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A Parent’s Book Review: NurtureShock – New Thinking About Children

My 10-year-old son told me a little fib the other day. It was innocent enough. He told me that he hadn't been on the computer that evening. The browser history window disagreed. I know I didn't go to the Volkswagen Web site. Aidan is obsessed with all things VW right now.

As he is a kid on the autism spectrum, I was operating under the myth — not sure where I heard it, but it made sense at the time — that kids with this issue are unable to lie.

Boy, have I been taken for a ride! Turns out no child is immune from lying – no matter how obsessively fact-based their way of thinking.

"What research says is that all kids will experiment with lying before their fourth birthday and they are lying a lot more at age 6 than age 4," says journalist and author Po Bronson, who recently toured Seattle with his book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children. "How we deal with it can markedly impact whether a child continues to lie throughout his life. The research shows if you don't socialize it out of them by age 7 they will hang on to lying as a social habit."

"People will say, ‘Oh, they grow out of it,'" Bronson adds. "Science says that's not the case.

NurtureShock, co-written with Ashley Merryman, offers a wealth of science debunking much of the conventional wisdom and "instinct" we parents rely on to grow healthy, well-adjusted kids.

For example: All that walking around with my babies on my hip pointing to any and every object on our path in hopes of building their vocabulary? Posiblemente no bueno.

"In the book we present a lot of the science about how children develop language and why one child in one family develops vocabulary at a different rate than another child in a very similar environment," Bronson explains. "The research we look at here focuses on the fact that children are naturally prone to experimenting with language, trying out new sounds that they hear around them.

"Language development is not just labeling, but about responding to baby and looking at the child's natural attention – that is watching what they are looking at or playing with and vocalizing and responding to their vocalizations. Ignoring the child's natural attention and distracting them from what they are doing or focused on to label something for them is actually negative. It markedly slows their language development."

And when it comes to praise, my assumption of the more the better? Not so true. When I lavish praise and attention on every single piece of art that comes home from school or is thrust under my nose as I wash the dishes, I may in fact be dampening my kids' appetite for academic or artful challenge.

In fact, it was Bronson and Merryman's New York magazine assignment about then Columbia University psychologist Carol Dweck's findings on praise that seeded the concept of NurtureShock. Their research and other studies have made it clear that when students are showered with praise, they give up more quickly on hard assignments, are more unsure when responding to questions and are less willing to tell others about their ideas. Turns out kids who get praised a lot become less confident in their answers.

"We were sort of shocked when we saw the research," Bronson says. "We were like, ‘How come every parent doesn't know this?' It made us curious – what other stuff is out there where research is clearly weighing in that parents don't know?"

Bronson, who was raised in Seattle, says the title of the book references the moment when parents first comprehend the huge responsibility of raising a child.

Says Bronson: "It's when they go, ‘Oh, my gosh, am I equipped to handle this?' At some point they start to wonder, you know, is there a manual?"

NurtureShock is not a manual. In fact, Bronson is clear that the book not be interpreted as an advice book.

"It's not a how-to book, not a self-help book," he says. "We hope it's informative, we lay out a lot of scientific evidence, but we don't think parents should be told to trust us, or even to trust the science. We want them to be informed and make their decisions based on the best information they have."

In prose that is accessible, entertaining and chock full of shock-value for those of us who have been parenting counter to the research for years, the book outlines ten areas of study in which the research has been amply replicated. Where is intelligence hidden in the brain and why does that matter? Why do cross-racial friendships decrease in schools that are more integrated? If 98 percent of kids think lying is morally wrong, then why do 98 percent of kids lie? What's the single most important thing that helps infants learn language? Is there really a social hierarchy in preschool?

"This information has been well-vetted and will continue to be refined, but it's not research that will turn around and go backwards," he says.

One area of research in NurtureShock is of particular interest for Seattle parents, Bronson points out. The Seattle School District, he says, has one of the best-tiered gifted student programs in the nation. However, even here, students may not be tested or placed appropriately. While the majority of children tested for gifted programs are tested in kindergarten, the research presented in NurtureShock shows that you simply can't pick out all the bright kids at that age. In fact, fully one-third of the smartest third-graders test below average in kindergarten. That means a lot of children are inappropriately placed both in and outside of gifted programs.

"This book is about how we nurture our kids, but some of the material is really shocking – it's shocking for example that most schools have kids tests for "gifted" as early as kindergarten, but that follow-up testing shows that 73 percent kids are incorrectly placed."

Bronson lives in San Francisco with his son Luke, 8, and daughter Thia, 5. His research, he says, has impacted his own parenting, causing him to pull back on things like inauthentic or unwarranted praise.

"As a new parent, I relied on my instincts," he says. "But what we found is that those first instincts are really on a neural level and are about fiercely protecting and nurturing your child. Those kinds of instincts don't give you any real guidance on how kids develop. What we think is acting on instinct is often really our response to long held theories about child development, parenting fads from previous generations, logical deductions that may sound right, but aren't really supported by scientific research, and natural mistakes."

So, a word to my kids: I am on to you.

Cheryl Murfin is a freelance writer. She lives in Seattle with her children.

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