Po Bronson: One of the authors of “NurtureShock” tells us what the new science can teach us about parenting. The Babble.com interview by Amy Kuras.Amy Kuras
Rarely does a parenting book generate so much buzz that even the pre-publication reviews of it spin out into blog posts and dinner-party discussions. But that’s exactly what happened with Nurtureshock: New Thinking about Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Bronson says it’s not a parenting book so much as it is a book about ideas, backed by “tons of science.” Whatever it is, it’s turning much of the conventional wisdom about parenting on its head. Bronson spoke with us via phone from San Francisco, where he lives with his wife, son and daughter. – Amy Kuras
How did you come upon all the fascinating topics for the book?
We looked at things that surprised us. If we knew something, and we thought “I know this and everybody knows this, other people around us know this,” then we didn’t write about it. We looked for bodies of research that were telling us something we didn’t know already.
If I could turn the clock back three-and-a-half years, I would have thought it was important to praise your kids all the time. I would have told you that if you raise your children in a diverse environment, you never talk about race; you let the environment be the message. I would have thought my kids would grow out of lying eventually. I never would have thought sleep would have had anything to do with obesity. I know kids need sleep, but I wouldn’t have known it was so crucial. I would have thought, yes you can test kids for intelligence, that those kids who were bright at five-years-old will be bright down the road. You know, when my kids become teenagers they would be fine because we’re such buddies now, and that it’s important to expose your kids to a language-rich environment, that that is what will help them talk really well. I thought that when my kids were talking in full sentences at two it was a function of that. Every chapter is something that surprised me.
How did you choose conventional wisdom about how we raise children as a topic for the book in the first place?
We were working on a story about the science of ambition, interviewing really ambitious grownups, and then talked about how their attitudes formed. In that context we stumbled into Carol Dweck’s [seminal] work on praise. She has reproduced her work on everything from preschoolers to med school students – lots of populations.
What we were intrigued by was the fact that her work was published in 1994 [but it wasn’t] getting out into the air. In an era of so much parenting advice why had really good convincing science not infiltrated the conventional wisdom?
After we wrote about the science of praise, we were supposed to get back to the science of ambition, but we were so curious: Were there other dimensions of child research that were not recognized as being as meaningful and substantive as they were? We started going to some conferences and were surprised at how much we found.
What the new science can teach us about parenting.
by Amy Kuras
October 5, 2009
In very real ways you’re using science to show that the conventional wisdom is flawed. How did you evaluate the studies to make sure you weren’t just replacing one flawed study with another?
That’s a recurring question and I think it’s a very legitimate question, but it’s hard to answer broadly. It’s much more convincing to argue in specifics. For example, talking about praise, it is different because now we have very clear scientific studies, and especially there’s a neuroscience component to it and longitudinal studies where they have tracked heavily praised kids over time. It was argued philosophically back in the sixties but there wasn’t really evidence. Now with neuroscience, you could look at kids’ brains and can see if their reward center lights up. When you see those brain scans you go, “Holy Cow, that’s a very specific neural circuit that lights up. That’s going to be there a million years from now.”
This isn’t like “this brand new study said some contradictory things.” That’s to some extent a misleading construct. The science here has a ten-year track record. It’s been reproduced by scholars around world; it’s located in the brain and seen on brain scans, seen on genetic variations. Ashley and I have been doing this beat for three and a half years each for ten hours a day. That adds up to about nine thousand hours of study, so we know what to write about. That said, we were extremely critical and concerned about a lot of scientists’ work. It shows biases, it shows very meager effects that are considered important. A lot of times it’s misleading.
The racist baby chapter, for lack of a better phrase, is the part of the book that’s gotten the most press. We just started my oldest child at a kindergarten that’s very diverse – that’s why we chose it – which is much like the experience that your kids had. You seemed very surprised by the results. How have you changed your discussions with your children to reflect the need to talk to them about race far earlier than you’d think?
Even if children are not developing racial preferences whatsoever, it helps to learn other people’s cultures and history. I started talking openly with my (then) six-year-old son about race. It was a little harder to think we should do so with my three-year-old daughter. Her three best school friends were all African-American children. We felt we didn’t need to talk to her because she wasn’t showing preference. But even if children are not developing racial preferences whatsoever (like my daughter), it helps to learn other people’s cultures and history. It helps you bridge the gap and it makes sure that crossing racial lines is not a taboo. It’s easy in preschool when they are running around like crazy; it’s a lot harder in grade school when you start seeing kids self-segregating, which does happen. It also really helps kids to cross those lines and bridge those gaps if they know their histories and their cultures, rather than if their parents just never talk about it.
How do you find your own parenting changed since you wrote the book?
I am more honest and less manipulative with my kids. I give them direct feedback rather than put constructs of good or bad on behavior. When things go well my children know exactly why; I give direct attention to successful strategies. I’m more patient and less nervous overall, especially around watching children’s cognitive abilities develop. I’m totally comfortable with them not looking like the brightest star at five years old. I understand much more why they fight and how they fight, I get less mad about that and know how to get them to play together. Also I understand the dynamics of social dominance in school and the hierarchies being established early in the school year. I can read that a lot better and I’m a lot less threatened than I would be.
Do you think that parents now pay too much attention to the experts or to that sort of conventional wisdom that we all pick up from who knows where?
Most parents trust themselves; most have pretty good bullshit detectors. In this whole realm of parenting advice, it has become like political speech. People are accustomed to sort of tuning out. They can tell when they are being spun, they can tell when things are just being controversial and when people are trying to win an argument.
I think they largely have good filters, and the side effect of that is that really good science is getting done. It’s not like a single study or a single press release tells you the whole picture. What has to happen is, and what we’re trying to do with the book is, there is a large body of research that has been built up over ten years piece by piece, and you have to put all the pieces together to see it for what it is. That’s my sense about parents: that I don’t see them largely blindly following what the expert says.
What effect do you hope this book will have on the national conversation about how we parent our kids?
First of all, I hope people have interesting conversations. Then the question is: will the book educate them to a level that they can be more discriminating about the new stuff they hear?
We’re supposed to get informed and then trust our judgment. I don’t know if a book alone is enough to tune up the average parent to be able to tell the difference with some novel topic that the book doesn’t cover. I do hope to raise the bar overall for how this material is presented to people and then be hopeful that the media trusts the intelligence of readers, and recognizes that readers enjoy hearing the methodology of studies. We’re supposed to get informed and then trust our judgment. I hope the direction is that parents say, “Hey where’s the beef?” At the same time when they do see something that’s really substantive, they recognize that that deserves more merit.
Do you think of Nurture Shock as a parenting book, something people can look to for advice?
It’s an anti-advice book. We think of it as an idea book, with some interesting ideas backed by tons of science. We thought it would be interesting and informative and give a new perspective. As for how people would use this information, that’s up to them. We don’t think people should be telling parents how to do this and that too much. When you boil it down to advice, scientists get nervous. There are specific constructs like “praising for effort helps more than praising for intelligence,” but it’s substantiated by science. This is almost a parenting book for people who usually don’t read parenting books.