by Po Bronson, Ashley Merryman
Hachette Audio, 2009
Review by Dr. Anthony R Dickinson on Jan 19th 2010
Nurture Shock is a must read for all parents, soon-to-be parents, and anyone professionally engaged with developing children under their care. Addressing issues in a way which will jar with many views of both traditional and progressive parenting approaches, Bronson and Merryman present in this volume the results of recent findings of academic research in studies of child development, many with highly significant implications for child rearing practice(s). Easy to read, and presented in simple language, these otherwise complex issues will only be difficult for the average reader to digest if unwilling to have their assumptions challenged! Not only do the authors set out to challenge our thinking about the truths of child nurturing for optimal achievement, they share from their related chosen studies that the very assumptions underlying many of our cherished nurturing practices of old, are themselves worthy of question and empirical enquiry. Indeed, they report that many of the 'common sense' notions of how to bring up our children are fundamentally misguided, and the direct opposite of what we might otherwise ascribe for action is often what is instead needed, in order to nurture the more successful, happy, and achieving child.
However, Bronson and Merryman are not writing merely as critics of existing education systems, parent's intentions, nor the traditional dogmas of educational psychology. Instead, they seek to inform of the recent research that they cite with a view to rectifying (if not preventing) the continuation of exiting parenting practice and schooling, which have now been shown to be ineffective at producing the expected outcomes that they were designed to produce. The passion with which they do this is most effectively expressed in listening to the tone of voice as used by the first author in his reading of the text in the audiobook version being reviewed here. Presented as 7 high quality CDs, the narration is true to the written text (of the same title, published by Ebury Press, Random House, 2009), the volume is divided into 10 chapters, each covering a different issue of concern to parents with children of a variety of ages. Each issue is discussed in the context of published findings of empirical studies by some of the leading researchers in their respective fields, including educational and developmental psychologists and sociologists, together with valuable contributions from modern neuroscience in explaining brain organizational changes underlying core behavior change and development with increasing age. Such a synthesis is still rare in modern writing, and although at times incomplete and seemingly contradictory, boldly attempts to explain (rather than simply describe) why their 'new thinking' is both so radical, and necessary for future parents to consider.
For example, in the first chapter concerned with praise (let's only praise behavior when we can be sure that the child is aware of the significance of such praise for their future growth and action), we learn that underachievement can be the result of untargeted praise. Or worse still, by the development of a perception by the child as its signifying the lack of need (even fear) of attempting tasks of a greater level of difficulty. Likewise the results of IQ studies as discussed in the second chapter (in which we learn that not only are IQ scores of young children poor predictors of scholastic achievement following selection for gifted or accelerated learning programs in the USA), kids who are repeatedly told that they are 'smart' will often opt for less challenging tasks (given the choice), so as not to be in a position to prove otherwise – thus also preferring to underachieve rather than demonstrate failure !! However, the IQ score change expectation story is not to be entirely dismissed in my view, the authors failing to address an alternative explanation, which is to suggest that such results may be explained as a failure of the content (or the delivery method/monitoring) of the gifted programs they are entering. Indeed, in a later chapter (Ch8), the authors themselves discuss the great success of the recently developed Tools of the Mind curriculum as presented to pre-K and K1 children in the USA, including the development of significant IQ increases and other advanced behavioral measures, as have also been reported for babies and toddlers in China following their participation in Baby Impact programs.
Other chapters of note (at least for the current reviewer) include those concerned with lies and lying (Ch.4, why, how, and what to do about understanding it – teach honesty, don't just tell them that lying is wrong!), and teen rebellion (Ch.7, why arguing is a sign of respect ?). But perhaps one of the most welcome additions to this volume was the chosen inclusion of data from modern neuroscience research, and in particular the use of well designed neuropsychological fMRI studies, using tasks conducted with normative 'well-adjusted' children (rather than clinically-diagnosed children with abnormal behaviors). Again a few seeming anomalies are in need of further synthesis (for example, if gifted kids are showing more parietal than pre-frontal activity (Ch.5), why should we be concerned that the Nucleus Acumbens is downregulating the prefrontal cortical activity in teens (Ch.7) ? My own guess is that the role of the PFC in both cases is one of "GO/NO-GO" implementation of actions 'planned' further back in the cortex (e.g., parietal), or its inhibition of other 'more innate-reflexive' action plans as may be derived from areas of the limbic system. More of this kind of inter-disciplinary synthesis will only help our better understanding of these and similar issues for the future of human behavioral ecology.
Also available in print (as cited above), the audiobook provides no access to the superb 80 pages of notes, references and selected sources provided in the book version (which would be a bonus as CD packaging insert), so be prepared to write a fair number of notes whilst listening to this excellent book, and to perhaps misspell some of the researcher's names on your list to look up next time that you are in the library.
© 2010 Tony Dickinson
Dr. Tony Dickinson, Academic Research Laboratory, People Impact International Inc.