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The Science of Parenting

NURTURESHOCK: New Thinking about Children. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. xiv + 336 pp. Twelve, 2009. $24.99.

Does praise undermine a child’s confidence? Can gifted children be reliably identified in preschool? Why do siblings fight, and how can they be discouraged from doing so? Are popular children more aggressive? Do videos like those in the Baby Einstein series help infants learn language?

NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children addresses such questions, examining how recent research in developmental psychology challenges conventional wisdom about parenting and schooling. Aimed at laypeople rather than academics, the book made the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list last year and was listed as one of the year’s best by Barnes and Noble, Discover Magazine, Library Journal and others.

The authors, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, are not researchers themselves. Bronson has written several books on other topics, including the bestselling What Should I Do with My Life?, about career choices. Together, Bronson and Merryman have written about parenting and social science in online columns for Time and Newsweek and in articles for New York magazine. Three chapters in NurtureShock are adapted from their New York articles.

The title evokes Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock. But Bronson and Merryman explain in the introduction that they are using the term nurture shock to refer to “the panic—common among new parents—that the mythical fountain of knowledge is not magically kicking in.” And they warn that the information in the book will deliver a shock, by revealing that “our bedrock assumptions about kids can no longer be counted on.” Somewhat confusingly, the authors also assert that what the subtitle calls “new thinking about children” is actually a “restoration of common sense.”

Each of the 10 chapters focuses on a different topic: praise, sleep, racial attitudes, lying, intelligence testing, sibling conflict, teen rebellion, self-control, aggression and language development. Bronson and Merryman did their homework, talking to many researchers and attending academic conferences. The book’s endnotes include citations for many of the empirical statements in the text, and the list of selected sources and references is extensive. The coverage is somewhat skewed toward the work of the researchers who were interviewed, but Bronson and Merryman talked to leading experts on every topic.

In some places additional information could have been helpful. For example, in the chapter on self-control, the authors focus on a preschool program called “Tools of the Mind,” which successfully teaches self-regulation. However, they don’t explain the theoretical work that inspired the program, that of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Nor do the authors mention research by Angela Duckworth and Martin Seligman showing that self-discipline predicts academic achievement better than IQ does. As far as I know, though, nowhere in the book have they neglected evidence that would undermine their arguments.

Bronson and Merryman make child development research accessible and even exciting; NurtureShock is an easy and enjoyable read. By academic standards, the writing style may be a bit melodramatic in some places, but I would recommend the book to any parent. All of the advice has empirical support, and readers will almost certainly emerge thinking differently about some aspect of parenting. Some sections do seem geared toward American parents of middle to high socioeconomic status. For example, cognitive testing for competitive admission to prestigious private preschools is an issue in only a few urban areas of the United States; it’s unheard of elsewhere.

As a developmental psychologist, I appreciate the attention that Bronson and Merryman are attracting to the field. At the risk of nitpicking, however, they do get some things wrong. For example, they describe brain development as a process in which “gray matter gets upgraded to white matter.” This metaphor is not quite correct. White matter is added as nerve axons are covered in whitish myelin, but it does not replace gray matter, which is made up of nerve cell bodies and dendrites. In the chapter about racial attitudes, the authors describe a 2006 study by Meagan Patterson and Rebecca Bigler in which preschool children were randomly assigned to wear either red or blue T-shirts in their classrooms for three weeks. Bronson and Merryman write that “the teachers never mentioned their colors and never again grouped the kids by shirt color.” In fact, that was only true of classrooms in the control condition. In the article reporting their findings, Patterson and Bigler state that

Teachers in the experimental classrooms made frequent use of the color groups to label children (e.g., “Good morning, Blues and Reds”) and to organize the classrooms. For example, teachers in the experimental classrooms decorated children’s cubbies with blue and red labels and lined up children at the door by color group.

Although children in both the experimental and control conditions developed some bias for their own group, children in the experimental group showed greater in-group bias. So Bronson and Merryman are correct that young children can form prejudices without adult labeling, but their text gives the impression that adult labeling was not a factor, whereas this study and others by Bigler and colleagues demonstrate that labeling does matter.

More worrisome are some signs that the authors misunderstand statistics. For instance, they convert all correlation coefficients to percentages, an error that will annoy readers who are knowledgeable about statistics and could potentially mislead those who aren’t. A naive reader, seeing a correlation expressed as 40 percent, may focus on how far that number falls short of 100 percent and fail to recognize that even a correlation of .40 has some predictive value.

Bronson and Merryman also don’t seem to understand effect sizes. For example, they write that

Among scholars, interventions considered to be really great often have an effect size of something like 15%, which means that 15% of children altered their targeted behavior, and therefore 85% did not alter it.

But that’s not what it means. It could mean that all the children altered their behavior a little bit, which moved their average by 15 percent of a standard deviation.

The few things that Bronson and Merryman get wrong, however, are far outweighed by the things they get right. They have done a service to developmental science by making its findings accessible to a wider audience, and to parents by providing insight into children as well as practical suggestions for child rearing. For those achievements, the book deserves the accolades it is receiving.

Ethan Remmel is a cognitive developmental psychologist at Western Washington University in Bellingham. His research focus is the relationship between language experience and children’s understanding of the mind.

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