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"NurtureShock": A conversation


Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (above) are known for their fresh thinking about parenting. Their books and articles have been called eye-opening, alarming and full of insights. Their latest book is "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children."

The book contains some fascinating insights into why kids aren't getting enough sleep; why they aren't learning to cope with failure, and the price they are paying from getting too little sleep, among many other topics.
Parent Company did a Q&A with the authors via e-mail.

Q. The chapter on the inverse power of praise attracted a good bit of media buzz after it was adapted to an article in New York magazine. Since the publication of “NurtureShock,” is there one particular chapter that has stood out for attracting the most attention?

Po Bronson: People are really just starting to be able to dive into the book, so I
think the jury is still out in terms of what people are responding to.
However, the chapter "Why White Parents Don't Talk About Race," was
recently excerpted as a Newsweek cover story – so there's been a
tremendous interest in that issue. Particularly since the publication
of our book has coincided with discussions about race and the current
political climate.

Our book is apolitical – the lessons apply regardless of political
philosophy – but columnists from Rush Limbaugh to the Washington Post
have been looking to see if our piece can help explain what's going on.
We think it does actually. We think that reticence to talk about race
to children teaches kids from a very early age that race is an
explosive topic – so it isn't surprising to us that people explode when
they talk about it.

Q. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about sleep, “The Lost Hour.” It resonated strongly with me due to the ongoing battles I’ve had with our three kids over the years, trying to make them go to bed at reasonable hours. There are some startling examples of the effects of modest sleep deficits on children’s performances in school and on their general well-being. I wonder how many parents will actually heed the call to ensure their children get enough sleep.

Ashley Merryman: For those who haven't yet read the book – in it, we explain how every hour of lost sleep has an enormous impact on a child's school success, her mood, and physical well-being. Even 15 minutes of sleep loss can have a quantifiable effect: "A" students get 15 minutes more of sleep than "B" students, and so on.
Parents have been very responsive to this data: that's another chapter that we frequently hear described as a favorite.

The science in it is incredibly solid – but I think its power is that it just rings so true to so many people's experiences. Adults already know how hard it is to get by on sleep, and parents see their kids are exhausted. It's just that the science is now able to really quantify the effects of sleep loss in a way that was never done before.

Q. Another aspect of “The Lost Hour” that I find very interesting is the lack of correlation between hours spent watching television and childhood obesity. Did you find this surprising when you examined the research? I would imagine you could write a whole book that explores the relationship of television and childhood development.

Po Bronson: Certainly, there is a ton that can be written about television and child development, but in many ways, the research almost always boils down to the same point: turn off the TV. That's not a surprising finding, and it's not necessarily a helpful suggestion, either. Because we live in such a media-saturated society.
It was more interesting for us to look at larger questions – universal themes of childhood – and, along the way, look for research on how media affected these issues.

As in the case of sleep. University of Texas professor Elizabeth Vandewater studied time use data of 1,270 children, concluding that there was no relationship between kids' media use and their body weight. Overweight kids spend a lot of time in front of the television, but thin kids do, too. Then, Vandewater looked further, finding a relationship between kids' sleep duration and their weight.
We were stunned – this was just so contrary to what we'd heard. Then we looked into it and found that scientists looking at sleep from the metabolic perspective were coming to the same conclusion: shortened sleep increases the likelihood that a kid will be obese by as much as 300 percent.

Q. The chapter on “Why Kids Lie” is also very relevant to most parents. Is there a takeaway from that chapter on a strategy for the parents of young children in dealing with lying.

Ashley Merryman: First, parents need to recognize their own complicity in their kids' lying: kids don't understand about the kind intent of a white lie ("Those new jeans make you look thin.") From the kids' point of view, it's just that lies are usually bad – except when they aren't. Which is understandably confusing.
As for kids' own lies, we have to understand that kids are usually telling us what they think we want to hear. And if they say a lie that makes us happy, then they will avoid punishment.

So the old approach of threatening kids with punishment for lying doesn't get kids to come clean. Instead, it just encourages them to be better liars – so that they won't get caught.
The more effective approach is to tell a kid, "I will be really happy if you tell me the truth." It may sound corny, but it's amazingly effective.

Po. when you and Ashley were researching this book, I am wondering if you saw it as something like a manual for raising children (echoes of Doctor Spock), or something closer to a Malcolm Gladwell project, an accessible foray into a fascinating aspect of science?

Po Bronson: Yes, we saw it as the Freakonomics of kids – not remotely a manual.

Q. Is there a message for so-called Helicopter Parents that emerges from NurtureShock? Do today’s very-involved parents need to dial things back a bit, or just channel their energies a little differently?

Ashley Merryman: The science says the Helicopter parents are destroying children’s intrinsic motivation. These kids are easily bored, when they have a little free time, because their parents schedule so much for them that they don’t know what to do with free time.

But helicopter parents aren’t our major concern. Most parents are simply well-involved, not overinvolved.
We're more concerned with the bubble-wrapped kids. The bubble-wrapped kid is the kid constantly told he's brilliant, talented and special. The kid is so well-protected that he's never allowed to make a mistake – let alone encounter real failure. Instead, he gets an award or praise for anything he does, even if it isn't award-worthy. And if he does encounter difficulty, he's told to forget such a thing ever happened: just focus on his future-success.

If a project is too hard, he's told to drop it, or else professionals (parents, teachers, tutors, etc.) are called in to fix the child's errors.
But that all means that any time the bubble-wrap kid tries doing something, that plastic coating of perfection starts popping. This kid told he is destined to work wonders starts to feel as though he can't live up to his own hype. And over time, the bubble-wrapped kid becomes afraid to move. Because he's terrified. He just can't bear any more of these little explosions of his self-image.

Kids need to be able to learn on their own. They need to know that they can make a mistake, and the world won't come to an end. Parents who can help a kid when he's in a jam, without depriving him of that growth.

Q. Po, did writing this book cause you to change anything in your approach to raising your own children? I’m sure it caused you to assess many things you do as a father, but is there any one in particular that stands out?

Po Bronson: Our daughter Thia is now 5, and Luke is 8. Yes, the science has affected how I praise Luke, how I handle moments where he’s tempted to lie, how openly we talk about race and ethnic history, and how I approach the development of his cognitive facilities. Overall, I’d say I’m just a lot more honest with him and less manipulative. But far more of the science has simply helped me understand him and provided me insight into what he’s going through; I see him better. That’s the main impact.


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