Feb 042010

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.

Jan 302010

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

– William Shakespeare, Macbeth

Another insight from the new book Nurtureshock is that one of the biggest issues with children and teens today is that almost universally, the world over, cheldren are getting an hour less sleep every day than they did thirty years ago. This is the source of innumerable problems. For example, researchers were trying to correlate behavior such as TV watching with teen obesity. They couldn’t do it. Thin kids watch just as much TV as fat kids. But they DID find a correlation with overweight – and lack of sleep. Yes, lack of sleep can make you fat. The hormones that are required to properly burn fat are manufactured by the body during sleep. What’s more, lack of sleep produces the stress hormone cortisol, which causes fat to be stored. This stress hormone can also cause high blood pressure and heart disease.

For children, one of the primary problems with lack of sleep is that memory is processed during sleep. Our body uses that time to process and categorize memories. For children who are learning huge amounts of new information every day, lack of sleep can seriously interfere with learning and development. Some high schools that have experimented with starting school later in the morning resulted in a dramatic increase in student test scores.

Lack of sleep also compromises the immune system making us more susceptible to disease. Even cancer is associated with sleep loss.

Sleep deprivation also causes mood disturbances, depression, moodiness and the inability to concentrate. All of which are now cronic complaints of modern teens.  In fact, if we look at all the typical complaints of teenagers, they are a list of the symptoms of sleep deprivation.

For kids, lack of sleep is physically and emotionally devistating. But it doesn’t do the rest of us any good either. Our bodies are intended by nature to begin sleep soon after the sun goes down and awaken about when it comes back up. If we have so many commitments and activities that we can’t get good sleep time, we need to re-evaluate our priorities.

Sleep can also be a time for serious spiritual development. Take look at our articles on lucid dreaming, for example.

Jan 292010

I’ve been listening to a new audio book on child psychology, Nurtureshock. I hope to give a full review shortly, but each chapter is absolutely fascinating, and I thought I’d share a few of the insights along the way. Right out of the gate, the book’s research contradicts the established “wisdom” of the last few decades, by questioning the effectiveness of praising our children’s intelligence.

For quite some time, we’ve been told that children’s self-esteem is one of the most important aspects of their personality – a predictor of confidence and future success. And we’ve been told that the best way to build that self-esteem is by constantly praising them, especially their intelligence. And this seems to make perfect sense. After all, aren’t our own expectations of ourselves a critical factor in our performance?

And the research shows that praise IS important to children. But it matters a lot what KIND of praise. And it turns out that praising children’s intelligence actually has a negative effect. In one study, for example, children are given a simple puzzle test. One group of children is praised for their intelligence at doing well in the test. The other group of children was praised for their EFFORT. Interesting things happened to the two groups. The children praised for their intelligence became cautious. They were afraid of looking bad on subsequent tests. They played it safe. Deep down, they didn’t think that intelligence was something they could control, and so they worried about looking bad. The children praised for their effort became interested in harder challenges and did better on subsequent tests. They felt that their performance was under their control. By working hard, they could do well.

This pattern showed up in study after study, and when you think about it, it makes a read deal of sense. I was a smart kid myself, and was often told so. But sticking to a task and putting in effort was something I wasn’t good at – perhaps BECAUSE I was praised for my intelligence. Children who are praised for their smarts have a harder time sticking to their efforts when things get tough. If a subject isn’t something they are immediately good at, they tend to lose interest. They come to believe that success lies in finding their natural gifts, and don’t realize that they can achieve success in many other areas with a bit of effort.

Praise children for the efforts they make. Let them know that by practice, and work, they can actually change their brains and become smarter. This is similar to the message of Malcom Gladwell’s book Outliers, which I reviewed earlier. Thousands of hours of practice at a skill can make a master out of virtually anyone.

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