Thursday Book Review: Nurture Shock
As if we needed yet another indicator of economic collapse, note that the men who once chronicled financial high jinks have turned to baby sling strategy and sibling rivalry. First Michael Lewis, author of “Liar’s Poker,” hit the best-seller list with a memoir about the perils (and awww, rewards) of being a dad. Now Po Bronson, who made his name novelizing Bay Area bond trading and Silicon Valley upstarts, has come out with a book on child-rearing.
But not just any book! “NurtureShock,” with its Toffleresque title, promises to revolutionize parenthood with “New Thinking About Children.” According to Bronson and his co-writer, Ashley Merryman, who runs a church-based tutoring program for urban youth, “nurture shock” is the panic common to new parents that “the mythical fountain of knowledge is not magically kicking in.” It’s that gut-pummeling doubt that hits the moment you bring your first child home from the hospital— “They let us keep this thing?” — and snowballs from there. Such feelings of inadequacy, the authors suggest, are justified. But, as they write with deeply felt earnestness, “small corrections in our thinking today could alter the character of society long term, one future-citizen at a time.”
The key, outlined in 10 deftly organized chapters, is to ignore common assumptions about children in favor of the latest social science, much of it counterintuitive. Think it’s best for 10th-grade slackers to high-tail it to school at 7 a.m.? Wrong! Let them sleep in, say the prevailing studies on teenagers and sleep. Believe that reading the Berenstain Bears and other turgid “pro-social” stories will make your kindergartner more genial? They’re actually more likely to inspire in her new ways of tormenting her little brother.
Based on a pair of Bronson’s high-profile cover stories for New York magazine, which applied similarly brazen titles (“Learning to Lie,” “How Not to Talk to Your Kids”) to academic research of the past two decades, the book is perhaps less revolutionary about parenthood than it is revelatory about books on parenthood. That sounds weighty and abstruse, so as Bronson and Merryman might phrase it, let me “unpack” what I mean.
Ann Hulbert, author of “Raising America,” could easily lend a hand. As Hulbert made clear in her 2003 history of parenting advice, each generation of parents falls sway if not to a singular sanctified Dr. Spock, then to a bevy of conflicting sages. (The current generation is likely to be remembered as that of Drs. Sears and Brazelton on the child-centered side, John Rosemond on the parent-centric side, and Jenny McCarthy and Tori Spelling on the Hollywood-mommy fringe.) Whereas others may call upon medical training, paternal wisdom or been-there-done-that motherhood, Bronson and Merryman, having “parsed through the science and reviewed the evidence,” appeal to scientific reason — just as, Hulbert writes, experts more than a century ago first urged the scientific and systematic study of children.
What comes around goes around, goes away and then comes back. In a chapter on overpraise, the authors describe laboratory studies in which children, having taken an initial test and then been praised for their intelligence, fared worse in follow-up rounds, while children who were instead commended for their effort challenged themselves further and performed better over all. Frequent and oft-undeserved rewards in the form of praise, the authors caution, deprive a child of motivation and discourage persistence. “It’s a neurobiological fact,” they write, pointing to studies of M.R.I. scans and trained rodents. True, but far from new. Albeit without the sci-techy benefit of brain imaging, in 1964, “Children: The Challenge,” a popular manual of the day, warned, “Praise, as a means of encouragement, must be used very cautiously.” It can be “dangerous” if a child sees praise as a reward and “could easily lead to discouragement,” the author, Rudolf Dreikurs, noted.
Still, much of the research here on the upkeep of children is interesting and worthwhile. (And what new parent has the fortitude to sift through academic journals?) Several studies, for example, demonstrate that the more children are threatened with punishment, the more they lie and the better they get at it. In one, kids who attend a traditional colonial school in western Africa, where teachers frequently slap children for misdeeds, were especially likely to lie progressively more in order to avoid the consequences. Another study found that reading “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” increased children’s likelihood of lying, while a book on George Washington and the cherry tree decreased it dramatically. And not because kids revere Washington — the students in the study were Canadian.
One of the most valuable chapters looks at how white parents deal with race. For those who think it best to describe Caucasians as “pinkish white” and blacks as “brown skinned” (raise your hands, Upper West Siders), recent research delivers a strong rebuke. Pretending race doesn’t exist leaves young children to form their own — often racist — opinions. A chapter on early childhood testing delivers similarly distressing and critical news. Bronson and Merryman do parents a service by calling attention to studies that seldom make their way into the media.
But to judge from these pages, the authors are a bit too enthralled with their academic sources. Their penchant for describing psychological studies and research projects as if they were chemistry experiments, with phrases like “the test of scientific analysis” and “the science of peer relations,” conjure up the image of Thomas Dolby repeatedly exhorting “Science!” Let’s face it — even if, as the authors suggest, “preschoolers’ E.F. capability can be measured with simple computerized tests,” chances are, this year’s E.F. (“executive function”) will be tomorrow’s E.Q. (“emotional intelligence”), which the authors deride as an unreliable predictor of academic achievement or adult success.
No doubt we’ll worry about that later. For now, Bronson is, above all, a brilliant packager of books about what people care about most: themselves. As he did in “What Should I Do With My Life?,” his 2002 best seller, Bronson has adroitly polished a fairly unoriginal subject into high-gloss pop psychology. This isn’t the big news of the day, but the small, consequential news that affects our daily lives; it’s the stuff of breakfast shows and private-school parenting seminars. It’s “What Should I Do With My Kids?” And isn’t that all about me, anyway?