QA 22 (Mar-Apr 10). Three book reviews (2)

Nurtureshock: Why everything we think about raising our children is wrong
Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman
Ebury Press

Reviewed by Helen Douglas (Cape Times, 12 February 2010)

It’s a close call to say whether Nurtureshock manages to be more informative than it is annoying. The first irritant has to be the subtitle. To whom is this meant to appeal? Insecure parents who are ready to think the worst of themselves? Shame on you!

Once safely past the cover, the book’s premise is straightforward. Parents naturally want to nurture and protect their children, but much of their thinking is “polluted by a hodgepodge of wishful thinking, moralistic biases, contagious fads, personal history and old (disproven) psychology”. Bronson and Merryman, regular contributors to New York Magazine, want to set us straight with this survey of the latest research from the “fascinating new science of children”.

They cover a vast range of topics, including language development, sibling rivalry, lying, attitudes about race, teen rebellion, social strategies and self-discipline, presenting both behavioural and neuroscience research. Considering that their notes and sources take up 82 pages, the book is remarkably well organised and readable. The findings and anecdotes are indeed interesting and many are surprising.

For example: when children (from preschool age right up to high school) get less than 8 hours of sleep, their school performance suffers dramatically – and there’s also a direct correlation with obesity. Another: when children lie about doing something wrong, they’re often not worried about avoiding punishment as much as they are about damaging their relationship with their parents.

They talk about some new approaches that are proving successful, and even more about school programmes that were widely taken up with great enthusiasm – driver’s education, anti-drug and “zero tolerance” – which either didn’t achieve the intended results or actually made things worse.

Which brings us to the nub of the problem: if yesterday’s research is now “disproven”, how much should parents place their trust in today’s? The authors breathlessly assure us this is “cutting edge science”, as if it were conclusive. This is annoying because we know it isn’t. The researchers they interview are more realistic and modest: the development of child is far too complex to pin down. On top of this, as Bronson and Merryman themselves note, the areas of research are limited by access to funding, and its distribution is hardly objective and rational.

The book also contradicts itself, most glaringly in the matter of “giftedness”. The first chapter, “The inverse power of praise”, makes a strong case for not praising a child’s intelligence: kids who are told they’re smart can get so anxious about failing that they stop trying and won’t attempt anything they’re not sure they can ace. The fifth chapter, “The search for intelligent life in kindergarten”, is all about giving IQ tests to children in nursery school in order to select the best and the brightest for gifted programmes. It turns out that this doesn’t work well at all. By grade three, some of the selected children are no longer peak performers and some of the peak performers are outside of the programme. Personally, I find the whole situation bizarre, but as a reader I’m annoyed that Chapter Five obviously never sat down to read Chapter One.

Still, I don’t want to knock the book completely. Parents and educators looking for fresh insight will find much to think about, but there’s no need take it as seriously as the authors want us to. Perhaps you could treat it as a spring clean for your hodgepodge?

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