Parents: Most of what you're doing is wrong

"NurtureShock" says too much praise is bad, teen lying is normal and baby-genius toys could make your kids dumber

Published September 18, 2009 10:16AM (EDT)

Parents, brace yourselves. No more feeling superior to your less enlightened counterparts, except maybe the ones on "Toddlers and Tiaras." When it comes to all those things you're "supposed" to be doing for your kids -- showering them with positive reinforcement, bulking up their self-esteem, exposing them to diverse environments, limiting TV to PBS -- well, you may in fact be doing them all wrong.

Never mind what I'm "supposed" to be doing, you might be thinking. I don't read "parenting books." I don't even use "parenting" as a verb. I go by instinct. Ah, yes. But even "instinct" can lead us astray, say Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman in "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children," whose revelations about what the latest child-rearing research actually says may make you wonder, honestly, how any of us turned out OK.

"Really, the actual instinct -- the biological drive that kicks in -- is the fierce impulse to nurture and protect one's child ... But as far as how best to nurture, [parents] have to figure it out," write Bronson and Merryman, who have covered the science of parenting in New York and Time magazines. "In other words, our instincts can be so off-base because they are not actually instincts. Today, with three years of investigation behind us, [we] now see that what we imagined were our 'instincts' were instead just intelligent, informed reactions. Things we had figured out. Along the way, we also discovered that those reactions were polluted by a hodgepodge of wishful thinking, moralistic biases, contagious fads, personal history, and old (disproven) psychology -- all at the expense of common sense."

The result of the authors' dogged parsing of reams of research: The book reads, in a way, like some sort of Freaky Friday Opposite World parenting manual written by our kids, just to mess with us. For example: PBS can make kids more aggressive than Power Rangers. Diverse schools may be more segregated. Educational baby DVDs may actually retard language acquisition. (Way to go, Einstein.) Arguing can be a sign of respect; lying, of autonomy and smarts. And, in the authors' perhaps most-discussed -- and most rankling -- observation: Rote or broad "you're-so-smart" praise can backfire, undermining rather than boosting self-confidence.

So, yes, in less gracious, more incurious hands, "NurtureShock" could have been subtitled: You People Have No Clue. But it's not a manual, nor is it an attack on anything but the slapdash, headline-happy way in which scientific research is often uncritically blurred into existing conventional wisdom or spun from rough, complex wool into overly simple, flimsy "tips." Nor, pleasantly enough, is it necessarily a critique of parenting "culture," helicopter or otherwise. We're fumbling along with good intentions but rusty tools, the authors seem to say. Because much of the research they've found offers this reassurance: that kids -- despite our best efforts -- are doing better than we think.

Salon talked to Bronson about the complexities of modern child rearing and why parents, too, should be praised for their effort. (Also: For more on the book's discussion of children and race, click here.)

I'd like to compliment the book, but I want to make sure I do so without undermining your self-confidence. What is the basic problem with the way parents tend to deliver praise?

Only kids about 7 and under are still taking praise at face value. But otherwise, the basic problem is that telling kids they're "so smart" conveys the idea that intelligence is something you're born with. Parents think saying that is going to give their kids confidence, like this little angel on their shoulder saying, "Don't back down." But instead what it teaches them is this idea that you've either got it or you don't. When we're telling kids they're smart all the time, effort gets stigmatized. They come to think that effort is proof to the other kids in class that you can't cut it on your natural gifts. And they also become averse to academic challenges that put them at risk of not looking so smart.

Don't they also start to associate a teacher's praise with the kids who are having a harder time?

Yes. If a kid watches another kid being praised lavishly, and the one who's watching is then asked, "How well did that he or she do?" the observing kid will probably go, "Ha! That kid did terrible." They've decoded a pattern: Since praise is the way we try to help kids -- or manipulate them -- they understand that the kids who are praised all the time are the ones we're worried about.

Innate ability vs. effort: Do you think that's why I'm starting to hear parents and teachers say "Good working" instead of "Good job" and the like? (And am I going to have to start saying it, too?)

Well, I would be concerned if people used "good working" all the time and it was insincere. Kids don't always work hard all the time, whatsoever. They don't at all. It really is about sincerity. I have to warn against this kind of rote automaton kind of praise coming off our lips because parents often tell me, "I said, 'You're great,' or 'You're so smart,' because the truth was the phone was ringing, and I had to cook dinner," and it was just sort of this place-marker. My daughter's been working on her phonics work, and when I help her, I don't make it good or bad. It's just about, we're gonna do this thing, and if we do it a little bit every day, in a couple years you'll be reading just fine. I suppose I could say "Good working" at the end, but to me, it sounds a little like just another catchphrase.

But surely there's something there about emphasizing effort over results?

Absolutely. But it's important to talk about effort in a broader construct, too. Not just about "You worked really hard" all the time. It's also about how we model our work -- how you describe how you worked hard to your kids, and how it paid off.

How do you respond to parents who say, "So wait, I can never tell my kids she's smart?"

This isn't in the book -- the science came out last spring -- but the research says that when you're teaching this construct of effort vs. innateness, the tipping point seems to be around 75/25. So if you're saying "You're so smart" or somehow giving the idea that either you have it or you don't -- if that kind of feedback or praise rises above about one-quarter of the time, that's when kids really start to believe it.

In the book, you describe praise as a "panacea for the challenges of modern parenting." Can you elaborate?

Our generation comes to parenting with this idea of "I'm not going to express conditional love" -- approval for acceptable things and disapproval for just being a kid or making mistakes or not being the best all the time. So now we try to convey a sense of unconditional love to our children through praise. As in, "You're great," "You're fine" -- meaning, you're not being rejected by me because you didn't do perfect on that test or you kicked the ball into your own goal. It's very hard to turn the clock back to the idea that there's a difference between praise as it's used today and just a sincere honest compliment. Praise has become a way that we attempt to slightly distort -- i.e., manipulate -- our kids' perception of their universe. And what we risk there is our sincerity as parents.

When you talk to parents of high schoolers, they're like, kids are so stressed. They try to soften kids' experience with praise. There are certainly tons of parents who are determined for their kids to go to the best high schools, the best colleges, but there are a lot of parents who are like, hey, it's OK, I just want you to go to college, to be a well-rounded person. But when they're saying, "Hey, you're smart, don't worry about it," what the kid hears -- especially when he or she fails -- is that anything less than being smart is something they can't talk about overtly. Failure becomes unmentionable. So kids actually take the praise as pressure. That's actually more disconcerting to me than the effort versus innateness issue.

Can you explain why teenagers are not actually as malevolent as one might think?

There are a few reasons. The average high schooler in America is getting about 6.65 hours of sleep a night, about an hour less than we got 30 years ago. That lost hour shows a lot of cognitive, hormonal and behavioral disruption that has its own set of consequences. So when people say that teens are moody, disengaged, depressed, withdrawn -- those are all classic signs of sleep deprivation. There is one mother in the book who helped change the local school start time to one hour later, and, in her opinion, she got her son back. I have not done a cross-comparison of the history of adolescence with the history of sleep, but some would say that we've both extended adolescence and exacerbated it with teens getting less and less sleep, making them more and more into the caricature of the recalcitrant, rebellious teen -- without realizing that the classic explanations for what's going on with them are missing one big variable: how much they sleep.

There's also lying. Seventy-eight percent of American parents think their teens tell them everything. They expect them to tell them everything, or that they should be able to. And that's a dangerous proposition. Because the science of teen lying suggests that even the teens who lie least to their parents still lie about on average five of the 36 things that teens normally lie to their parents about. It's naive to expect that you're hearing the whole truth. Their lying is motivated by not wanting to get in trouble, of course. But it's also their need for independence. They're soon going to be autonomous people in the world, and they're practicing. To always come to your parents for advice and help is psychologically emasculating, proof that you can't handle it on your own. Teens are really prone to telling their parents what they want to hear and then going and doing what they want. If they tell the truth, they usually know there's going to be an argument. Parents find that arguing really riles and rattles them; they think it's destructive. But they don't realize that the other option is lying.

That's why teens are more likely to find arguing productive. There's a difference between arguing over the parents' authority to set the rules ("You have no right to tell me what to do!") versus arguing about a rule itself, where the kid might be saying, "It's one thing when it's a matter of safety, but this is about what I'm wearing to school, so butt out." What makes teens rank arguing as problematic is when they never get any concession. Those kids are the ones who get frustrated and turn to lying more. The mistake is thinking there's a trade-off between strictness and honesty. More permissive parents don't actually hear more truth. The ones who do are the ones who set a few rules and enforce them consistently, and when they hear a good argument for bending them they occasionally give in. And when a parent knows how to negotiate and compromise, the kid learns how to do that in peer and romantic and friend relationships as well.

That sounds like a good thing.

The work by Joe Allen  -- this is not in the book -- shows that children of parents who just demand obedience become obedient to others as well -- like when someone says, "Hey, let's go get a keg." As in peer pressure. What's interesting, though, is that we think of peer pressure as terribly dangerous. But those who experienced it were doing better by the time they got out of college. They had a little bit better GPAs than others, and much better relationships: better romantic relationship, better relationships with their parents, better relationships with their friends.

How's that?

Kids who experience peer pressure are actually socially attuned. They're noticing what other people feel and think. That's what you want in a friend: someone who recognizes what you feel and think. It was the kids who didn't feel any peer pressure whom Joe described as the B students who never excelled. They disengaged. They didn't care what other people thought, what other people and society expected of them. So if you think about peer pressure as social attunement, well, it gets kids to take showers, and it gets them to buy into the system of "I don't want to be the worst kid in my class," "I don't want to be the worst athlete on the team," "I want to go to a good college." The same dynamic, yes, also leads to drinking and drug use and early sexual activity. So it's not all good by any means. But it's interesting that you can't just say, "Turn off the social forces of peer pressure," because actually the kid who's feeling pressure to participate in the rituals of teen rebellion is also feeling pressure to have those good outcomes as well.

That echoes a recurring theme in the book: that we can rarely say that a given thing is 100 percent good for kids, or 100 percent bad.

The minute you do that, you depart from the science. Almost nothing in the science shows only good outcomes or only bad outcomes. You can't go around saying, "Is bottle feeding good or bad?" or, "Is this nap schedule good or bad?" and it's only one or the other.

Is that something that parents want to hear, or don't want to hear?

I see a ton out there of this sort of determination of "TV is good" or "TV is bad," and "Video games are good" or "Video games are bad," and "Well, now we've got the Wii so we don't know what to say." It's as if they want to stupidify it for people, and just give us the bullet points, and you can turn your brain off and be a parent; all you have to do is read the yes/no categorization that's out there. I don't know how you feel about it, but I basically just find it uninteresting. Most modern parents I see are great parents, loving and accepting of their kids. I believe that they don't necessarily want everything boiled down to bullet points, that they find the science interesting whether or not it's "helpful." So in that sense, the science should make parenting more interesting as well. 

By Lynn Harris

Award-winning journalist Lynn Harris is author of the comic novel "Death by Chick Lit" and co-creator of She also writes for the New York Times, Glamour, and many others.

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