Call me unbalanced, but parenting books exert a schizoid power over my brain. While my “eager-beaver, wanna be a better mommy” personality yearns to devour these ubiquitous how-to manuals, the other side of me — call her Ms. Easily Unimpressed — smells a rat and turns up her nose.
“You can’t fool me with your bogus generalizations about my children,” I silently critique the grinning author on the back flap. “You don’t even know them.”
Eventually, the curious, more gullible me wins out, and I crack open the cover only to come across the first patently inane assertion and drop the book mid-sentence, never to be picked up again.
Thus, like many parents I know, I’ve read parts of dozens of these tracts on raising happier, smarter, more responsible children, but finished precious few. It’s not that they are so inherently bad — it’s just that they all seem to have an ax to grind that says a heck of a lot more about the authors’ desire for a really cool ax (or their own professional biases) than the many nuances of real-life parenting. The psychologists prescribe innovative therapeutic solutions; the learning specialists recommend new-fangled mental calisthenics. Eventually, the authors let their bias show.
This is when a parent shrinks back and wonders: Why am I outsourcing my most important job to a paperback?
NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, offers a welcome respite from the unified field theory of parenthood. As journalists — he’s a writer/dad, she’s the director of a tutoring center for inner-city kids in Los Angeles — they both have a stake in discovering useful strategies for raising children and encouraging their learning. But since they aren’t experts in a single field, they can afford to focus on the most promising new ideas to emerge from recent studies.
The book is worth reading. (If that’s not glowing praise from an overemployed parent with young children, I don’t know what is.) But just in case you can’t get around to it this weekend, here are a few golden nuggets:
Call kids smart, and you damage them for life
Just kidding! But the research is clear: Labeling kids with even positive innate attributes can undermine their confidence in their own ability to tackle difficult problems. Stanford University’s Carol Dweck observed that children who were told they were intelligent shied away from greater challenges, while another group of kids who were praised for their stick-to-itiveness attempted to solve more-difficult problems and often succeeded. This, Dweck has theorized, exemplifies the difference between a “fixed mindset,” in which the mind is viewed as a receptacle of a certain amount of inborn talent and intelligence, and a “growth mindset,” in which the mind is regarded as a muscle that can become stronger with effort.
Waking up to our giant sleeping issue
Did you know that on average teens in the United States now get an hour less sleep than they did 100 years ago? Bronson and Merryman plunge into the research about sleep and children’s cognitive acuity to argue that what we attribute to a “cranky teenager” personality disorder may really be a nationwide case of sleep deprivation. Studies show that just a few sleepless nights can make a huge difference in academic performance. Other researchers have found a correlation between early starting times at high schools and lower student performance, leading some school districts to change their schedules. Finally, the authors look at the research that suggests extreme athletic schedules, piles of homework, and screen-time diversions are causing a national teen-sleep debt approaching our national deficit.
Lying cheats every last one of them
We may think our children don’t lie — or at least the older ones don’t — but that’s wrong, wrong, double wrong, say Bronson and Merryman. Adult assumptions about children and lying are wildly off the mark, even when it comes to parents assessing their own kids’ honesty. Most people assume that younger children — around 4 or 5 — are less reliable and that boys lie more often than girls, but studies by Victoria Talwar of McGill University suggest that older kids lie more and that girls fib every bit as much as boys. What’s more interesting, our attempts to teach children honesty often do quite the opposite: The reason older kids lie more often is that they’ve learned from us. Talwar discovered that white lies, softened criticism, and broken promises (pro forma adult behavior) all fall into the big-lie category in the minds of young children.
So how do you get kids not to lie — or at least to readily confess if they do? Tell them that you won’t punish them for the infraction and that they will make you happy by telling the truth. Kids who think they might get punished or disappoint their parents will continue lying to avoid negative consequences.
Sibling rivalry theory
Are kids with sibs better socialized than their sib-free counterparts? The research is definitive: It depends. Come again, you say? It depends on how those siblings treat one another: Those who fight more learn to be aggressive, while those who interact cooperatively learn positive social skills. Laurie Kramer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been trying to crack the code on sibling rivalry for decades. Her studies have attempted to improve sibling relationships in the long term — not by ridding the relationships of all conflict, but by increasing the siblings’ positive connection via fun play and cooperation. According to Kramer, siblings can learn to build more-positive relationships by learning skills developed in close friendships: creative play, negotiation, and flexibility.
Hey kid: Control yourself!
Though hundreds of well-funded courses designed to curb risky behavior (like drug use or reckless driving) show little efficacy, there’s a new preschool paradigm called Tools of the Mind that seems to have discovered a working recipe for teaching tykes to regulate their impulses. Why is that so important, aside from our not wanting to raise another generation of tailgating, crack-smoking adults? Because self-control turns out to be a hugely important skill. Some research has found that self-discipline is more predictive of academic success than IQ scores.
Indeed, as Merryman and Bronson point out, Tools of the Mind has been so successful that it can’t keep its funding for underperforming children. The tricky thing about replicating its success at home is that the program employs lots of strategies — from having kids plan their own imaginative play to having them correct each other’s work — and it’s hard to know which of them are the most successful. But the general idea, applicable to anyone from 2 to 20, is that when kids acquire higher-thinking skills — planning their own projects, self-assessment techniques, creative play, and team building — it accelerates their basic academic learning too.