Open Book

The Age of the Über–Parent

Can science really help us raise better adjusted kids?

Magazine Issue
January/February 2010
Po Bronson

NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
Twelve. 336 pp. ISBN: 9780446504126

Po Bronson is a bestselling writer What Should I Do with My Life? who, like any good, earnest, nervous parent, wanted to do the right thing for his young son. So he came up with the idea of killing two birds with one stone: find out what the foremost researchers have learned about effective parenting and apply it in the laboratory of his own household.

He teamed up with Ashley Merryman, the head of a small, remarkably successful tutoring program for inner-city kids, whom Bronson describes as “something like a fairy godmother to about 40 kids.” As they began writing a series of pieces for Time and New York Magazine (from where articles in this book are collected), they kept finding something that surprised them again and again: The Fallacy of the Similar Effect. Simply put, it means what works for adults doesn’t necessarily work for children.

Take the hot, all-American topic of building self-esteem and the role of praise in childrearing. Ask yourself: who doesn’t love praise? In the workplace, Bronson found studies that repeatedly showed that praise is quite effective in motivating workers, but he discovered that praise can have varying consequences. Before researching the story, he believed “quite firmly that it was important to tell young children they were smart, in order to buoy their confidence,” but he found out that the research shows “that this habit of telling kids they’re smart was backfiring. It was in fact undermining children’s confidence.”

Using the work of Carol Dweck at Stanford (and others), Bronson and Merryman argue that building self-esteem by praising seemingly innate characteristics, like intelligence, is misguided. In a study in the New York City public school system, Dweck learned that “giving kids the label of Ôsmart’ does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it” by undermining their motivation or paralyzing them.

There are various reasons for this. Some kids don’t expend as much effort when they’re told they’re smart. They become lazy, or are unprepared to face difficulty: they get frightened and lose their sense of specialness. Instead, argues Dweck, it’s far more useful to praise children for effort and diligence. Concentrating on the work and the effort more readily opens the door to working harder when the challenges get tougher.

Bronson began to apply these findings with his kindergarten-age son, Luke, a shy but socially capable boy (he’d sung in front of large audiences, for instance). After reading Dweck, Bronson began to tone down his praise while remaining wary of sounding like a broken record saying “try, try, try.” At the same time, after being so used to lavishing the “wrong” kind of praise on Luke, Bronson reports feeling that he was abandoning him. Like so many, he realized that he wanted to make up for the deficiencies of his own emotionally starved childhood.

But Bronson relied on his neuroscience homework, on a faith in the brain’s plasticity, and the work of Robert Cloninger at Washington University in St. Louis on the role of persistence switches in the brain circuits that control the release of dopamine, the brain’s chemical reward for success. At the end of his chapter on “The Inverse Power of Praise,” Bronson tells us how, one morning, he tested his son on the way to school. “What happens to your brain, again, when it gets to think about something hard?” he asked him. “It gets bigger, like a muscle,” Luke responded, sounding like a budding young cognitive neuroscientist.

Other aha moments in Nurtureshock distinguish the world of adults from that of kids. Take the relatively new research on gratitude. Positive psychologists like Martin Seligman have tried to demonstrate that acquiring the habit of expressing and showing gratitude enables people to feel better and live more fully. Gratitude has long been a popular virtue among philosophers like Cicero, and with religious figures and grandparents galore.

But here, too, The Fallacy of Similar Effect shows up. Using the work of Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Jeffrey Froh, a psychology professor at Hofstra, Bronson reports that kids react to gratitude exercises in unexpected ways, which would trouble a positive psychologist.

Emmons studied college students who’d kept a gratitude log and reported feeling 25 percent happier, according to assessments and questionnaires. Encouraged by the results, Froh wanted to replicate them in younger students, growing up amid the rampant materialism and sense of entitlement he found in affluent Long Island communities. So like any good positive psychologist, he designed a possible antidote: he had kids in a middle school keep a gratitude journal, and regularly at the start of class, he had them do a gratitude exercise. He was excited by early results, which showed kids wrote little about their possessions. As Bronson reports, “The gratitude inventories, it seemed were recalibrating the kids’ focus.”

At the same time, however, a control group did no gratitude exercises; instead, they wrote about daily hassles. Nor did they count their blessings. So what was the difference between the groups, measured both at the time and later?

“There was none,” concluded Bronson. The kids who did the exercise weren’t friendlier or more helpful to their friends. And they didn’t have greater all-around life satisfaction.” How do you explain this apparent positive psychology downer?

Froh had wanted to believe that gratitude would help immunize kids from the emotional storms and the ups and downs of adolescence. But strangely enough, some kids had an adverse relationship to gratitude exercises: they actually felt worse. Also, “kids high in gratitude suffered storms of emotion just as commonly as the kids low in gratitude.”

Trying to explain his findings, Froh concluded that “for kids with a strong need for autonomy and independence, it might be demoralizing to recognize how much they are dependent on grown-ups.” At a certain tender age and emotional state, doing forced gratitude marches might make a teenager feel that indeed others were “pulling all the strings, controlling what they eat, what they study, and who they hang out with.”

Instead, Froh thinks, “they’d rather feel self-reliant than beholden.” While independence might be an illusion, it’s a necessary one for psychological balance. Gratitude exercises in vulnerable teenagers can upset this equilibrium.

The authors’ bottom line is that society shouldn’t give up on teaching gratitude (some students certainly benefit), but desirable character traits like gratitude can’t be easily manufactured, especially while ignoring “other psychological needs.”

Bronson and Merryman have written a book that tries to address a central question of our time: how can we bring up our children to be fully developed, considerate human beings, who live not only for themselves, but for others? How can we help them become people who inhabit a wider world, and not just hang out in a video parlor?

The fundamental concept underlying the “new science of kids” as reported by Bronson and Merryman is rooted in what they call the need for “self-regulation.” This may sound like a pumped-up way of making an obvious point about the need for civil behavior among the wild and unruly and selfish. It’s certainly related to Daniel Goleman’s concept of Emotional Intelligence, which tells us to promote habits of self-control, maturity, and delayed gratification, as well as civilized behavior in the family and workplace. But self-regulation is something more encompassing: it refers to the growing science of self-monitoring, of what it takes to build a cohesive, balanced inner self. It’s not simply a stiff upper lip, a right whip hand. Think of Plato’s image of the charioteer: balanced and tempered, pulling the reigns on his (inner) bevy of horses in a balanced way.

They profile an educational program called Tools for the Mind, which is supposed to develop self-control in children and enhance their capacity to learn through an intricate regime of structured play (yes, you read that right, not military discipline). It’s an experimental program for preschool and kindergarten kids, which requires them to take part in highly developed, imaginative scenarios. They play parts like fireman and victim and ambulance driver, while the whole classroom is turned into a street scene, with burning buildings in the corner. Through the use of these play scenarios, young children begin to monitor their own behaviors as they spontaneously get into the “flow” of the intense action. The object is to cultivate what might be called the inner monitor. This inner self, as yet barely developed in these children, forms the groundwork upon which a mature self can emerge.

It’s an experiment that has caught on in various parts of the country and improved classroom scores on a variety of educational and behavioral measures, but it requires a visionary thrust, elaborate training by teachers, and coordination with higher grades so that the program’s results don’t “decay.” Whether it will catch on, who knows? We’ve seen such programs come and go before. The point is that we’re learning more and more about what it means to bring up emotionally balanced, competent, socially aware children, even amid the noise and glitter of our digital, consumer culture. That’s what Bronson is trying to do for his son Luke, and what all of us want for our own kids. With all the confusing information that’s out there today, Bronson and Merryman have provided the service of pulling together how “the new science of kids” can help all of us do the best job of parenting we can.


Richard Handler

Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada.