Book Dads, September 20, 2009
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What makes children act more aggressively – watching educational media like Arthur or violent media like Power Rangers? Is childhood obesity more correlated with playing video games or with getting less sleep? Does putting students in multiracial environments really make them less racially biased? Is it more effective to punish children for telling a lie or to reward them for telling the truth? These questions and others are addressed in NurtureShock, which presents the scientific research surrounding a number of issues about parenting our children and challenges us to look at them in a new way.
Bronson & Merryman are veteran science reporters, and it shows. The science here is fully and accurately portrayed, and they demonstrate that just as much can be learned from “failed” experiments as from those that yield an expected result. They also don’t hesitate to discuss areas in which findings are inconclusive or still heavily debated. Above all, they give priority to the actual experimental findings and then look at possible explanations, rather than simply advancing their own pet theories about parenting and children. As a result, this is a book that is long on demonstrable fact and short on preaching.
In addition to presenting the studies and their results in an easily comprehensible and accessible manner, Bronson & Merryman also put a human face on the scientists themselves. They present personal portrayals of many of the scientists involved in this research, and we journey with these researchers through their thought processes as they design experiments and then work to understand the results.
Almost all of the findings presented in NurtureShock are counter-intuitive, and Bronson and Merryman address this problem directly. They discuss not only why some of these findings seem to fly in the face of what we think we understand about children, but also relate their own challenges in trying to put these concepts into practice. One of the recurrent themes in NurtureShock is that by doing what we think is best for our children, we are often achieving the exact opposite result. For example, in the chapter on Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race, Bronson & Ashley look at the practices of not making racial distinctions when talking to young children, and of placing them into multiracially diverse environments. Both practices are intended to reduce interracial bias in children and promote interracial friendship, but paradoxically have no effect or even a negative effect. It turns out that the period of young children’s lives when we assume children are not aware of race and therefore are not talking with them about it is the exact developmental period when they are noticing race and forming their first ideas about it. Similarly, simply being in a multiracial environment is not enough for children to draw their own conclusions about racial equality; improved attitudes about race only emerge when children are engaged directly in explicit teachings about racial issues.
NurtureShock surveys a wide and diverse range of topics in its ten chapters, from teaching babies how to talk, to the nature of teen rebellion. In examining issues like these, Bronson & Ashley uncover two common assumptions that hinder our understanding of child development. The first is that things work the same way for children as they do for adults, and the second is that good traits necessarily ward off and oppose negative behaviors in children. In examining these assumptions through numerous examples, NurtureShock will also challenge your own preconceived notions about parenting and children. This is a useful and eye-opening book, and one that illustrates how science and research can help us to better understand our children and our world. And if you change your approach to parenting based on even one of the ideas in this book, NurtureShock will help make you a better parent too.