New Thinking About Children


By Po Bronson

By Ashley Merryman

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In a world of modern, involved, caring parents, why are so many kids aggressive and cruel? 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% of kids think lying is morally wrong, then why do 98% of kids lie? What’s the single most important thing that helps infants learn language?
NurtureShock is a groundbreaking collaboration between award-winning science journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. They argue that when it comes to children, we’ve mistaken good intentions for good ideas. With impeccable storytelling and razor-sharp analysis, they demonstrate that many of modern society’s strategies for nurturing children are in fact backfiring–because key twists in the science have been overlooked.
Nothing like a parenting manual, the authors’ work is an insightful exploration of themes and issues that transcend children’s (and adults’) lives.


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Table of Contents

Copyright Page


Cary Grant is at the door.


During the late 1960s, visitors to the Magic Castle—a private nightclub in Hollywood, California, run by professional magicians—were often delighted to see that the club had hired a Cary Grant look-alike as its doorman. As they'd step up to the portico, the door would be swung open by a dashing man in an impeccably tailored suit. "Welcome to the Castle," he charmed, seeming to enjoy his doppelgänger status. Once the guests were through the lobby, they would titter over just how much the doorman resembled the iconic actor. The nightclub is mere yards from the Chinese Theatre and the Walk of Fame. To have the best Cary Grant impersonator in the world holding the door for you was the perfect embodiment of the magic of Hollywood in all its forms.

However, the doorman pretending to be Cary Grant wasn't an impostor after all. It was, in fact, the real Cary Grant.

Grant, a charter member of the Castle, had been intrigued by magic since he was a kid. Part of the Castle's appeal to Grant and many other celebrities, though, was that the club has an ironclad rule—no cameras, no photographs, and no reporters. It gave stars the ability to have a quiet night out without gossip columns knowing.

Grant hung out in the lobby to be with the receptionist, Joan Lawton. They spent the hours talking about a more profound kind of Magic—something Grant cared more deeply about than the stage.


Lawton's work at the Castle was her night job. By day, she was pursuing a certificate in the science of child development. Grant, then the father of a toddler, was fascinated by her study. He plied her for every scrap of research she was learning. "He wanted to know everything about kids," she recalled. Whenever he heard a car arrive outside, he'd jump to the door. He wasn't intentionally trying to fool the guests, but that was often the result. The normally autograph-seeking patrons left him alone.

So why didn't guests recognize he was the real thing?

The context threw them off. Nobody expected the real Cary Grant would appear in the humdrum position of a doorman. Magicians who performed at the Magic Castle were the best anywhere, so the guests came prepared to witness illusions. They assumed the handsome doorman was just the first illusion of the evening.

Here's the thing. When everything is all dressed up as entertainment—when it's all supposed to be magical and surprising and fascinating—the Real Thing may be perceived as just another tidbit for our amusement.

That is certainly the case in the realm of science.

In the immediacy of today's 24-7 news cycle, with television news, constant blogging, press releases, and e-mail, it feels as if no scientific breakthrough escapes notice. But these scientific findings are used like B-list celebrities—they're filler for when the real newsmakers aren't generating headlines. Each one gets its ten minutes of fame, more for our entertainment than our serious consideration. The next day, they are tossed aside, lipstick asmear, as the press wire churns out the science du jour. When they're presented as quick sound bites, it's impossible to know which findings really merit our attention.

Most scientific investigations can't live up to the demands of media packaging. At least for the science of child development, there have been no "Eureka!" moments that fit the classic characterization of a major scientific breakthrough. Rather than being the work of a single scholar, the new ideas have been hashed out by many scholars, sometimes dozens, who have been conducting research at universities the world over. Rather than new truths arriving on the wings of a single experiment, they have come at a crawl, over a decade, from various studies replicating and refining prior ones.

The result is that many important ideas have been right under our noses, building up over the last decade. As a society, collectively, we never recognized they were the real thing.


Why our instincts about children can be so off the mark.


My wife has great taste in art, with one exception. In the guest bedroom of our house hangs an acrylic still life—a pot of red geraniums beside an ocher-toned watering can, with a brown picket fence in the background. It's ugly, but that's not its worst sin. My real problem is that it's from a paint-by-numbers kit.

Every time I look at it, I want to sneak it out of the house and dump it in the corner trash can.

My wife won't let me, though, because it was painted way back in 1961 by her great-grandmother. I am all for hanging on to things for sentimental reasons, and our house is full of her family's artifacts, but I just don't think this painting contains or conveys any genuine sentiment. There was probably a hint of it the day her great-grandmother bought the paint-by-numbers kit at the crafts store—a glimmer of a more creative, inspired life—but the finished product, in my opinion, kind of insults that hope. Rather than commemorating her memory, it diminishes it.

Painting by numbers skyrocketed to success in the early 1950s. It was hugely popular—the iPod of its time. It was marketed on the premise that homemakers were going to have a vast surplus of free time thanks to dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines. In three years, the Palmer Paint Company sold over twelve million kits. As popular as the phenomenon was, it was also always surrounded by controversy. Critics were torn between the democratic ideal of letting everyone express themselves and the robotic, conformist way that expression was actually being manifested.

The other day, I was trying to remember how I felt about the science of child development before Ashley Merryman and I began this book, several years ago—when all of a sudden that painting of potted geraniums popped into my head. I had to go home and stare at that ugly painting for an evening before I could figure out why. Which I ultimately realized was this:

The mix of feelings engendered by paint-by-numbers is similar to the mix of feelings engendered by books about the science of children. This is because the science has always carried with it the connotation that parenting should be "by the book." If the science says X, you're supposed to do X, just like paint-by-numbers instructed hobbyists to use Cornsilk and Burnt Umber for the handle of the watering can.

So if a few years ago, someone had told me, "You really ought to read this book about the new science of kids," I would have politely thanked him and then completely ignored his recommendation.

Like most parents, my wife and I bought a few baby books when our son was born. After the first year, we put them away, until three years later, when our daughter was born and the books once again graced our shelves. Until our daughter turned one—after that, we no longer had any interest in the books.

Most of our friends felt the same way. We agreed that we didn't parent "by the book," nor did we want to. We parented on instinct. We were madly in love with our children, and we were careful observers of their needs and development. That seemed enough.

At that same time, Ashley and I had been co-writing columns for Time Magazine. Living in Los Angeles, Ashley had spent years running a small tutoring program for inner-city children. She has been something like a fairy godmother to about 40 kids, a constant presence in their lives from kindergarten through high school. Guided by her instincts, Ashley has had no shortage of ideas about how to steer the kids in her program. She has never lacked inspiration. All she felt she needed was more tutors and some school supplies.

In that sense, neither Ashley nor I were aware of what we were missing. We did not say to ourselves, "Wow, I really need to brush up on the science of child development, because I'm messing up." Instead, we were going fairly merrily along, until we sort of stumbled into writing this book.

We had been researching the science of motivation in grown-ups, and one day we wondered where kids get their self-confidence from. We began to investigate this new angle. (The story we ultimately wrote ran on the cover of New York Magazine in February of 2007, and it's expanded here as Chapter 1 of this book.) What we learned surprised us and was simultaneously disorienting. Prior to that story, our instincts led us to believe, quite firmly, that it was important to tell young children they were smart, in order to buoy their confidence. However, we uncovered a body of science that argued, extremely convincingly, that this habit of telling kids they're smart was backfiring. It was in fact undermining children's confidence.

We changed our behavior after researching that story, but we were left with a lingering question: how could our instincts have been so off-base?

According to lore, the maternal instinct is innate. Women are assured it doesn't matter if they spent their twenties avoiding babies, or if they don't consider themselves very maternal. The moment after birth, when the baby's first handed to his mother, maternal instincts magically kick in, right along with the hormones. As a mother, you will know what to do, and you will continue to know for the next eighteen years. This fountain of knowledge is supposed to come as part of a matched set of ovaries and a desire to wear expensive high heels.

Thanks to this mythos, we use the word "instinct" to convey the collective wisdom gleaned intuitively from our experiences raising kids. But this is an overgeneralization of the term. Really, the actual instinct—the biological drive that kicks in—is the fierce impulse to nurture and protect one's child. Neuroscientists have even located the exact neural network in the brain where this impulse fires. Expecting parents can rely on this impulse kicking in—but as for how best to nurture, they have to figure it out.

In other words, our "instincts" can be so off-base because they are not actually instincts.

Today, with three years of investigation behind us, Ashley and I 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.

"Nurture shock," as the term is generally used, refers to the panic—common among new parents—that the mythical fountain of knowledge is not magically kicking in at all.

This book will deliver a similar shock—it will use the fascinating new science of children to reveal just how many of our bedrock assumptions about kids can no longer be counted on.

The central premise of this book is that many of modern society's strategies for nurturing children are in fact backfiring—because key twists in the science have been overlooked.

The resulting errant assumptions about child development have distorted parenting habits, school programs, and social policies. They affect how we think about kids, and thus how we interpret child behavior and communicate with the young. The intent of this book is not to be alarmist, but to teach us to think differently—more deeply and clearly—about children. Small corrections in our thinking today could alter the character of society long-term, one future-citizen at a time.

The topics covered in this book are wide-ranging, devoted to equal parts brain fiber and moral fiber. They relate to children of every age from tots to teens. It could not be further from a paint-by-numbers approach. Specifically, we have chapters devoted to confidence, sleep, lying, racial attitudes, intelligence, sibling conflict, teen rebellion, self-control, aggression, gratitude, and the acquisition of language. The prose throughout is our mutual collaboration.

Along the way, we will push you to rethink many sacred cows—too many to fully list here, but some highlights include the following: self-esteem, Noam Chomsky, Driver's Ed, the idea that children are naturally blind to racial constructs, emotional intelligence, warning kids not to tattle, educational cartoons, the early identification of the gifted, the notion that television is making kids fat, and the presumption that it's necessarily a good sign if a child can say "no" to peer pressure.

We chose these topics because the research surprised us—it directly challenged the conventional point of view on how kids grow up.

However, once we parsed through the science and reviewed the evidence, the new thinking about children felt self-evident and logical, even obvious. It did not feel like we had to raise children "by the book." It felt entirely natural, a restoration of common sense. The old assumptions we once had seemed to be nothing but a projection of wishful thinking. Once we overcame the initial shock, we found ourselves plugged into children in a whole new way.


The Inverse Power of Praise

Sure, he's special. But new research suggests if you tell him that, you'll ruin him. It's a neurobiological fact.


What do we make of a boy like Thomas?

Thomas (his middle name) is a fifth-grader at the highly competitive P.S. 334, the Anderson School on West 84th in New York City. Slim as they get, Thomas recently had his long sandy-blond hair cut short to look like the new James Bond (he took a photo of Daniel Craig to the barber). Unlike Bond, he prefers a uniform of cargo pants and a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of one of his heroes: Frank Zappa. Thomas hangs out with five friends from the Anderson School. They are "the smart kids." Thomas is one of them, and he likes belonging.

Since Thomas could walk, he has constantly heard that he's smart. Not just from his parents but from any adult who has come in contact with this precocious child. When he applied to Anderson for kindergarten, his intelligence was statistically confirmed. The school is reserved for the top 1 percent of all applicants, and an IQ test is required. Thomas didn't just score in the top 1 percent. He scored in the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent.

But as Thomas has progressed through school, this self-awareness that he's smart hasn't always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas's father noticed just the opposite. "Thomas didn't want to try things he wouldn't be successful at," his father says. "Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn't, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, 'I'm not good at this.' " With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two—things he was naturally good at and things he wasn't.

For instance, in the early grades, Thomas wasn't very good at spelling, so he simply demurred from spelling out loud. When Thomas took his first look at fractions, he balked. The biggest hurdle came in third grade. He was supposed to learn cursive penmanship, but he wouldn't even try for weeks. By then, his teacher was demanding homework be completed in cursive. Rather than play catch-up on his penmanship, Thomas refused outright. Thomas's father tried to reason with him. "Look, just because you're smart doesn't mean you don't have to put out some effort." (Eventually, Thomas mastered cursive, but not without a lot of cajoling from his father.)

Why does this child, who is measurably at the very top of the charts, lack confidence about his ability to tackle routine school challenges?

Thomas is not alone. For a few decades, it's been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.

When parents praise their children's intelligence, they believe they are providing the solution to this problem. According to a survey conducted by Columbia University, 85 percent of American parents think it's important to tell their kids that they're smart. In and around the New York area, according to my own (admittedly nonscientific) poll, the number is more like 100 percent. Everyone does it, habitually. "You're so smart, Kiddo," just seems to roll off the tongue.

"Early and often," bragged one mom, of how often she praised. Another dad throws praise around "every chance I get." I heard that kids are going to school with affirming handwritten notes in their lunchboxes and—when they come home—there are star charts on the refrigerator. Boys are earning baseball cards for clearing their plates after dinner, and girls are winning manicures for doing their homework. These kids are saturated with messages that they're doing great—that they are great, innately so. They have what it takes.

The presumption is that if a child believes he's smart (having been told so, repeatedly), he won't be intimidated by new academic challenges. The constant praise is meant to be an angel on the shoulder, ensuring that children do not sell their talents short.

But a growing body of research—and a new study from the trenches of the New York City public school system—strongly suggests it might be the other way around. Giving kids the label of "smart" does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.

Though Dr. Carol Dweck recently joined the faculty at Stanford, most of her life has been spent in New York; she was raised in Brooklyn, went to college at Barnard, and taught at Columbia for decades. This reluctant new Californian just got her first driver's license—at age sixty. Other Stanford faculty have joked that she'll soon be sporting bright colors in her couture, but so far Dweck sticks to New York black—black suede boots, black skirt, trim black jacket. All of which matches her hair and her big black eyebrows—one of which is raised up, perpetually, as if in disbelief. Tiny as a bird, she uses her hands in elaborate gestures, almost as if she's holding her idea in front of her, physically rotating it in three-dimensional space. Her speech pattern, though, is not at the impatient pace of most New Yorkers. She talks as if she's reading a children's lullaby, with gently punched-up moments of drama.

For the last ten years, Dweck and her team at Columbia have studied the effect of praise on students in twenty New York schools. Her seminal work—a series of experiments on 400 fifth-graders—paints the picture most clearly. Prior to these experiments, praise for intelligence had been shown to boost children's confidence. But Dweck suspected this would backfire the first moment kids experienced failure or difficulty.

Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, "You must be smart at this." Other students were praised for their effort: "You must have worked really hard."

Why just a single line of praise? "We wanted to see how sensitive children were," Dweck explained. "We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect."

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they'd learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck's team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The "smart" kids took the cop-out.

Why did this happen? "When we praise children for their intelligence," Dweck wrote in her study summary, "we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don't risk making mistakes." And that's what the fifth-graders had done. They'd chosen to look smart and avoid the risk of being embarrassed.

In a subsequent round, none of the fifth-graders had a choice. The test was difficult, designed for kids two years ahead of their grade level. Predictably, everyone failed. But again, the two groups of children, divided at random at the study's start, responded differently. Those praised for their effort on the first test assumed they simply hadn't focused hard enough on this test. "They got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles," Dweck recalled. "Many of them remarked, unprovoked, 'This is my favorite test.' " Not so for those praised for their smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence that they weren't really smart at all. "Just watching them, you could see the strain. They were sweating and miserable."

Having artificially induced a round of failure, Dweck's researchers then gave all the fifth-graders a final round of tests that were engineered to be as easy as the first round. Those who had been praised for their effort significantly improved on their first score—by about 30 percent. Those who'd been told they were smart did worse than they had at the very beginning—by about 20 percent.

Dweck had suspected that praise could backfire, but even she was surprised by the magnitude of the effect. "Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control," she explains. "They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child's control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure."

In follow-up interviews, Dweck discovered that those who think that innate intelligence is the key to success begin to discount the importance of effort. I am smart, the kids' reasoning goes; I don't need to put out effort. Expending effort becomes stigmatized—it's public proof that you can't cut it on your natural gifts.

Repeating her experiments, Dweck found this effect of praise on performance held true for students of every socioeconomic class. It hit both boys and girls—the very brightest girls especially (they collapsed the most following failure). Even preschoolers weren't immune to the inverse power of praise.

Jill Abraham is a mother of three in Scarsdale, and her view is typical of those in my straw poll. I told her about Dweck's research on praise, and she flatly wasn't interested in brief tests without long-term follow-up. Abraham is one of the 85 percent who think praising her children's intelligence is important.

Jill explains that her family lives in a very competitive community—a competition well under way by the time babies are a year and a half old and being interviewed for day care. "Children who don't have a firm belief in themselves get pushed around—not just in the playground, but the classroom as well." So Jill wants to arm her children with a strong belief in their innate abilities. She praises them liberally. "I don't care what the experts say," Jill says defiantly. "I'm living it."

Jill wasn't the only one to express such scorn of these so-called "experts." The consensus was that brief experiments in a controlled setting don't compare to the wisdom of parents raising their kids day in and day out.

Even those who've accepted the new research on praise have trouble putting it into practice. Sue Needleman is both a mother of two and an elementary school teacher with eleven years' experience. Last year, she was a fourth-grade teacher at Ridge Ranch Elementary in Paramus, New Jersey. She has never heard of Carol Dweck, but the gist of Dweck's research has trickled down to her school, and Needleman has learned to say, "I like how you keep trying." She tries to keep her praise specific, rather than general, so that a child knows exactly what she did to earn the praise (and thus can get more). She will occasionally tell a child, "You're good at math," but she'll never tell a child he's bad at math.

But that's at school, as a teacher. At home, old habits die hard. Her eight-year-old daughter and her five-year-old son are indeed smart, and sometimes she hears herself saying, "You're great. You did it. You're smart." When I press her on this, Needleman says that what comes out of academia often feels artificial. "When I read the mock dialogues, my first thought is, Oh, please. How corny."

No such qualms exist for teachers at the Life Sciences Secondary School in East Harlem, because they've seen Dweck's theories applied to their junior high students. Dweck and her protégée, Dr. Lisa Blackwell, published a report in the academic journal Child Development about the effect of a semester-long intervention conducted to improve students' math scores.


On Sale
Sep 3, 2009
Page Count
352 pages

Po Bronson

About the Author

Po Bronson is Managing Director of IndieBio. His science journalism has been honored with nine national awards, and cited in 185 academic journals and 503 books. He’s the author of seven bestselling books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller What Should I Do With My Life?

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