurtureShock, I’ll be a bit more prepared, knowing that the fabled example of George Washington and the cherry tree is a far superior lesson compared to Peter and the Wolf.

Schools can learn quite a bit from NurtureShock too.  Want to boost grades at your child’s school? Convince the school board to start school an hour later. Want a better pre-school and kindergarten? Convince the school board to adopt a Tools of the Mind program that focuses on planning, strategy, and self-control. Want a better way to test children into an advanced placement program? Convince the school board to stop testing for geniuses at kindergarten and wait until 3rd grade.

The last half of the book are extensive notes and cited sources. The book says a lot of unusual things like praise should be reserved for the effort and not the action, and I wouldn’t blame parents for being skeptical of such advice. But just because a book challenges our ideas of right and wrong doesn’t mean that it’s inaccurate. NurtureShock even commented on our own recent debate over spanking. Would you believe that my rare use of spanking as a special form of discipline leads to far more aggression than if I spanked them for every infraction? It was hard for me to wrap my mind around that until Bronson and Merryman explained the theories behind that fact.

I will grant that Bronson is a professional writer and Merryman is a professional lawyer. Neither of them are scientists (neither am I), but they seem to be placing their trust on scientific research and basing their opinions on extensive interviews with scholars and researchers. That’s all I can ask out of a parenting book. Every parent who believes that science trumps intuition, should buy NurtureShock, read it several times, and share it with a friend.

10 Responses to NurtureShock: Review

  1. During an interview, I heard British psychologist and skeptic Richard Wiseman give the same non-intuitive recommendation to praise effort, not outcome, as a motivational strategy not just for kids, but for all people. No sources were sited, as it was an audio interview, but Wiseman is pretty reliable about basing his advice on solid research. The logic is that outcomes are partially based on chance, but effort can be controlled. The goal being to always illicit a maximum effort regardless of outcome. Following this advice does lead to some odd looking behavior, like my wife and I cheering loudly when our daughter tries to run, trips, and splats on her face, but it seems (anecdotally) to reduce the amount of tears and any unwillingness to try again.

  2. Ticktock says:

    As long as she is actually giving good effort then the praise will be helpful. But if she is being lazy or playing tag while she should be defending the goal, then she would need motivation and/or honest criticism appropriate to the age level. It’s a very fine line.

    I know that I sometimes have to remind myself as a director of children’s theatre that some of these kids come from homes where they are constantly praised; one note of fair and honest criticism has sent more than one child actor into a fit of tears.

  3. teacherninja says:

    Sounds like an interesting book. It’ll be fun to read and then look into the research, kinda like one of Gladwell’s pop psychology books. I can’t comment on most of the claims, but as a teacher I can tell you that the “praise for effort, not action or product” is completely true and goes back many years. Daniel Pink has a book coming out on this (there’s a TED talk up with him as well, just substitute “school” for “business” and he gets it right for education as well) and looked into the research on this claim. That’s why Alfie Kohn is right: kids ARE “punished by rewards.” If our goal is life-long learners (which I certainly hope is the case) then yes, we definitely want to stress effort. I taught the “gifted” kids one year and actually had a harder time on this with them. They were afraid to try anything new–afraid because they were used to being the best and didn’t want to look bad. They would turn in things that any other teacher would give them an “A” on because they looked nice, but I would hand back because it would be the third day of a three-week assignment. But the ones who did it–who really put in the effort, were much happier with the results no matter how it turned out (which was, of course, usually fine).

  4. Simon says:

    I’m surprised at folks not having heard the praise effort not achievement idea before.

    It is based on the idea that children will do what they are praised for. And if that is effortless achievement, they’ll do that rather than work hard.

    I don’t have references to hand, but this is quite well embedded in the education system here.

    Of course one has to temper the advice with the real world, one equally shouldn’t ignore achievement even if it comes easily, since that might be discouraging of itself.

  5. catgirl says:

    I certainly agree with the advice to praise effort and not achievement. As a child, I would work hard to clean my room and my mom would inspect it only to tell me that the dresser top is messy or the bed isn’t neat enough, etc. Very quickly I came to the conclusion that my mom wouldn’t be happy no matter what I did, so I didn’t bother to make even a minor effort. Now, as an adult, my apartment is a complete mess and I have to really force myself to clean anything.

    On the other hand, I was (am?) gifted, and school was always very easy for me. I got plenty of praise for good grades, and I never had to study at all. In eight grade, English composition class became more difficult, and I ended up not just not even bothering to do some assignments. There were a lot of factors involved including moving to a new school, but a big part of it was that I never had to work at all to get good grades, and I didn’t really know how to do it. I was also afraid of trying and doing only average or even bad. If I failed because I didn’t bother, it’s because it was my own choice rather than someone’s judgment of my work. I’m lucky that a lot of things still come easily to me, but I ended up getting a lot of Bs and Cs in college instead of As simply because I never developed good study habits or the motivation to work hard.

    • Zeekster says:

      I had almost the exact same experience as catgirl (above). Did great in “gifted” classes but later on in school I just started ignoring assignments completely when they looked too hard. I’ll have to remember “praise for effort not for outcomes” when I eventually do have kids.

  6. Bobbi says:

    You might want to read Why Gender Matters for a bit of perspective about the fact that boys and girls aren’t the same, and that different methods work with different age groups. I’m going to pick up Nurture Shock, it sounds interesting!

  7. This is slightly unconnected to this post, but I wanted to point out a resource for collecting and sharing citations, CiteULike.

    I’ve had the idea (blogged about here) to form a skeptical parenting group on CiteULike to build a shared collection of papers and books like the one above, to share and comment on. It might be a good complement to the reviews provided on blogs like this. I’ve formed a CiteULike group for skeptical parenting here, if you’re interested.

  8. Trent says:

    Thanks for the recommendation. What an insightful book. With almost 90 pages of notes, references and sources if you find something too challenging you can certainly see where their assumptions came from. It is making me think a lot harder about the details of our parenting. If anything should be considered course materials for parenting this should make this list – Mainly because it make you an active thinker about how kids operate rather than giving you a list of do’s and don’t.

  9. Simon says:

    Ditto – have since bought, read the book, and lent it to a friend who works in Educational psychology for his views on the topic. Curiously my friend’s Phd was one of those thesis that showed high self-esteem is not an entirely positive attribute.

    I did feel the book did sometimes leave discussions too early, before fully putting some studies in context. But a mild complaint, in and otherwise very thought provoking book.

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