Nurture Shock | Notes

Posted on July 29, 2014


Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman. Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children. Twelve, 2009. (336 pages)



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. (x)


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

“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. (6)

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. (6)


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

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. (12)

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…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. (13)

When we praise children for their intelligence, we tell them that this is the name of the game: look smart, don’t risk making mistakes. – Carol Dweck

…emphasizing effort gives a child a variable they can control. 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. – Carol Dweck

…praise, self-esteem, and performance rise and fall together. (18)

Praise is important, but not vacuous praise. It has to be based on a real thing–some skill or talent they have. – Judith Brook

Once children hear praise they interpret as meritless, they discount not just the insincere praise, but sincere praise as well. | Excessive praise also distorts children’s motivation; they begin doing things merely to hear the praise, losing sight of intrinsic enjoyment. (20-21)


Around the world, children get an hour less sleep than they did thirty years ago. The cost: IQ points, emotional well-being, ADHD, and obesity.

It’s even possible that many of the hallmark characteristics of being a tweener and teen–moodiness, depression, and even binge eating–are actually just symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation. (31)

A tired brain perseverates–it gets stuck on a wrong answer and can’t come up with a more creative solution, repeatedly returning to the same answer it already knows is erroneous. (34)

The more you learned during the day, the more you need to sleep that night. (34)

Negative stimuli get processed by the amygdala; positive or neutral memories gets processed by the hippocampus. Sleep deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala. The result is that sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine. (35)

We have an incendiary situation today where the intensity of learning that kids are going through is so much greater, yet the amount of sleep they get to process that learning is so much less. If these linear trends continue, the rubber band will soon snap. – Dr. Matthew Walker

Might our culture-wide perception of what it means to be a teenager be unwittingly skewed by the fact they don’t get enough sleep? (38)

All the studies point in the same direction: on average, children who sleep less are fatter than children who sleep more. (40)

The CDC now recommends that high schools consider later starts: its representatives are now opining that a change in school start times can change lives. (42)

Sleep is a biological imperative for every species on earth. But humans alone try to resist its pull. Instead, we see sleep not as a physical need but a statement of character. It’s considered a sign of weakness to admit fatigue–and it’s a sign of strength to refuse to succumb to slumber. Sleep is for Wusses. | But perhaps we are blind to the toll it is taking on us. (41)


Does teaching children about race and skin color make them better off or worse?

We all want our children to be unintimdated by differences and have the social skills to integrate in a diverse world. The question is, do we make it worse, or do we make it better, by calling attention to race. (51)

For decades, we assumed that children will only see race when society points it out to them. That approach was shared by much of the scientific community–the view was that race was a societal issue best left to sociologists and demographers to figure out. However, child development researchers have increasingly begun to question that presumption. They argue that children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue–but we tell kids that “pink” means for girls and “blue” is for boys. “White” and “black” are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own. (52)

It takes remarkably little for children to develop in-group preferences once a difference has been recognized. (52)

…children will use whatever you give them to create divisions–seeming to confirm that race becomes an issue only if we make it an issue. (53)

…kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they’re going to form these preferences on their own. Children categorize everything from food to toys to people at a young age. However, it takes years before their cognitive abilities allow them to successfully use more than one attribute to categorize anything. In the meantime, the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible. (53)

The spontaneous tendency to assume your group shares characteristics–such as niceness, or smarts–is called essentialism. Kids never think groups are random. (53)

We might imagine we’re creating color-blind environments for children, but differences in skin color or hair or weight are like differences in gender–they’re plainly visible. (53)

…during this period of our children’s lives when we imagine it’s most important to not talk about race is the very developmental period when children’s minds are forming their first conclusions about race. (55)

It’s possible that by third grade, when parents usually recognize it’s safe to start talking a little about race, the developmental window has already closed. (55)

Diverse Environment Theory. If you raise a child with a fair amount of exposure to people of other races and cultures, the environment becomes the message. You don’t have to talk about race–in fact, it’s better to not talk about race. Just expose the child to diverse environments and he’ll think it’s entirely normal. (55)

[VIA: however…]

In the end, I was disappointed with the amount of evidence social psychology could muster. Going to integrated schools gives you just as many chances to learn stereotypes as to unlearn them. … It’s an enormous step backward to increase social segregation. – Rebecca Bigler

Even in multiracial schools, once young people leave the classroom very little interracial discussion takes place because a desire to associate with one’s own ethnic group often discourages interaction between groups. – Brendesha Tynes

It is tempting to believe that because their generation is so diverse, today’s children grow up knowing how to get along with people of every race. But numerous studies suggest that this is more of a fantasy than a fact. (61)

What jumped out at Phyllis Katz, in her study of 200 black and white children, was that parents are very comfortable talking to their children about gender, and they work very hard to counterprogram against boy-girl stereotypes. That ought to be our model for talking about race. The same way we remind our daughters, “Mommies can be doctors just like daddies,” we ought to be telling all children that doctors can be any skin color. It’s not complicated what to say. It’s only a matter of how we often reinforce it. (62)

To be effective, researchers have found, conversations about race have to be explicit, in unmistakeable terms that children understand. (63)

If we’d had them read stories of contemporary discrimination from today’s newspapers, it’s quite possible it would have made the whites defensive, and only made the blacks angry at whites. – Dr. Rebecca Bigler

Harris-Britt warns that frequent predictions of future discrimination ironically become as destructive as experiences of actual discrimination: “If you overfocus on those types of events, you give the children the message that the world is going to be hostile–you’re just not valued and that’s just the way the world is.” (64)

The other broad category of conversation is ethic pride. From a very young age, minority children are coached to be proud of their ethnic history. She found that this was exceedingly good for children’s self-confidence;… (64)

That leads to the question that everyone wonders but rarely dares to ask. If “black pride” is good for African American children, where does that leave white children? It’s horrifying to imagine kids being “proud to be white.” Yet many scholars argue that’s exactly what children’s brains are already computing. Just as minority children are aware that they belong to an ethnic group with less status and wealth, most white children naturally decipher that they belong to the race that has more power, wealth, and control in society; this provides security, if not confidence.e (64-65)


We treasure honesty, but the research is clear. Most classic strategies to promote truthfulness just encourage kids to be better liars.

People simply cannot tell when kids are lying. Their scores also tend to reveal some biases. They believe girls are telling the truth more than boys, when in fact boys do not lie more often. They believe younger kids are more prone to lying, whereas the opposite is true. And they believe introverts are less trustworthy, when introverts actually lie less often, lacking the social skills to pull off a lie. (75)

…the parent’s first defense against his child’s tendency to lie is, “Well, I can tell when they’re lying.” [Victoria] Talwar’s proven that to be a myth. (75)

The first thing they’ve learned is that children learn to lie much earlier than we presumed. (80)

The better a young child can distinguish a lie from the truth, the more likely she is to lie given the chance. (80)

…many parenting web sites and books advise parents to just let lies go–kids will grow out of it. The truth is, kids grow into it. (80)

The qualifying role of intent seems to be the most difficult variable for children to grasp. Kids don’t even believe a mistake is an acceptable excuse. The only thing that matters is that the information was wrong. (81)

…lying demands both advanced cognitive development and social skills that honesty simply doesn’t require. (82)

It’s a developmental milestone… Lying is related to intelligence – Talwar

Lying also becomes a way to increase a child’s power and sense of control–by manipulating friends with teasing, by bragging to assert his status, and by learning that he can fool his parents. (82)

In longitudinal studies, a six-year-old who lies frequently could just as simply grow out of it. But if lying has become a successful strategy for handling difficult social situations, she’ll stick with it. (83)

Increasing the threat of punishment for lying only makes children hyperaware of the potential personal cost. It distracts the child from learning how his lies impact others. In studies, scholars find that kids who live in threat of consistent punishment don’t lie less. Instead, they become better liars, at an earlier age–learning to get caught less often. (84-85)

Young kids are lying to make you happy–trying to please you. – Talwar

So telling kids that the truth will make a parent happy challenges the kids’ original thought that hearing good news–not the truth–is what will please the parent. (86)

Ultimately, it’s not fairy tales that stop kids from lying–it’s the process of socialization. …parents need to teach kid the worth of honesty just as much as they need to say that lying is wrong. The more kids hear that message, the more quickly they will take this lesson to heart. (86)

The other reason children lie, according to Talwar, is that they learn it from us. (86)

Encouraged to tell so many white lies, children gradually get comfortable with being disingenuous. Insincerity becomes, literally, a daily occurrence. They learn that honesty only creates conflict, while dishonesty is an easy way to avoid conflict. (87)

…nine out of ten times a kid runs up to a parent to tell [tattling], that kid is being completely honest. And while it might seem to a parent that tattling is incessant, to a child that’s not the case–because for every one time a child seeks a parent for help, there were fourteen other instances when he was wronged and did not run to the parent for aid. (88)

When the child–who’s put up with as much as he can handle–finally comes to tell the parent the honest truth, he hears, in effect, “Stop bringing me your problems!” (88)

The irony of lying is that it’s both normal and abnormal behavior at the same time. It’s to be expected, and yet it can’t be disregarded. (90)


Millions of kids are competing for seats in gifted programs and private schools. Admissions officers say it’s an art: new science says they’re wrong, 73% of the time.

The issue isn’t which test is used, or what the test tests. The problem is that young kids’ brains just aren’t done yet. (98)

Every single scholar we spoke to warned of classifying young children on the basis of a single early test result–all advised of the necessity for secondary testing. … This admonition came most strongly from those actually writing the tests… (102)

Despite the unanimity of this view, because of the cost and time involved, kids are routinely awarded–or denied–entrance on the basis of a single test, and in many schools are never retested. (102)

Many of the districts are still laboring under the premise that intelligence is innate and stable. (105)

So rather than triumphantly arguing that emotional intelligence supplants cognitive ability, one influential scholar is proving it’s the other way around: higher cognitive ability increases emotional functioning. (108)

…it needs to be recognized that no current test or teacher ratings system, whether used alone or in combination on such young kids, meets a reasonable standard of confidence to justify a long-term decision. Huge numbers of great kids simply can’t be “discovered” so young. (109)

Within the brain, neurons compete. Unused neurons are eliminated; the winners survive, and if used often, eventually get insulated with a layer of white fatty tissue, which exponentially increases the speed of transmission. In this way, gray matter gets upgraded to white matter. (110-111)

As a child ages, the location of intellectual processing shifts. The neural network a young child relies on is not the same network he will rely on as an adolescent or adult. There is significant overlap, but the differences are striking. A child’s ultimate intellectual success will be greatly affected by the degree to which his brain learns to shift processing to these more efficient networks. (112)

Real intellectual development doesn’t fit into nicely rounded bell curves. It’s filled with sharp spikes in growth and rough setbacks that have to be overcome. (113)


Freud was wrong. Shakespeare was right. Why siblings really fight.

By growing up with siblings, a child has thousands upon thousands of interactions to learn how to get along. According to this theory, children with siblings should be massively more skilled at getting along than children with no siblings. | Yet they aren’t. | Maybe the mistake here was assuming that those thousands upon thousands of interactions with siblings amount to a single positive. Perhaps the opposite is true–that children learn poor social skills from those interactions, just as often as they learn good ones. (119)

Sibship is a relationship in which the boundaries of social interaction can be pushed to the limit. Rage and irritation need not be suppressed, whilst politeness and toleration can be neglected. – Dr. Samantha Punch

It’s conflict prevention, not conflict resolution. (123)

While the books and videos always ended on a happy note, with siblings learning to value and appreciate each other, the first half of the stories portrayed in vivid detail ways that children can fight, insult, and devalue their siblings. (126)

It turns out that Shakespeare was right, and Freud was wrong. For almost a century, Freud’s argument–that form birth siblings were locked in an eternal struggle for their parents’ affection–held huge influence over scholars and parents alike. But Freud’s theory turns out to be incomplete. Sibling rivalry may be less an Oedipal tale of parental love, and more like King Lear. … The most common reason the kids were fighting was the same one that was the ruin of Regan and Goneril: sharing the castle’s toys. Almost 80% of the older children, and 75% of the younger kids, all said sharing physical possessions–or claiming them as their own–caused the most fights. | Nothing else came close. (127)

Less emphasis needs to be placed on the psychology, and more needs to be on skill-building. (128)

One of the best predictors of how well two siblings get along is determined before the birth of the younger child. … the predictive factor is the quality of the older child’s relationship with his best friend. (129)

The fact that kids could cooperate in class or remain engaged in a group setting didn’t predict improved sibling relationships. It was that real connection between friends–that made a child care how his behavior impacted someone he liked–that was the catalyst for the difference. (130)

In other words, getting what you need from a parent is easy. It’s getting what you want from friends that forces a child to develop skills. …what [Dr. Laurie] Kramer is really trying to do is transform children’s relationships from sibship to something more akin to a real friendship. If kids enjoy one another’s presence, then quarreling comes at a new cost. The penalty for fighting is no longer just a time-out, but the loss of a worthy opponent. (130)


Why, for adolescents, arguing with adults is a sign of respect, not disrespect — and arguing is constructive to the relationship, not destructive.

When I began this research, I would have thought the main reason teens would say they lie was, “I want to stay out of trouble,” But actually the most common reason for deception was, “I’m trying to protect the relationship with my parents; I don’t want them to be disappointed in me.” – Nancy Darling

Darling found that permissive parents don’t actually learn more about their child’s lives. (139)

Kids who go wild and get in trouble mostly have parents who don’t set rules or standards. Their parents are loving and accepting no matter what the kids do. But the kids take the lack of rules as a sign their parents don’t actually care–that their parent doesn’t really want this job of being the parent.

To seek out a parent for help is, from a teen’s perspective, a tacit admission that he’s not mature enough to handle it alone. Having to tell parents about it can be psychologically emasculating, whether the confession is forced out of him or he volunteers it on his own. It’s essential for some things to be “none of your business.” (140)

The big surprise in the research is when this need for autonomy is strongest. … Darling’s scholarship shows that the objection to parental authority peaks around age 14 to 15. In fact, this resistance is slightly stronger at age 11 than at 18. (140)

A few parents managed to live up to the stereotype of the oppressive parent, with lots of psychological intrusion, but those teens weren’t rebelling. They were obedient. And depressed. (140)

Ironically, the type of parents who are actually most consistent in enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids.

They’ve set a few rules over certain key spheres of influence, and they’ve explained why the rules are there. They expect the child to obey them. Over life’s other spheres, they supported the child’s autonomy, allowing her freedom to make her own decisions. | The kids of these parents lied the least. Rather than hiding twelve areas from their parents, they might be hiding as few as five. (140-141)

[The] prefrontal cortex seemed to be showing a diminished response whenever their reward center was experiencing intense excitement. … it was as if the pleasure response was “hijacking” the prefrontal cortex. (144)

Actually, the teen brain can think abstractly, but not feel abstractly–at least not until it’s had more life experience to draw on. And feeling like it’s a bad idea is what it would take to stop oneself from doing it. (146-147)

In the dictionary, the antonym of honesty is lying, and the opposite of arguing is agreement. But int he minds of teenagers, that’s not how it works. Really, to an adolescent, arguing is the opposite of lying. (147)

Certain types of fighting, despite the acrimony, are ultimately a sign of respect–not of disrespect. (149)

…moderate conflict with parents [during adolescence] is associated with better adjustment than either no-conflict or frequent conflict. – Dr. Judith Smetana

Well, the narrow definition of pushover parents are those who give in to their kid because they can’t stand to see their child cry, or whine. They placate their children just to shut them up. They want to be their kid’s friend, and they’re uncomfortable being seen as the bad guy. That’s not the same as a parent who makes sure her child feels heard, and if the child has made a good argument for why a rule needs to be changed, lets that influence her decision. (150-151)

We carry dual narratives whenever a phenomenon can’t be characterized by a singular explanation. We now have dual narratives not just of adolescence, but of the twenty-something years and of being unmarried at forty. In the eyes of some, these reflect an unwillingness to accept reality; to others, they reflect the courage to refuse a compromised life. | The danger is when these narratives don’t just reflect, they steer. (153)


Developers of a new kind of preschool keep losing their grant money — the students are so successful they’re no longer “at-risk enough” to warrant further study. What’s their secret?

…what really reduces auto accidents are graduated-licensing programs which delay the age at which teenagers can drive at night or with friends in the car. These decrease crashes by 20 to 30 percent. (158)

Motivation is experienced in the brain as the release of dopamine. (173)

…being disciplined is more important than being smart. Being both is not just a little better–it’s exponentially better. (174)

Just like the science of intelligence, the science of self-control has shifted in the last decade from the assumption that it’s a fixed trait–some have it, others don’t–to the assumption it’s malleable. (174)


Why modern involved parenting has failed to produce a generation of angels.

…there is a stunning amount of relational and verbal aggression in kids’ television. (181)

96% of all children’s programming includes verbal insults and put-downs, averaging 7.7 put-downs per half-hour episode. (181-182)

Of the 2,628 put-downs the team identified, in only 50 instances was the insulter reprimanded or corrected–and not once in an educational show. Fully 84% of the time, there was either only laughter or no response at all. (182)

…while parents might aspire to shielding their kids from their arguing, the truth is that children are witness to it 45% of the time. | Children appear to be highly attuned to the quality of their parents’ relationship … “emotional Geiger-counters.” (184)

What this means is that parents who pause mid-argument to take it upstairs–to spare the children–might be making the situation far worse, especially if they forget to tell their kids, “Hey, we worked it out.” [Dr. E. Mark] Cummings has also found that when couples have arguments entirely away from the kids, the kids might not have seen any of it but are still well aware of it, despite not knowing any specifics. | Cummings recently has shown that being exposed to constructive marital conflict can actually be good for children–if it doesn’t escalate, insults are avoided, and the dispute is resolved with affection. This improves their sense of security, over time, and increases their prosocial behavior at school as rated by teachers. (185)

…an oversimplified view of aggression leads parents to sometimes make it worse for kids when they’re trying to do the right thing. Children key off their parents’ reaction more than the argument or physical discipline itself. (187)


Despite scientists’ admonitions, parents still spend billions every year on gimmicks and videos, hoping to jump-start infants’ language skills. What’s the right way to accomplish this goal?

So why does an infant need a live human speaker to learn language from? Why are babies learning nothing from the audio track of a baby DVD, while their language isn’t impaired by exposure to regular TV? | The evidence suggests one factor is that baby DVDs rely on disembodied audio voice-overs, unrelated to the abstract imagery of the video track. …seeing a person’s face makes a huge difference. … One of the first things that babies must learn–before they can comprehend any word meanings–is when one word ends and another begins. Without segmentation, an adult’s words probably sound about the same to an infant as does his own babbling. (203)

(Even for adults, seeing someone’s lips as he speaks is the equivalent of a 20-decibel increase in volume.) (203)

…the basic paradigm has been flipped. The information flow that matters most is in the opposite direction we previously assumed. The central role of the parent is not to push massive amount of language into the baby’s ears; rather, the central role of the parent is to notice what’s coming from the baby, and respond accordingly–coming from his mouth, his eyes, and his fingers. … In fact, one of the mechanisms helping a baby to talk isn’t a parent’s speech at all–it’s not what a child hears from a parent, but what a parent accomplishes with a well-timed, loving caress. (207)

How often a mother initiated a conversation with her child was not predictive of the language outcomes–what mattered was, if the infant initiated, whether the mom responded. (208)

This variable, how a parent responds to a child’s vocalizations–right in the moment–seems to be the most powerful mechanism pulling a child from babble to fluent speech. (209)

…intermittent rewards are ultimately more powerful than constant rewards. (214)

One of the ways parents help infants is by doing what’s called “object labeling”–telling them, “That’s your stroller,” “See the flower?,” and “Look at the moon.” Babies learn better from object-labeling when the parent waits for the baby’s eyes to naturally be gazing at the object. The technique is especially powerful when the infant both gazes and vocalizes, or gazes and points. Ideally, the parent isn’t intruding, or directing the child’s attention–instead he’s following the child’s lead. (215)


The Myth of the Supertrait

…children will not experience gratitude unless they recognize three things about the various bounties in their lives: that they are intentional, costly, and beneficial. Children need to comprehend that this nice life of theirs isn’t by accident, it’s the gift of hardworking parents and teachers who make sacrifices for the good of children–who in turn truly benefit from it. (233)

When we looked back at all the enormity of research that this book was built on, an interesting pattern was apparent. Most of the noteworthy insights into child development were revealed when scholars dropped the same two assumptions as [Jeffrey] Froh had. | Or, to restate that with more emphasis: a treasure trove of wisdom about children is there for the grasping after one lets go of those two common assumptions. | The first assumption is that things work in children the same way that they work in adults. To put a name to this reference bias, let’s call it the Fallacy of Similar Effect. (236-237)

The second assumption to drop, as illustrated in Froh’s story, is that positive traits necessarily oppose and ward off negative behavior in children. To name this bias, let’s call it the Fallacy of the Good/Bad Dichotomy. (238)

The researchers are concluding that the good stuff and the bad stuff are not opposite ends of a single spectrum. Instead, they are each their own spectrum. They are what’s termed orthogonal–mutually independent. (239)

Despite these contradictions, the goal of having a deeper understanding of children is not futile. In fact, it’s by studying these apparent contradictions very closely that deeper understanding emerges. | It’s when children are at their most mysterious that we, their caretakers, can learn something new. (239)