Saturday, October 03, 2009

Everyone talks about common sense, but nobody does anything about it 

Mark Twain said that about the weather.

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman have a new book that looks at much of the common sense theories about raising children and contrasts them with an impressive amount of recent research. They don't do any new research, but they collect some of the most interesting new studies I've seen in childhood development. I had come across some of these studies during my time at Catholic U., and just reading psych journals, but I've never seen a collection of research this interesting and accessible. Common sense might be common, and it might make sense, but that doesn't mean it's correct.

Bronson and Merryman are award-winning magazine journalists (they've written for Time and New York, among others), and they were drawn into this topic as Bronson and his wife became parents and as Merryman ran a tutoring program for inner-city kids, and wondered how much of what they were so sure that they knew was true. They began to research the new science of child psychology.

Each chapter in NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children takes on the common beliefs towards a particular topic of parenting, from why children lie, to how racially-diverse schools affect kids' attitudes toward race, to IQ testing in preschool, to the reasons behind (or existance of) teenage rebellion. I read this book in the span of a few days, but I'm sure it could be read in chapters, over weeks, and that you could skip or rearrange chapters without losing the gist of the book.

Some highlights:

From the chapter "Why Kids Lie": Children lie to please their parents, more than to make themselves happy by avoiding punishment. Many kids think profanity is the same thing as a lie - lies are things you say that get you punished. And parents encourage lying by asking questions that have no safe, honest answer ("Did you just draw on the table?!") or by teaching those social niceties we call "white lies."

From the chapter "The Inverse Power of Praise": Children who are told they are smart perform worse than those told they "work hard" or who receive specific praise about doing a specific task well. Children who are praised for their intelligence seem to stop learning, or stop trying to learn, when presented with material that no longer comes easy (often between elementary and middle school). They are afraid to try because just having to try means their "gift" of intelligence has run out. But children with equal intelligence and test scores who have been praised for their work ethic continue to do well, despite facing more challenging material. Also, kids worry about image-maintainance, but the "work hard" kids are more likely to accept their grades. The "smart" kids are more likely to cheat or lie to inflate their grades.

From the conclusion: Robert Emmons' work on gratitude (see his book Thanks!) demonstrates that encouraging adults (most of his work was with graduate students) to actively become aware of people and things in life to be grateful for, for example by listing five things to be grateful for every night, has a positive effect on mood. Gratitude intervention doesn't work with middle- or high-schoolers, according to research by Jeffery Froh. It makes many kids feel better, but it makes many kids feel worse. Kids who were fairly disengaged or apathetic became more excited and energized as they realized gratitude. Kids who were already filled with hope and excitement realized how dependent, controlled, and beholden they were. The illusion of control kept them from being depressed.

There's much, much more in this book. If any of this sounds interesting, go read it.

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