Nurture Shock

New Thinking About Children
Po Bronson
Ashley Merryman
Number of pages: 
327 pages
Grade / Age level: 

NurtureShock is a parenting book with a strong scientific foundation that's designed to have a big impact on breaking some of society's misguided conventions regarding parenting and education; which looks to be an exceptionally good thing. It focuses on a number of issues relating to parenting and education in which good science shows us a different view from current cultural assumptions.

Here's a small sampling from the Introduction which will give you a little sense of what the authors' intentions and attitudes are:

We chose these topics because the research surprised us - it directly challenged the conventional point of view on how kids grow up.

However, once we parsed through the science and reviewed the evidence, the new thinking about children felt self-evident and logical, even obvious. It did not feel like we had to raise children "by the book." It felt entirely natural, a restoration of common sense. The old assumptions we once had seemed to be nothing but a projection of wishful thinking. Once we overcame the initial shock, we found ourselves plugged into children in a whole new way.

NurtureShock includes a fairly dense conglomeration of scientific studies on different topics which the authors have gotten heavily involved in. I loved how often they had actually sat down and observed studies conducted by experts in various micro-fields of child behavior while still sharing interesting stories about how their new-found knowledge had impacted their own families. Lots of cool stuff!

It's a book designed for the masses, so it's a relatively quick read, but weighty nonetheless. Incidentally, it never mentions homeschooling (and is completely secular in so far as it never mentions religion or spiritual dimensions - though good science will, naturally, have to take into account things like fallen human nature when studying human behavior), it may end up providing a morale boost to homeschool parents both because it provides pretty broad coverage of some of the things schools struggle with and because it highlights some of the things children need that are relatively easy and natural to provide at home.

The thing that perhaps struck me most about the book was the utter honesty of the authors and scientists, who were sharing information even when it wasn't what they *wanted* it to be; they were incredibly up-front about their own biases. Among other things, this makes it a sort of incomplete - in a natural and healthy and refreshing way. There's lots of stuff to stew on, some of which is quite paradoxical, and it's certainly a book I plan on re-reading and look forward to discussing with others.

Also, if you've read the New York Times' article on "How Not to Talk to Your Kids: The Inverse Power of Praise" (And if you haven't yet, you should!), you'll get a little taste, because this article (which debunks conventional thinking about "self-esteem") is written by one of the authors of NurtureShock and the subject matter of the article is part of what's covered in this book.

Here's a list of basic topics covered in the book (each chapter stands on its own):

1. "The Inverse Power of Praise": Basically, the self-esteem movement was somewhat misguided in thinking that children would feel better about themselves and do better if we just told them they were smart. The truth is, children (and likely adults too!) work better with specific praise about things that they have some control over - like putting good effort into something. Some of this material is found in the New York Times article above.

2. "The Lost Hour": A collection of studies on why children, especially teenagers, need more sleep. The surprising thing is how big an impact this can have on their school performance.

3. "Why White Parents Don't Talk About Race": A very interesting discussion on the negatives of assuming that children will learn appropriate social behavior and attitudes simply from hanging around other children. In addition, we are strongly reminded that parents need to be open (and even brave) about talking to our children about important issues - especially if they are sensitive ones that might make us uncomfortable.

4. "Why Kids Lie": An exposition on current research on lying and some helpful hints for parents - including the vital importance of truly acting like we value honesty. The comparison on various morality tales and how they impact children's behavior was quite fascinating.

5. "The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten": This chapter details serious flaws in the way (and especially the age) in which children are being admitted (and not admitted!) into gifted programs in both public and private schools. This chapter also provides some helpful background on the intellectual development of children.

6. "The Sibling Effect" (Delightfully subtitled: "Freud was wrong. Shakespeare was right. Why siblings really fight."): The basic point is that sibling fights are almost entirely not about struggling for more parental attention. You can read a little more about this chapter in this ABC News article on "The New Science of Siblings".

7. "The Science of Teen Rebellion": This has a lot about the nature of arguments, some of which I'm still processing, but here's an interesting quote - a conclusion regarding a particular study - to give you a sense of it (Hurray for balance!):

The type of parents who were lied to the least had rules and enforced them consistently, but they had found a way to be flexible that allowed the rule-setting process to still be respected.

8. "Can Self-Control Be Taught?": Many interesting insights from a new preschool program/method that's showing great potential.

9. "Plays Well with Others": This covers a variety of parent and family issues that have an effect on how children behave. One of the most important overall themes is that as parents, it's not our job to protect our children from conflict, but to help them learn to deal with it - in large part by dealing with it reasonably ourselves. Discussions of "zero-tolerance" and the paradox of "socially savvy" children (both primarily focused on the school setting) were particularly valuable. Here's a telling paragraph:

We thought that aggressiveness was the reaction to peer rejection, so we have painstakingly attempted to eliminate peer rejection from the childhood experience. In its place is elaborately orchestrated peer interaction. We've created the play date phenomenon, while ladening older kids' schedules with after-school activities. We've segregated children by age - building separate playgrounds for the youngest children, and stratifying classes and teams. Unwittingly, we've put children into an echo chamber. Today's average middle schooler has a phenomenal 299 peer interactions a day. The average teen spends sixty hours a week surrounded by a peer group (and only sixteen hours a week surrounded by adults). This has created the perfect atmosphere for a different strain of aggression-virus to breed - one fed not by peer rejection, but fed by the need for peer status and social ranking. The more time peers spend together, the stronger this compulsion is to rank high, resulting in the hostility of one-upmanship. All those lessons about sharing and consideration can hardly compete. We wonder why it takes twenty years to teach a child how to conduct himself in polite society - overlooking the fact that we've essentially left our children to socialize themselves.

10. "Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn't": Fascinating information on research about how babies learn language, and particularly, learn to talk. Basically argues for natural responses from reasonably attentive parents as the ideal.

There were certainly a few things here and there that bothered me a little or set off my skeptometer (not so much regarding the scientific data as the commentary and even some minor assumptions surrounding it), but on the whole I rejoice at the publication of this very helpful book!

Overall, I found it to be a very helpful and worthwhile read. It would be particularly good for reading AND discussion (at least with your spouse - perhaps with a little group as well). Enthusiastically recommended!

Review Date: 
Reviewed by: 
Alicia Van Hecke