Raising Happiness

 

Not Shocked—Research Parents Can Learn From

January 14, 2010 | Book Reviews | 2 comments

A review of NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Did you know that nearly all children lie—six year olds at a rate of about once an hour? That's not the only bad news Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman give us in NurtureShock. It also turns out that most kids are probably not getting enough sleep, and this sleep deprivation hinders their learning and brain development permanently. Oh, and the way we praise our kids is likely making them insecure and unmotivated.

Did I just make you want to buy this book? Bronson and Merryman have cleverly (some might say cynically) framed their book to speak to parents' worse fears. But even though NurtureShock's not-so-feel-good framing runs counter to my propensity to see the glass Half Full , it does offer a fascinating tour through some recent and provocative research on children.

Although the authors can make parents' instincts about children seem incredibly off the mark, NurtureShock readers might want to keep in mind that there is just as much research out there—or more—that can be deemed the science of the blazingly obvious. Contrary to the book's premise, research is finally vetting many of those parenting practices that have been preached for centuries by grandmothers and philosophers alike—like the fact that family dinners, time spent in meditative reflection, and old-fashioned unstructured playtime are all good for kids.

The real contribution of NurtureShock is not that it reveals how incredibly little we parents know, but that it shows how our materialistic, achievement-oriented culture can mislead us about how best to provide for our children's health and happiness. We buy into the importance of having our children labeled "gifted" early in life; we get carried away trying to pack too many activities into our kids' lives, when what they really need is more sleep and free play; we spend billions of dollars on gimmicky videos hoping to give our kids an academic edge.

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My recommendation is that we read NurtureShock and not feel anxious that we are doing everything wrong, but rather simply appreciate the main service it provides: distilling scores of academic studies through engaging storytelling, saving us from having to wade through barely readable academic journals.

What could make the book even more helpful would be recommendations for actions parents can take based on the research Bronson and Merryman uncover. It's one thing to know that our children are liars, for example; it's another to understand what we should do with that knowledge.

For example, children lie mostly because they are trying to keep us happy (and to avoid being punished). So we need to make sure they understand clearly that we are happiest with them when they tell the truth. Researchers reduced lying in Canadian boys by 75 percent and girls by 50 percent by reading them a book (no longer in print, I checked) in which George Washington's father declares that he is glad his son cut down the cherry tree—because hearing young George tell the truth is better than "having a thousand cherry trees." There's nothing that complicated or counter-intuitive about that lesson for parents.

This business of raising children can, of course, be incredibly difficult. But, once you get past its alarmist framing, NurtureShock shows us that simple shifts in our understanding can make us significantly better parents.

© 2010 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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