HomeHealth & BehaviorEmotional Well-Being

"Nurture shock" therapy

A best seller delves into the new science of parenting to reveal all the ways we go wrong.

By Carol Lloyd

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.

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from readers

"How can we find out which schools are utilizing the Tools of the Mind curriculum? A few list states, but no specific schools. Any help is much appreciated. "
"wow, really interesting stuff."
"I am a father of two children ages 6 and 3. The older one has been in Kindergarten at a very respectable San Francisco public school, his younger sibling is mainly at home with mom but spends a few hours in a nanny-share coop with children of like-minded parents several days a week. There are many points in your article that I think are important and valid, perhaps the best one being that children copy their parents' behavior. Small wonder then that many get messed up :-). I think a large issue of today's world is that children spend so little real time with their parents so that not socialization skills cannot be learned from them. This certainly goes both ways, many parents also need to learn how to have a good time with their children, and may even have deficits from their own childhood history. A teacher who is responsible for dozens of children simultaneously cannot help but be a poor substitute for engaged parents. Second, at least my children seem to have an inborn se! nse for authenticity and can smell hidden agendas 5 mils against the wind. So I plead that play time with children should be just that, and any book on education can get in your mind's way. I am not against reading books on education per se but tend to think that the acquired knowledge should form a silent backdrop to the way we interact with children rather than items in an educational toolbox. Third, while the cited study on 'Tools of the Mind' says in the abstract 'it is suggested that to the extent child care commonly increases behavior problems this outcome may be reversed through the use of more appropriate curricula that actually enhance self-regulation.' That sounds like a pretty modest claim to me and does shed a problematic light on preschools. In the Methods section, the article goes on to say 'This experiment was conducted in a low-income urban school district with a high proportion of children from low-income and non-English speaking families.', so applicability of findings is limited to this group. "
"Wonderful artical. I would like to say that this does not start at preschool age. Children are learning from birth how to self regulate and about their self worth. Please check out Resources for Infant Educarers, RIE, for short. They also talk about some of the very same ideas but they start at birth."
"This review is a great summarization of a well written, and very interesting, book. "
"Interesting pointers.. I believe children tend to do what the parent, coach, teacher preaches to them eg. when you tell a child he or she is smart and can do it all this tends to increase their self-esteem and go for the challenge. However they tend to do the oppossite if they're constantly told they do not have it in them or told they are doing it wrong this lowers their self esteem and causes them to give up on what ever they have interest in. My 7yr old had this issue in cheer she is now in a different team and produces much more abilities and positive character towards cheer with a motivated new coach just in two weeks alone. I strongly believe we the adults are whom can change childrens lifes and future adult lifes if we empower children with positive encouragement towards their daily challenges or how they face school, sports, etc. "
"And why is the previous generation assumed to be 'tailgating, crack-smoking adults.' If so, there's no hope for our kids!"
"I don't understand. I clicked on the link for Tools of the Mind and it connected me to a government web site with a study that states that the preschool program has NO positive effects on these kids. Huh??"