Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children begins by tackling the reasons why “our instincts about children can be so off the mark.” The authors carefully explain the difference between our actual instinct to protect and nurture a child versus the “collective wisdom” which forms our beliefs about child-raising. Those latter “instincts” aren’t really instinctual at all. And sometimes they’re wrong.
For years, child development researchers have been pecking away at our “collective wisdom” about child-rearing. Bronson & Merryman review their findings in ten areas, presenting them in a way that acknowledges the complexity of the issues without overwhelming a nonacademic reader.
The amount of research is staggering, but be not afraid! While the notes and references take up 82 pages at the back of the book, each chapter is a highly readable 20-ish pages. The authors explain why previous beliefs about a topic were wrong and how the new, science-based ideas work. Best of all, they show how parents can change their behavior to reap the benefits of all this research grant money.
The ten areas Bronson & Merryman cover are: praise, sleep deprivation, discussing race, lying, kindergarten placement testing, sibling conflict, teen rebellion, self-control and focus, bullying, and language acquisition.
The strongest chapter is the first one, based on the authors’ much-discussed article for New York Magazine on how to properly praise your child. Studies have found that emphasizing a child’s natural ability (“You are so smart!”) has a dampening effect on a kid’s willingness to face new challenges. On the other hand, praising a child’s effort (“You worked really hard!”) actually encourages her to try new things and persevere.
The book is filled with these kind of revelations. The authors conclude that two particular assumptions steer us wrong when it comes to kids. The first is that kids are just like adults. For instance, if we can survive on five hours of sleep, so can they. And since grownups only play to relax, playtime isn’t an essential part of a child’s day. However, studies have shown that children lose valuable brain development time when they don’t sleep, and playtime can help focus children and teach them important skills.
The second assumption is what Bronso & Merryman call “the Fallacy of the Good/Bad Dichotomy.” In other words, we think that a child’s good behavior means positive growth and any bad behavior is negative. However, some studies indicate that lying plays an important role in both early childhood development and teenage identity formation. Meanwhile, empathy actually gives bullies a competitive edge (it makes the bullying that much more effective).
It feels instinctual to steer kids away from all negative behavior, emotions, and influences. But if you learn one thing from this book, it’s this: Raising a child is complicated, but if you are open to new ideas and willing to try a different approach, you may be shocked by the positive results.