Subscribe to this Blog
Today's Blogs
    The Checkup:

'NurtureShock': Blinding Me With Science

The more you read parenting books, and the more magazine articles you flip through, the more you realize that the parenting canon is based largely on the anecdotal experience of parents who aren't that different from you. There is no higher "truth" on how to raise a child that any book has uncovered.

At least until now.

Earlier this week, a brilliant tome called "NutureShock" hit store shelves, and the authors -- Po Bronson and Ashley Merrryman -- have taken a stab at actually reviewing and understanding the science out there on what makes kids smart and respectful and honest and empathetic. Their conclusions are often paradoxical (e.g. you want an argumentative teen, and you ought to be very suspicious of even saccharine kiddie TV shows, like "Arthur"), but they're all fascinating.

I had the chance to chat with Po and Ashley, and I'll share some of that conversation next week, but I wanted to throw out some of the book's findings. There is a danger, of course, in taking copious amounts of research and boiling down to bullet points, but I'll take on the details in the comments, if need be:

  • Praising children for hard work drives achievement much more than praising them for being "smart," which often discourages intellectual risk-taking.

  • Kids really do need the extra sleep, especially teens, who are wired to wake up later. How big an impact does moving back the school day by an hour make? About 200 SAT points, according to an example from the book.

  • A whopping 73 percent of kids that are scored as "gifted" in kindergarten no longer meet the gifted standard by third grade.

  • Teens who bother to argue are actually the ones that have the healthiest relationships with their parents. The ones that don't argue are generally the ones lying to keep the peace.

  • Talking at your infant doesn't do any good. There has to be a two-way "conversation" (even if means babbling incomprehensibly) to turbo-charge speech.

  • A new curriculum called Tools of the Mind
    can teach young children self-control, boosting their learning.

What fascinated me -- as much as the individual findings -- was the novelty of the premise: looking at the science, rather than raising and educating kids based on hunches and common-sense assumptions. I'm hoping that Po and Ashley usher in a new age of parenting writing, where we spend less time listening to folks who say "Hey, it worked for me" and more time with people who really study the stuff. Certainly, I'm going to try to be more evidence-driven in the way I present the parenting wisdom of the moment.

So I kick it to you: How much of your parenting toolkit is based on studies?

By Brian Reid |  September 4, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Behavior
Previous: Having More Kids: Do We Decide the Duggars' Way? | Next: Will President Obama Warp Your Children Today?


And what if you had been "evidence-driven" prior to Dweck's experiments?

Suddenly you have to become knowledgable enough in stats, physcology and neurology to be able to critique studies and throroughly evaluate their merits (lest you rely on some dopey Good Morning America summary spoon-fed by the study's authors). Good luck.

Posted by: 06902 | September 4, 2009 8:09 AM | Report abuse

"How much of your parenting toolkit is based on studies?"

Very little. But then again, very little of my parenting is based on anecdotal advice from books/magazines, either. We're pretty much using common sense, our own childhood experiences, and whatever else seems to work.

Posted by: newsahm | September 4, 2009 8:27 AM | Report abuse

Before my child was born, I never really spent much time around kids, so I didn't have any anecdotal experience from which to pull. I read several parenting books, but they seemed pretty out of touch with my reality. Then I found the science of parenting. That book really helped me understand my child's development and helped me figure out how to react to help him and to help myself cope.
Otherwise, I would agree with newsahm, that most of child rearing is common sense - the kid's hungry, feed him; he's wet, change him; he's cold, warm him; he's upset, hug him.

Posted by: VaLGaL | September 4, 2009 9:05 AM | Report abuse

I'm with newsahm. There is very little I listen to from news sources or parenting tomes and I think my kids are are the better for it.

There are hundreds of "parenting book" and "dieting books" that have "ALL THE ANSWERS", so I am waiting for someone to link the 2 so I don't have to read 2 books :)

BTW, what kind of name is Po? Isn' that a teletubbie??

Posted by: cheekymonkey | September 4, 2009 9:09 AM | Report abuse

I bought this book last week after seeing it featured in I think Newsweek and it is very interesting. I would never base all my parenting skills on a book but some of the things made very good sense. For instance, how often do you hear parents praising every little thing their child does? It makes sense that a child would quickly learn that this is hollow praise and also to avoid doing things that are hard in order to get instant praise.

My job takes me to college campuses and I heard a professor yesterday repeatedly saying, "You are so smart!" in a fake voice when her students did the simplest things. How much does that really help them or does it harm them like the book says?

Posted by: sunflower571 | September 4, 2009 9:12 AM | Report abuse

the problem i have with you guys dismissing the whole parenting books idea is that there are people who could use help in their parenting technique. i know that i was one of them. my son is so much like me in personality you'd think i would know how to deal with him. nope. one or two parenting books really helped me tweak my parenting style to more effectively deal with my son.

the carolyn hax column yesterday dealt with this same issue. don't shame people who do need help but saying *it's just common sense*.

abraham lincoln was supposed to have said that he didn't know why it was called common sense when so few people seemed to possess it.

Posted by: quark2 | September 4, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

Well, the concept is pretty interesting, so I may check it out. But I hope the authors discuss both what the various studies say and the drawbacks/limitations of those studies. It would be really helpful to have some data on what things actually work and why -- but not so much if they are jumping to conclusions from limited or iffy data (a/k/a "science" as marketing tool).

Posted by: laura33 | September 4, 2009 9:48 AM | Report abuse

A parenting book that claims to use science and statistics is not really ground breaking news. I think we have about 20 of them collecting dust on our bookshelf. Has anyone else heard of Benjamin Spock, Maria Montessori or Rudolf Steiner?

Do we need a book to tell us not praise every single thing our kids do or that teens need more sleep?

Here's a statistic I want to know: what has a higher long term success rate: buying the latest diet book or the latest parenting book?

Posted by: KS100H | September 4, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse


We might understand not to overpraise and that teenagers need sleep but a lot of people out there are clueless! THe problem is I am not sure that these are the movie that will even bother to pick up a book.

Posted by: sunflower571 | September 4, 2009 10:08 AM | Report abuse

@KS100H: Fair point. Part of what makes NutureShock interesting are the findings itself. But the other element that fascinates me is how hard people fight against the evidence. Take Fairfax, where there was a battle throughout the school year on whether to move the bell schedule back an hour. You'd think, for a 200-point SAT improvement, that it would be a no-brainer. But no.

And the authors talk about DARE, the once-ubiquitous anti-drug program, which made sense in theory but (once studied) didn't make a difference in reality.

But I *do* like your diet/parenting analogy: yes, there are advancements in the underlying science, but the difference between success and failure remains actually putting into practice what we all know.

Posted by: rebeldad | September 4, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

I'm a voracious reader by nature and an engineer by training, so I've read numerous parenting books and I'm naturally inclined toward "scientific methods" for anything. That said, most of parenting still comes down to common sense. All children are different - our four are certainly different from one another, and what has worked well with one works not at all with another. You have to be flexible - try what seems sound and reasonable, and be willing to change if it's not working.

We have, as the kids got older, worked with tutors or taken advice from specific books, etc. on specific issues. It helped understand, for example, that our son's writing problems were rooted more in organizational problems than language problems, and that he'd do better in a small private school than our excellent-but-overcrowded public schools. His sisters prospered in those same public schools.

Don't use a book to raise your kids. Get advice, tips, suggestions from the books, but raise your kids taking into account what you see and experience.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | September 4, 2009 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Meant I am not sure that these are the people who would even pick up a book.

Trying to do too much at once before I am off for the weekend.

Posted by: sunflower571 | September 4, 2009 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Just a thought: if parents that need these books are those that won't/can't buy them, why write them?

Posted by: cheekymonkey | September 4, 2009 10:40 AM | Report abuse

"Just a thought: if parents that need these books are those that won't/can't buy them, why write them?"

Because SOMEBODY will buy them, and it's all about the Benjamins. (Not that I'm, like, cynical or anything..)

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | September 4, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Haven't read the book, but will definitely check it out.

I agree with ArmyBrat that taking a look at books and research from the experts can be helpful - you may find tools and tactics that are enlightening and resonate with you, as well as things that are likely to backfire. Children are unique individuals and you have to use a variety of approaches. Some of the common sense basics still ring true: the value of discipline, healthy self-esteem (but NOT narcissism) and resilience. What works well for one child, may be totally inappropriate for another, etc.

By the way, 'Po' Bronson's real name is Philip. Don't know how or why he got the nickname, but I checked out his website, and he's a pretty fine looking fellow... (not that this has ANYTHING to do with his writing or research skills...)

Posted by: HuckleberryFriend | September 4, 2009 10:46 AM | Report abuse

I'm skeptical. i rec all when I was pregnant with my first child, people would freak out when they saw me eating peanuts because an "evidence based study" had determined that it raised the risk of peanut allergies. I thought that was "nuts" (ha ha!) and ignored the warnings. My kid has no peanut allergies-- and a recent study stated that the previous study was wrong.

the Tools of the Mind curriculum sounds good though-- anyone use it with their kids?

Posted by: captiolhillmom | September 4, 2009 10:48 AM | Report abuse

"Take Fairfax, where there was a battle throughout the school year on whether to move the bell schedule back an hour. You'd think, for a 200-point SAT improvement, that it would be a no-brainer. But no."

Brian, can you provide a reference to a study that showed this 200-point SAT improvement from just starting school an hour later? (That doesn't require me to buy this book. :-) I can't find anything about that online, and I would think that that would be something fairly widely reported.

Re: starting school later -look, I'd be happier if I didn't have to get my high school daughter(s) up at 5:30 every school day, fix their breakfasts and school lunches, etc. But there are a lot of factors in play here. Most districts have a carefully staggered start of high schools, middle schools and elementary schools to maximize use of buses, minimize costs, etc. That would all have to be changed. Not to mention the impact to extracurricular activities; after school jobs; etc. This isn't a "slam dunk" or "no-brainer" by any means.

Not to mention that a school district that changed its schedule solely because of a promised increase in SAT scores would quite deservedly by the object of a lot of scorn and derision.

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | September 4, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

armybrat, i'm like you. i read all kinds of books. i even read dobson's dare to discipline book. dobson really needs to let go of his dr spock fetish. it was funny to read it because dobson hates dr spock. absolutely hates him but dobson's parenting recommendations weren't that far off from dr spock's.

Posted by: quark2 | September 4, 2009 11:38 AM | Report abuse

I haven't read the book, but I did read the ABC News article linked to the first bullet. Based on my own experience, I think Dweck et al. are right about praising children for their hard work, rather than for being "smart." But it's not all that simple.

I was raised by a mother who thought you should NOT praise children for good work because it made them "complacent" and they wouldn't try harder. So every time I did well on something, she felt she had to nitpick so I'd do even better. (When I scored in the 98th percentile on a standardized test -- which was the top of the scale -- she said "Why didn't you get 100%?" AARRGGH!) This of course had the exact opposite effect from what she intended: If I was punished for 98% as much as I was for 50%, and I could earn 50% without trying, then why try at all?

Another thing: Because I had a high IQ, I was expected to be good at everything, and if I wasn't, it was because I "didn't try hard enough." But in fact my math ability is on the low side of average, and I didn't "get" the concepts unless they were explained in terms I could understand. In high school, I had a series of incompetent math teachers (not uncommon in Catholic girls' schools, unfortunately). So I earned straight C's, and "trying hard" couldn't overcome the fact that I had no idea what was going on. But, rather than the help I needed, all I got at home was grief for "not trying hard enough."

Finally, a lot of the Catholic schools I attended placed a disproportionate value on "hard work." One teacher actually told us that they'd rather have a student who worked hard and only got C's, than someone who got A's with little effort! I'm sure the intent was to encourage the less gifted students -- but tearing down the gifted is NOT the way to go about it.

I totally agree that the way students grow is to learn from their mistakes. But if you aren't allowed to make mistakes, or if your parents' and teachers' response to your making mistakes is to scold you for "not trying hard enough" rather than showing you how to learn from them, you won't take risks and you won't learn.

Posted by: PLozar | September 4, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

actually, i've read that praising kids all the time at some point *does* become hollow. Oh, you tied your shoes! Oh, you put on your jacket!

As it would imply that the kid wouldn't know how to do XYZ at some point. Praising something that was something the child should be doing only shows them that you think they're an imbecile who wouldn't be able to do that - and you're praising them cause you are so surprised.

Just another view.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | September 4, 2009 12:15 PM | Report abuse

I remember hearing my sister in law say "good rocking!" while her 1 year old rocked on a rocking horse toy. Every little thing gets praised by her, it's like a verbal tic and incredibly annoying.

I think evidence-based parenting information can be helpful in reminding us to check our own innate tendencies. Like reinforcing good behavior is more effective than punishing bad behavior; but its easy to just react when my kid does something wrong and to not notice when he does it right (because it's what I expect). So its good sometimes to be reminded periodically that the way I do it without thinking isn't always the most effective. I've been making an effort lately to acknowledge when he does certain things the way we want him to - not praising, but saying, "Hey, I noticed you used your words when you wanted that, did that seem to work pretty well to you?" or "I appreciated that you remembered to put your shoes away" things like that. Focusing on how it worked or the impact it had on our day.

Posted by: nobodyknowhow | September 4, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

" was raised by a mother who thought you should NOT praise children for good work because it made them "complacent" and they wouldn't try harder. So every time I did well on something, she felt she had to nitpick so I'd do even better. "

yeah but there's a difference between "not praising" and "criticizing." Your mom was criticizing. Not praising means not instinctively saying "good clapping" or "good painting." You can acknowledge the achievement in some other way that emphasizes the effort or their own sense of pleasure in it. LIke when your kid shows you a painting, ask questions about what she painted or the colors she used or ask her what she liked about it or whatever, instead of just saying "good job" and being done with it.

Posted by: nobodyknowhow | September 4, 2009 1:40 PM | Report abuse

There is an army of parents who follow the skeptical movement/evidence-based parenting/rational parenting. Rather than take it when some crazy Attachment Parent claims your kid is going to be a psychopathic adult because you didn't follow the Dr. Sear's Brand of Parenting, you can demand evidence of their claim. I don't get bogged down by guilt when the activists sling their garbage, but less secure parents may. I'm glad there are some rational people out there who can step back from their agenda and just report the facts. Does the data make a huge difference in my life? Not really, but if I was doing something that was found to be harmful, I would stop and re-evaluate. You never know if your individual kid will thrive under a specific circumstance that would harm other children.

Posted by: atb2 | September 4, 2009 2:12 PM | Report abuse

I haven't read NurtureShock but I've looked through their website and followed a few links. I'm not overwhelmed by their amazing insights which seem to be simply quoting the copious research that's out there. Have any of those who have read the book learned anything that wasn't already known?

It's a new book bringing "science-based" analysis to parenting, the photogenic authors are on a high-profile TV book tour and the Nurtureshock blog is hosted on the Newsweek website, which by amazing coincidence is owned by the Post.

As I suggested before, it's back to school season, so the media needs some parenting stuff to talk about and Nurtureshock sounds like month's version of "I lost 43 pounds in three weeks by obeying this one rule."

Posted by: KS100H | September 4, 2009 2:57 PM | Report abuse

FWIW, if you read their bios, you discover that Phillip "Po" Bronson is a former bond trader-turned-novelist (mostly about Silicon Valley and finance stuff) turned writer full time. Ashley Merryman is an attorney and former speechwriter for/assistant to Vice President Al Gore.

Certainly qualifies them to give parenting advice, n'est-ce pas?

(Obscure fact - although he didn't have much to do with it, his second novel, The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest, was turned into one of the biggest movie failures of all time. The movie cost 17 million dollars to make and had gross box-office receipts of $5,491. That's a "fail" on an epic scale!

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | September 4, 2009 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Agree that there's a difference between "not praising" and "criticizing." The point I skipped over was that if I did something well, and my mother (unusually) couldn't find anything to nitpick, she'd shrug it off with "You've got an IQ of X, you're SUPPOSED to get an A" and then go on to "So why aren't you getting an A in [other subject]?" If she'd just said "Good work!" once or twice, I think I would have been far more motivated.

Posted by: PLozar | September 4, 2009 3:58 PM | Report abuse

My beliefs about parenting are CONSTANTLY being challenged. I just finished reading Freakonomics (which I absolutely recommend...only $12.95 at Deep Discount:, and as that says, it so hard to decipher between what is nature and what is nurture. As the book repeats over and over, correlations do not necessarily mean causation. I'll have to reserve judgment on this book until I read it, but I do think a lot of its points are valid.

Posted by: KatLuvsShoes | September 4, 2009 5:50 PM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company