Nutureshock: New Thinking about Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. I’ve been listening to this one on CD for the last week, and it’s been eye-opening. I already shared a little from the book in my post titled Never Tell Kids They’re Smart.
Basically the book re-examines what we THOUGHT we knew about parenting from the perspective of the latest research. Not surprisingly, a lot of what we thought we knew was wrong. For example: praising children isn’t always a good idea. Lying can be a sign of maturity. Children are naturally racist. Expressing gratitude can be bad for teenagers. Empathy in children isn’t always a good thing.
I’m teasing you a bit here. The authors are all in favor of praise, honesty, inclusion, gratitude and empathy. But there are some tricks and twists to teaching these and other virtues to children that aren’t quite what you expect.
There are two main errors that have blinded researchers in the past, say the authors. First of all, researchers can unconsciously assume that what is good for adults is equally good in the same way for children. The second is to assume that POSITIVE traits insulate and protect children from NEGATIVE traits.
As an example of the first error, take gratitude. Studies demonstrated that when college students kept a gratitude journal, it improved their mental well being. But when teens were assigned to keep a gratitude journal, some of them actually felt WORSE. Why? Because a critical part of mental health for a teen is to develop autonomy and independence. By being forced to remember, day after day, how much they relied on parents, teachers and others – the teens felt powerless and less independent.
As an example of the second, take empathy. Parents want their children to learn to be gracious, kind and empathetic in dealing with other children. They want their children to develop positive social skills because they assume that will protect them from being cruel or manipulative. But researchers found that often kindness and cruelty were developed equally well at the same time by the most socially successful students. These kids would alternate between kindness and cruelty to get what they wanted, and were very good at it. So parents of popular children need to be on guard against the more negative aspects of popularity.
Anyone raising a child today would be wise to check out this book. Bronson and Merryman are very obviously concerned parents themselves, and the point of their analysis of the research is to be of practical help to parents. Wise parents would do well to listen to them.
Below is a brief video introducing the book.