NurtureShock – A Book Review

A review of the child development book NurtureShockNurtureShock: New Thinking About Children is the book that has most influenced my approach to parenting. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman pored through child development, psychology and eduation literature and highlighted some major ways in which our generation, in trying to do right by our kids, may actually be doing them a disservice.

This isn’t light reading. There’s a lot of information packed in there. The authors report on a lot of practical, relevant research and some philosophically fascinating research. With that second category of information, it’s up to us to figure out practical applications in parenting. Each chapter of the book could easily be its own book. There’s little coherence between the chapters, but that’s okay. It’s not like I had the time to read it in one sitting!

A mother of twins reviews the book NurtureShock

Chapter 1: 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.

If you’re going to read one chapter of this book, it needs to be this one. I really think this applies to all children. In short, generalized praise that tells your child that her inherent superiority is the source of her success doesn’t build her self-esteem in a way that is lasting or constructive. Instead, make praise specific. Acknowledge effort over talent. Instead of, “You’re so smart,” tell your child, “You worked so hard!”

In one study the authors cite, Dr Carol Dweck’s team gave a group of children a pretty easy test to complete. Half the kids were praised for their smarts, and the other for their effort. They were then offered a choice of two puzzles. The harder one would teach them a lot. Ninety percent of the kids who’d be praised for working hard chose the harder puzzle, while most of the other group elected the easier one.

Kids who know that they’re smart are more likely to give up when they need to put forth effort. Guilty. I was that kid. I’d always been a good student and studied hard, but freshman chemistry in college was the first class in which I was frequently stumped. It took an enormous effort of will for me to stick with it, and the shock of not being the best student in the class hit my sense of worth hard. I’d always been the smart kid; needing to study stole from me the core of my sense of self. It was quite the fall.

Kids who feel valued for being hard workers are likely to stick things out and take greater pride in their accomplishments. My children have been consistently labeled as gifted. I am so glad that I read this book before they started elementary school. Instead of praising my girls for being at the head of their class, I talk to them about doing their best. I’m not disappointed if they come in last if they try their hardest. Doing a lazy job and getting the highest grade in the class? That isn’t an accomplishment.

Not buying it yet? Check out this passage from the chapter.

By the age of twelve, children believe that earning praise from a teacher is not a sign that you did well–it’s actually a sign you lack ability and the teacher thinks you need extra encouragement.

Chapter 2: The Lost Hour

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.

This is a hard one for me. It’s so hard to make enough time for sleep, getting home as late as we do, as much as the kids drag their feet getting ready for bed, as late as their bedtime conversations last. I struggle to value sleep; it just feels like this thing that takes away from the time I could spend living life and getting things done.

Interestingly, even allowing kids to switch their sleep patterns on weekends is detrimental. Dr. Avi Sadeh showed that every hour of sleep shift (going to bed later and waking later) resulted in a 7-point drop on an IQ test. As the authors put it, “The more you learned during the day, the more you need to sleep that night.” (p. 34)

Even more alarming is the fact that after pre-school, children are getting an entire hour less sleep every single night than we did as children. In fact, the authors suggest that the teenage moodiness may be mostly the result of chronic sleep deprivation.

Chapter 3: Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race

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

This chapter was really uncomfortable to read. My ex-husband and I must be America’s whitest brown people. His father is of Mexican descent, and his mother is Caucasian. My parents are both Bengali, South Asian – Indian, if you must, although we’re actually from Bangladesh. Neither of us has ever encountered real racism; both military and university environments are meritocracies and we both grew up in open-minded, accepting school systems with open-minded, accepting peers.

Reading this book prompted me to discuss race with my girls, something I’d never done before. We had assumed that the fact that they’re triracial and have friends across the spectrum would be enough to keep them from being prejudiced. Bronson and Merryman call this the “Diverse Environment Theory.”

NurtureShock‘s authors convincingly argue that we’re wrong to refuse to talk about race. They argue that humans look for patterns. Kids don’t assume that groups are random. They look for commonalities and draw conclusions, and it us up to us as parents to encourage them to evaluate their assumptions.

If we don’t talk about the generalizations they’re making, they stick. Bronson and Merryman argue that school desegregation doesn’t bring an end to racism unless race is actually discussed. An example they gave was of an elementary classroom spontaneously discussing Santa’s race after being read a book in which Santa was depicted with black skin.

We all want out children to be unintimidated 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? (p. 51)

Bronson and Merryman state, “All minority parents at some point tell their children that discrimination is out there, but they shouldn’t let it stop them.” (p. 63) This doesn’t jive with my minority family experience. It was only after reading this chapter that I began to dive into the history of discrimination. They’ve since studied the Civil Rights movement at school.

A few weeks ago, my 7-year-old daughters and I had an interesting conversation about affirmative action and whether it still has a place in our society. That would have never come up had I not read this chapter.

Wow. This review is getting really long. I’d better speed it up. It’s just such a thought-provoking book

Chapter 4: Why Kids Lie

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

When I read this chapter, I was kind of disappointed. I was looking for research-based suggestions on how to teach our children about the value of truth, while also helping them gauge what truths should be spoken where. Parents who have faith in their children’s inherent honesty will certainly be shocked by how much good kids lie. They don’t want to disappoint us and they don’t want to get in trouble. So they lie.

Chapter 5: The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten

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

This chapter was hugely influential for me. My kids are among those who were identified early as gifted. Had I not read this chapter, I would have probably sat happy on those laurels. What I learned, though, was commonsensical enough. Kids bloom at different times. A child who is super-precocious as a 5-year-old may be an average student by middle school. The kid who doesn’t stand out in 1st or 2nd grade may burst into brilliance as a 5th grader. However, our school systems only looked for giftedness once, early in elementary school. We end up with kids in gifted programs who would do better in regular classrooms and miss out on nurturing other children’s genius.

Even worse, the measures of giftedness are limited and miss out on things like emotional intelligence. When I was researching schools for my daughters, I ended up choosing the school district that would allow children into their Gifted and Talented program even if their gifts manifested in only one academic area. While I knew my daughters would qualify in all areas, I wanted them in a program that valued uniqueness and understood that children are individuals.

In December, I read A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children, which I’ll review tomorrow. When I was telling my daughter M about it, she observed that her teacher was likely good at teaching gifted children because her own daughter was so smart. Her teacher’s daughter is one of the most emotionally intelligent and insightful children I have ever encountered, but she doesn’t test particularly well. She’s struggled with math and reading. I knew that M’s ability to see her friend’s gifts, despite their not being the ones that most schools acknowledge, was a sign that we were doing something right.

Chapter 6: The Sibling Effect

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

This is the chapter for MoMs. One observation is that sibling relationships stay qualitatively similar over time, at least as long as they’re living together. Those of us with kids who adore each other now can be pretty confident that their connection with stand the test of time. The bad news is for those whose kids mostly ignore each other. Interestingly, fighting a lot isn’t necessarily bad, if it’s balanced out by fun, fun, fun times.

Conflict prevention is the key, not conflict resolution. Kids as young as four can be taught the skills needed to get along with their siblings. Siblings who can work things out without needing parental intervention are in good shape. The sibling relationship is its own thing, not some reflection of each child’s relationship with their parents or sharing parental attention.

Here’s a showstopper: “One of the best predictors of how well two siblings get along is determine before the birth of the younger child… [The] predictive factor is the quality of the older child’s relationship with his best friend.” Those of us who have multiples first seem to have a major advantage here.

Chapter 7: The Science of Teen Rebellion

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

If your teen argues with you, it’s because she still cares about your opinion. The kids who agrees with you all the time is just ignoring you as soon as you’re out of sight. Mind. Blown.

As you’ve probably heard elsewhere, teenagers’ brains just don’t work like adult brains. There’s no point expecting them to. We don’t expect that of our two-year-olds, right?

Chapter 8: Can Self Control Be Taught?

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?

I found this chapter less coherent that the others. Teens make bad decisions. A bunch of teens together make such insanely bad decisions, it’s crazy. Young children can be taught self-control by being empowered to set their own boundaries and practicing holding themselves to those boundaries. Tools of the Mind sounds like an amazing educational approach, but good luck finding a school that uses it.

Chapter 9: Plays Well With Others

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

There’s a fascinating insight in this chapter about kids’ TV. Modern children’s educational TV programs, despite attempting to teach positive behaviour, does the opposite. So much time is spent building up a conflict and so relatively little time spent resolving it, the kids absorb the conflict and not the resolution. One way to address it? Let your kids see you fight so that they can see you resolve conflict. If you agree with your spouse not to fight in front of the kids, they still pick up on the tension, but never get to learn from you how to make up. Let your kids know that conflict is a normal part of human life… as is resolving it.

Chapter 10: Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn’t

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?

Perhaps it’s because my academic background is in linguistics, but this chapter didn’t do anything for me. Social interaction is critical to language development. Responding to your child, even before the child can produce meaningful speech, helps him learn to speak. Reponses can be verbal, tactile, eye contact. All of it matters.

Conclusion:  The Myth of the Supertrait

This book has no that-explains-everything insight. Raising kids is a complex exercise. There’s no one aspect of childhood that fixes everything if you tweak it just right. Well-rounded parenting helps kids.

Pretty straightforward, that, but there were a lot of good details along the way.

Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school and also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.

Family visit

My wonderful mother came for a (too short of a) two week visit with my favorite (and only) sister’s almost 7yr nephew. Oh the fun we had! The kids don’t have many cousins to play with on a regular basis so to have one living in the house for a whole 2 weeks was beyond amazing for them.

I was slightly worried how the whole language barrier would go but turns out kids are pretty good communicators with couple words, gestures and primal noises. It took them about 10 minutes after we arrived from the airport to be playing ‘jungle’ in the basement (and the pace never slowed down after that). By the second night Daniel requested that we make a bed for him in the kids’ room.

Nathan was in awe of this older boy who knew how to climb trees and dive and speak Finnish flawlessly. It was fun to watch him soak in the ‘wisdom’ Daniel so openly shared. They planned jokes on the rest of us with such a speed and creativity that I had forgotten existed.

Prior to the visit I had worried about spending tons of money on admissions to several of our planned activities. I was thrilled to find out that through our library we could get discounted admissions to a whole lot of places. I met a mom from CA at the aquarium who told me that their library has a similar program. So if you’re planning excursions with a load of neighborhood kids or your own you should totally look into that. Our budget throwing $95 admission fee to our Zoo became pocket chance when we flashed our library pass and were charged only $12.

I had hoped that having a Finnish speaking child in the house would produce some language development in my kids but to my disappointment I don’t think they now speak one more word of Finnish than they did before the visit. Daniel however developed his understanding of English by quite a bit and would tell me sometimes when I started to translate something that ‘I already know what that means’. We have a month long trip planned to Finland in the fall. Who knows, maybe by the end of that trip my children will dazzle me with their ability to form a whole sentence in Finnish! Until then we have many memories to cherish and are looking forward to making new ones.

How do you find deals on fun things to do with the family? 

Hanna is trying to foster the sense of Finnish heritance in her kids (and her totally awesome American husband) in the outskirts of Boston. 

on wholeness

In my last post, I wrote about how my oldest daughter is angry and acting out, jealous over the attention her twin brothers get from us, each other, their extended family, and from the public at large.

When the boys were little, we tried to make sure our daughter got special attention from us. She stayed up later, and she and I had tea parties together in the evenings. We went on little outings most weekends, to run errands or swing by the park.

Our boys were almost two before either of them got one-on-one time with a parent, out of the house and away from potential interruption by the other children. And those times were few and far between – mostly involving ER and urgent care visits. We poured most of our extra time into our daughter, who seemed to need us more. After all, our boys have each other.

That, right there, is the myth. Even when it benefits my singleton by securing her more individual attention from her parents and grandparents, we’re perpetuating a myth that hurts her: that she is incomplete, and would be – what? – more confident, less lonely, less needy, more whole – if only she had a twin. To treat her as though she needs more and her brothers need less, is to reinforce the lie she believes – that she is missing something that would complete her.

Our boys are 6 now, and even though they miss each other when they’re apart, they want one-on-one time with us. And they deserve it, as much as their sisters do. They might deserve it more, because they’ve certainly received less individual attention over their lifetimes than either of their singleton sisters has.

I struggle with meeting each of their needs for my undivided attention, like any busy parent does. Clearly the strategy we employed for the first 5 or so years of the boys’ lives – giving their older sister more time because she seemed to need it more – did not work. And as the boys have gotten older we’ve run into more situations where their being twins is not a boon, but a burden for them. Our new strategy is to treat them equally. Our twins are no more special than our singletons, nor any less deserving of our time and attention.

Because our kids are so close in age – and because our oldest needs to be in bed by 7:30 to keep her temper in check – they have the same bedtime. Our individual time comes on weekends. We rotate; each child gets one “date” with Mom and one with Dad before the next round begins. We started this over the summer and are still working through round 2.

I have no idea whether the “equality” approach to parenting is the right one, but I’m hoping that by consciously treating each child the same way, rather than according to what I perceive to be his or her need, I’ll be able to soothe my daughter’s fears that she’s missing something important and drive home to my boys that they are complete as separate individuals, as well.

(One of you asked about my youngest and how she feels – she’s not yet 4 and seems well adjusted so far. Most of her strong feelings hinge on things like Cheetos and her princess nightgown and when she watches “Dora,” so it’s hard to tell how badly I’ve screwed her up at this point.)

Jen is a work-from-home mom of 6-year-old twin boys, and two girls ages 3 and 8. She also blogs at Diagnosis: Urine, where she examines the finer points of potty training failure.

The Narc

I’ve got one in my pair, do you?

Rebecca

My daughter, Rebecca, has always been more of the goody-two-shoes than her brother.  Which is not to say that she isn’t clever and sneaky and a challenge in her own way, of course. But for the most part, she’s a rule-follower.  In fact, I would go so far as to say she loves rules.  In part, she loves following rules simply because she likes to be able to point out how well-behaved she is.  But just as much, she loves enforcing the rules on others.  In particular, her brother.

If the two of them are playing together in the other room, you will frequently hear her bossing him around, telling him exactly what to do and how to do it.  And boy, if he gets out of line…

“DAN! Stop jumping!”

“DAN! NO! NO JUMPING!”

MOM! DAN’S JUMPING ON THE COUCH!

Rebecca

On the one hand, I won’t lie, it’s kind of handy to have a tattle-tale in the bunch.  Oh sure, she sometimes gets caught red-handed at something nefarious, too.  But the truth is that her brother is more likely to attempt something dangerous, or do whatever it is I’ve told him not to do 100 times before. So I don’t really mind having her be an extra pair of eyes to make sure nothing valuable gets dropped into the floor vents.

On the other hand, the tattling is getting a little annoying.  Sometimes, when she whines “Mom, Daniel just ….,” I want to shout back, “work it out!”  And there are times when I doubt the complete truth of what she says.  Believe me, she will not hesitate to throw him under the bus at the slightest provocation. While he may have done whatever it is she has accused him of, it’s quite possible she had a hand in the wrongdoing as well. An interesting sibling dynamic at work, to be sure.

And yet, I’m not sure I want to squash the tattling. Yes, it can be annoying. But do I really want to have her STOP telling me when something is going wrong, even if right now it’s awfully minor? What about the day when it’s something big, and I absolutely DO want her to say something?

How do you handle tattling in your house?

Who's who? The big brother edition

It has been interesting to watch our son get to know his little sisters.  From the beginning figuring out which baby goes with which name has been a challenge.  In the hospital (age 27 months), he would introduce them as S and OtherBaby.  S was a familiar name to him because a girl at the dayhome had the same name.

As the girls got a little older he learned what their names were but he still couldn’t tell them apart.  He would refer to them by the colour of their blanket or coat.  That led to embarrassing situations when he would announce in his defiant 2-year-old voice in a public place, “I don’t want to sit next to the brown baby.”

Later he began to hyphenate their names.  They became R-S and S-R.  To him it didn’t seem to matter now because they had the correct name somewhere in his label.

He seems to like their names or maybe he’s still trying to figure out who is who because he has named his stuffed animals and imaginary friends after his sisters.  The interesting thing is that has named them R, S and R.  For some reason he reuses R’s name all the time.

Our son is now 3.75 years old.  He still can’t seem to reliably tell his sisters apart.  Sometimes he’ll get it right but not more than the 50% that comes with guessing. He’ll ask, “what’s this baby’s name?” and then talk to her by name.  Then he’ll ask what the other baby’s name is.  I wonder if he thinks we reassign their names and that each girl might not actually go with the same name all the time.
How have your siblings of multiples done with identifying who’s who? Do you have any suggestions for helping him to tell them apart?  This won’t be an issue long because the girls will likely soon be talking, so I”m sure they’ll correct him.

A minor difference of opinion

A month or two ago, I was just about ready to declare that I was all done having kids. After all, as my husband would gladly point out, we went about this thing in the most excellent, efficient way possible: first pregnancy, boy/girl twins.  Boom. Done.  We’ve got our two kids, we even lucked out with one of each gender.  What else do we need?

And then… a switch flipped in my brain. We were at the playground. A mom I don’t know, but had seen here and there while she grew more enormously pregnant all summer long, was there with her newborn daughter snuggled in the Ergo while her older son played.  And even though an itty-bitty newborn is far from my favorite age, I couldn’t help myself.  I want.  WANT.

My husband does not want.

This is not a huge surprise.  Back in our pre-child days, we had always had a difference of opinion on how many kids to have.  He was firmly in the two-and-done camp, while I was on the two-as-minimum side.

Truthfully, I’m not sure whether I’d feel quite as strong a desire for a third child if I hadn’t had twins first.  But that’s the weird catch-22 of starting out your parenting life as a mom of twins.  Always a mom of two, never a second-time mom.  And… I don’t know… but there’s this really strong pull to give it another try. Not because I feel as though I did poorly the first time, but rather the appeal of trying it again with even the slightest clue of what I was doing.

My husband, of course, feels no such desire.  The idea of throwing another baby in the mix only feels like taking a few giant steps backwards.

What I find most interesting is one of his main arguments against having more kids (aside from his life-long fear of all change).  He says that he already feels as though our kids are short-changed by being twins. He feels like he can’t give enough to either of them (enough of what is somewhat vague), so he thinks adding another child is only a disservice to the ones we already have, not to mention the third yet-to-be-determined.

Knowing my husband, I understand how he feels this way.  And, yet, I fundamentally disagree.  I do not believe that we do inherent damage to our children by creating siblings.  Which is not to say I think people should have more children than they can realistically take care of (financially, emotionally, or otherwise).  But I don’t think kids are automatically worse off for having another brother or sister.

And I definitely don’t think my kids are worse off for being twins.  In fact, there is a (sick, twisted) part of me that would almost like to have twins again, because I’d be a little bit sad for the fact that a singleton child of mine would not have that automatic playmate.  I do not believe my kids feel neglected or in any way under-served because there are two of them at the same age.  Yes, sure, I could never give the constant, full-time, one-on-one attention that might have been possible with only one baby.  But I’m not convinced that’s always the single-best way to raise a kid.

Anyways, here we are. Just this teeny little difference of opinion.  One of us wants more kids, one of us doesn’t. And yes, my kids are only a bit over 2. I’m only 31. The clock isn’t ticking all that loudly, and I’ve got time to wear my husband down (kidding, honey!).  Or, maybe I won’t.  Maybe we’ll stick with the perfect pair that we’ve got. And I will be happy, either way.

But I can’t help wondering. And wanting.

So, what about you? Do you think having twins has made you more or less likely to want a larger family?  Are you and your spouse/partner on the same page?  Do you think your twins are at some kind of disadvantage by always having a same-aged sibling?