Saturday, September 19, 2009

Book Review: NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Amazon review link.

The recent easy availability of science news has been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, we get the breaking news every time someone publishes anything even remotely interesting. On the other hand, it is even harder to perceive the consensus in scientific fields. We get the feeling of things changing and new data coming in, but not a good sense of the overall patterns and how they affect existing theories, because the process of consensus building in science happens over decades, not weeks.

The scientific consensus on child development and parenting has been gradually but insistently shifting over the past decade or so. The overall picture can't easily be seen from individual news stories, so books like NurtureShock which give some insight into the big picture are very important. NurtureShock to me represents the second huge bombshell in child development theory applicable to the average person. The first was presented in Judith Rich Harris' The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out the Way They Do, Revised and Updated, which argued persuasively and shockingly that most differences in parenting made little difference to long term outcomes in their children's lives. Harris insisted that children instead were mostly raised by socialization in their peer groups. NurtureShock doesn't argue the Nurture Assumption viewpoint at all (in fact it is largely consistent with Harris in most respects), but it focuses instead on the areas where parents really might be able make a difference.

What is the emerging new consensus according to NutureShock? The term is intended to reflect the shock that new parents feel when the fountain of natural wisdom about caring for children that they expect to serve them just doesn't appear. Our instincts are to love and care for our children, not to automatically know the right things to do. So we often turn to child development research. What does that tell us?

NurtureShock tells us that some of our commonsense is actually right afterall, and that some of the popular assumptions made about children are wildly off the mark. In particular, two big "myths" are identified. First, children are not just small adults, and we can't just apply the same principles to them that we apply to adults. Second, there are no supertraits that confer only good things: emotional intelligence, intelligence, gratitude, happiness, self-esteem, honesty, fairness, and so on can all have their dark side as well as their positive side. Negative elements can and do co-exist with high levels of positive traits.

For example, measured analytic intelligence (IQ) appears stable in adults, but changes in fits and spurts during childhood. This has significant implications for the use of childhood standardized testing to predict later ability.

Praising adults usually helps encourage them (as long as they believe it is sincere), but in children the effect is more often paradoxical. Children praised too much or for the wrong things actually end up worse off as a result.

Similarly, the once-trendy and still popular obsession with self-esteem turned out to have very little evidential support, and bullies often turn out to have very high self-esteem. Emotional intelligence is also not the panacea that some of its proponents originally suggested. Criminals appear to have a higher, not lower, level of emotional intelligence than the general population, and they use that ability to manipulate others. Popular kids in school use their skills at empathy not so much to be sympathetic, but to play social games that improve their status.

Even insisting on honesty is a mixed bag. Kids seem to learn to lie as a natural part of developing their thinking and social skills, it is related to intelligence. But you can't just ignore it because it is part of development, or it will become a habitual pattern for dealing with difficult social situations. Parents have to learn when and how to encourage honesty. Kids faced with the constant threat of punishment lie more to protect themselves rather than less, and they learn better to evade getting caught. They are generally more motivated to be honest to please parents than to avoid punishment.

The best thing about this book is that it doesn't just promote or adhere to a standard socio-political agenda for child raising the way many books do. This isn't just rehashed progressive or conservative childrearing strategies, it reinforces some of the best elements of each of the different models. We see that threats and punishment are a particularly ineffective way of dealing with dishonesty, but setting limits and enforcing rules is crucial to helping teens know they are cared for.

We find that, perhaps unsurprisingly, teens are particularly prone to boredom and often act out as a result, and that there is not too much we can do about it. They don't respond to small or moderate rewards, but then respond in an exaggerated way to large rewards. This extreme-based decision making pattern in teens varies greatly between individuals but in many leads to the distinctive kind of risk-taking judgment that teens often exhibit. Unfortunately, there's not much in the way of advice here, just perhaps a little understanding.

Among the most important findings in this book are those dealing with thinking skills, especially metacognition and "executive function" skills. Both educational research and brain science seem to be reinforcing the importance of helping children learn the skills for teaching themselves, controlling their own attention and motivation, and evaluating their own performance. Some of these skills are general, but many are specific to particular subjects, so teaching thinking skills cannot be separated from teaching subject matter, as was sometimes mistakenly done in the past. This is a very difficult topic, not one amenable to many easy heuristics, but it is crucial to education.

This is a very important book, rich with research examples and also practical examples from the authors. It will make you think twice about some of your instincts and some of the things you've accepted from popular belief, and that will in turn help make you a more flexible and skilled parent or teacher.

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