Book Club Monday: NurtureShock

(OK readers! Any thoughts on the next book to review? Any parenting, Korea-related, or adoption-related books that you've found insightful? Taking all suggestions now! Our next book review will be Nov. 28. We'll pick out a book by the end of this week.)

Remember when eggs used to be good for you? And then we found out they were bad for you? And then we found out, actually, only the egg yolk was the bad part. And then, wait a minute, they weren't all bad, they were good for you, but only in moderation.

I forget what the status quo is now, on whether eggs are good for you or not.

My "assistant" ensured my book marker never stayed in place.
Well, the book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children reminds me of that. This book details recent scientific studies that seem to disprove long-held parenting techniques. Chapter after chapter, parenting theories were turned on their ear, and I often gasped out loud as I read the studies that supported the new theories.

Our actions as parents are shaped, in large part, by what we learned from our parents and what they learned from their parents. Most parenting theories haven't changed much through the generations.

The new information presented in Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman's book can be quite startling and leaves a reader feeling a bit unsure about those beliefs they've held for so long. There's no better example of this than the first chapter of the book, titled "The Inverse Power of Praise". Systematically, the authors lay out the case with scientific proof that when a child is told they are smart, and are praised for their intellect, they become more concerned with protecting their "smart image" and actually can cause them to begin under-performing.

You see, they know that intellect isn't something they have had to work for, they were just gifted with it. They have no control over how smart they are, and when they are praised for something they have no control over, they begin to fear the loss of it. What would happen if others didn't perceive them as smart? They begin to protect this image and make choices that will reinforce their smart image, and thus, protect their self-esteem.

But to be praised for effort, now that resonates deeper with a child. Children who are praised for effort score better on tests, are willing to try more challenging problems, and are not impacted as much in the face of failure. If a "smart" kid scores poorly on a test, they are devastated. If a child who is regularly praised for their effort scores poorly, they know they have done all they could and often score even better on the next test.

So the lesson? Don't tell your child they are smart. Instead, praise them often for their effort, regardless of the outcome. Totally feels weird and wrong. But it makes sense. And the science proves it.

The book is full of parenting tips like this that contradict our current modus operandi. As a multicultural family, the chapter I was excited to read was "Why White Parents Don't Talk About Race". This debunks the belief most parents have that "young children don't see race".

Many parents was to believe that their children don't see color at all. But if we really think about it, we know children are aware of race, they just don't have a name for it. How many parents have hushed their children when they pointed out the color of someone's skin or the shape of their eyes?

Parents respond with the generic and vague "race discussions" which include phrases like "everybody is equal" and "under our skin, we are all the same." Oh, if that were true. This vague "discussion" of race isn't enough for children to understand the complexities of racial issues. And I know that I don't really want them to have to deal with those complexities, but they are a reality.

The chapter presents information that even as young as six-months-old, children recognize racial differences in people. By the age of three, children began making in-group preferences and separations (grouping toys and dolls by the color of their skin) and by the third grade, many children will not play with a child of another race.

This shocked me, because most parents will not begin talking about race with their children until they are in the upper grade-school levels. But if third grade is when children begin to exhibit race preferences, then shouldn't we start addressing racial issues well before that?

Another revelation is that the diverse environment theory proves not to be beneficial when dealing with race either. Simply being around a diverse racial group (much like we are taught to do in pre-adoption counseling), is not enough. You have to talk to your child about racial issues. Help them understand other cultures and when it means to be black, white, etc. Engage them in conversations and help them break the status quo in when thinking about race. The best example of this in the book was from a second-grade classroom where the teachers were active about racial issues, and at Christmas, read a book that depicted an African American Santa Claus. Which led to a huge discussion in class. Why couldn't Santa be black? It got children thinking about how the color of skin sometimes dictates what you can and can't be.

One more huge chapter for our purposes, was "Why Hannah Talks And Alyssa Doesn't", which looks at language development for children. Obviously, because LM had his language slate wiped clean when he came to the U.S., his verbal skills are slightly lower than native English speakers. We've worked really hard to help him overcome this deficit and begin understanding one another.

We were following the classic belief that you should talk, talk, talk to your child. The theory being the more words they hear, the more they will understand. The studies show this is partially true. But what actually spurs language development is not the words that parents say, but their responses to the child's language or communications. It doesn't matter how often parents initiate conversation---it matters how the parents responded when the infant initiated conversation.

In one study, parents immediately responded (within 5-seconds) to a child's gesture, babble or look with a language response such as "there's a spoon" or "good job". Children who had very responsive parents were a shocking six-months ahead of their peers in language development at 18-months of age. A response can be verbal, but what is even more effective is a physical response---a gentle caress or kiss. Who knew---a kiss could help your child to talk more! Love it.

The lesson to learn here--pay attention to what your child is paying attention to! Set aside periods of time each day to be highly responsive to them, using every opportunity to describe to them, whatever your child is looking at or doing. Responding to your child's "talk" at just the right moment is a powerful tool to launch them into language.

I could go on and on about many of the chapters in this book. But I think you get the idea. Some of my favorite chapters were:

Why Kids Lie: We may treasure honest, but the research is clear. Most classic strategies to promote truthfulness just encourage kids to be better liars.
The Sibling Effect: Freud was wrong. Shakespeare was right Why siblings really fight.
Can Self-Control Be Taught? Developers of a new kind of preschool keep losing their grant money--the students are so successful they're no longer "at-risk enough" to warrant further study. What's their secret?

The book is written in a really easy to understand and conversational tone. It's about science, but it doesn't read like a science text. The topics are varied and cover a range of things from sleep habits, race and behaviors. And there is stuff that is really pertinent to our lives. I like being able to have my beliefs stretched and questioned. I read it with an open mind, and considered whether some of the things discussed in the book made sense to incorporate into our parenting approach.

Some criticize the book for giving plenty of information about what parents should not do, but offers no information on what they should do. I don't think that is how this book was designed to be read. It is not a parenting handbook. The authors are presenting the science to you, and how parents choose to apply this information is up to them.

I wonder if future research might change some of the outcomes of these theories, just as we've seen with the egg debate. Who knows.

But by exploring the contradictions between what we believe about children, and what might actually be going on in their heads, our understanding of these complex tiny humans grows deeper.

And that, in my book, is definitely a good thing.

What's your take?

For more, check out their website: http://www.nurtureshock.com/


  1. Wow! Great information! I am not sure what has already been read but we finished Adopted For Life and enjoyed it and are on to The Connected Child and really like that so far as well.


  2. I LOVED this book! I read it only about 10 months ago and am ready to re-read it again already. I describe it as being in the style of "The Tipping Point"... only the authors are experts in the field. (Not to knock Malcolm Gladwell - I like those books too.) Really fascinating studies that made me re-think things I've taken for granted. Next we've got "Einstein never used flashcards" purchased and waiting for me to make time to read it.

  3. I eat eggs a lot for breakfast. I thought they were now considered a good source of protein. Hope so. I haven't had my cholesterol level checked lately but my blood pressure has been fantastic. :)
    As for the research & ideas shared from your book, I find it nicely thought-provoking. In thinking on how I approach my kids I find I do a lot of praising their efforts and not just their "smartness" level. This may be because I have to handle my dual relationship with the kids so delicately & independently as my oldest has been referred to the gifted & talented programming in school while my other child is overall considered "normal" or doing "above expectations". So I try, for both, to just promote always doing their "best work", but also emphasize that mistakes will happen and are o.k. even when we do our best. My oldest tries to be a perfectionist and I don't want an ulcer in the future for him trying to live up to that.

    As for race issues, I don't even know how the families in the study COULD wait so long to address racial conversations as both my kids experienced things quite young where we HAD to discuss things early. And I think maybe young kids don't understand why people are different but I think they do notice it early. You can tell by the lingering looks when they see a new skin tone or hear a different voice accent. And when my daughter was 3 an African-American boy of the same age in her class was fascinated by the difference in look and texture of his hair to hers and often would "pet" her hair with pleasure.
    Keep on sharing. Love it.


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