ArtAnSa - Notes

Highlights from NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children

With 2 kids running around in the house some parenting advice is always welcome. Below are my highlights from the book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children (now called: Nurtureshock: Why Everything We Thought About Children is Wrong) written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. Note that the emphasis is mine, that some small parts were changed to turn them into sentences and that all errors are probably mine :-).

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.

Giving kids the label of “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it.

The only difference between the control group and the test group were two lessons, a total of 50 minutes spent teaching not math but a single idea: that the brain is a muscle. Giving it a harder workout makes you smarter. That alone improved their math scores.

He recently published an article showing that for college students on the verge of failing in class, esteem-building praise causes their grades to sink further. Baumeister has come to believe the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents’ pride in their children’s achievements: it’s so strong that “when they praise their kids, it’s not that far from praising themselves.”

To be effective, researchers have found, praise needs to be specific.

Sincerity of praise is also crucial.

Teens, Meyer found, discounted praise to such an extent that they believed it’s a teacher’s criticism—not praise at all—that really conveys a positive belief in a student’s aptitude.

In the opinion of cognitive scientist Daniel T. Willingham, a teacher who praises a child may be unwittingly sending the message that the student reached the limit of his innate ability, while a teacher who criticizes a pupil conveys the message that he can improve his performance even further.

While we might imagine that overpraised kids grow up to be unmotivated softies, the researchers are reporting the opposite consequence. Dweck and others have found that frequently-praised children get more competitive and more interested in tearing others down.

Students turn to cheating because they haven’t developed a strategy for handling failure. The problem is compounded when a parent ignores a child’s failures and insists he’ll do better next time.

But it turns out that the ability to repeatedly respond to failure by exerting more effort—instead of simply giving up—is a trait well studied in psychology. People with this trait, persistence, rebound well and can sustain their motivation through long periods of delayed gratification. Delving into this research, I learned that persistence turns out to be more than a conscious act of will; it’s also an unconscious response, governed by a circuit in the brain.

“A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”

Eventually, in my final stage of praise withdrawal, I realized that not telling my son he was smart meant I was leaving it up to him to make his own conclusion about his intelligence. Jumping in with praise is like jumping in too soon with the answer to a homework problem—it robs him of the chance to make the deduction himself.

I’m still an anxious parent. This morning, I tested him on the way to school: “What happens to your brain, again, when it gets to think about something hard?” “It gets bigger, like a muscle,” he responded, having aced this one before.

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.

Overscheduling of activities, burdensome homework, lax bedtimes, televisions and cell phones in the bedroom—they all contribute. So does guilt; home from work after dark, parents want time with their children and are reluctant to play the hardass who orders them to bed.

The performance gap caused by an hour’s difference in sleep was bigger than the gap between a normal fourth-grader and a normal sixth-grader. Which is another way of saying that a slightly-sleepy sixth-grader will perform in class like a mere fourth-grader. “A loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to [the loss of] two years of cognitive maturation and development,” Sadeh explained.

Virtually all young children are allowed to stay up later on weekends. They don’t get less sleep, and they’re not sleep deprived—they merely shift their sleep to later at night on Fridays and Saturdays. Yet she’s discovered that the sleep shift factor alone is correlated with performance on a standardized IQ test. Every hour of weekend shift costs a child seven points on the test.

Teens who received A’s averaged about fifteen more minutes sleep than the B students, who in turn averaged fifteen more minutes than the C’s, and so on.

Tired children can’t remember what they just learned, for instance, because neurons lose their plasticity, becoming incapable of forming the new synaptic connections necessary to encode a memory. A different mechanism causes children to be inattentive in class. Sleep loss debilitates the body’s ability to extract glucose from the bloodstream. Without this stream of basic energy, one part of the brain suffers more than the rest—the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for what’s called “Executive Function.” Among these executive functions are the orchestration of thoughts to fulfill a goal, prediction of outcomes, and perceiving consequences of actions. So tired people have difficulty with impulse control, and their abstract goals like studying take a back seat to more entertaining diversions. A tired brain perseverates—it gets stuck on a wrong answer and can’t come up with a more creative solution, repeatedly returning to the same answer it already knows is erroneous.

Perhaps most fascinating, the emotional context of a memory affects where it gets processed. Negative stimuli get processed by the amygdala; positive or neutral memories gets processed by the hippocampus. Sleep deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala. The result is that sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine. In one experiment by Walker, sleep-deprived college students tried to memorize a list of words. They could remember 81% of the words with a negative connotation, like “cancer.” But they could remember only 31% of the words with a positive or neutral connotation, like “sunshine” or “basket.”

Brown’s Mary Carskadon has demonstrated that during puberty, the circadian system—the biological clock—does a “phase shift” that keeps adolescents up later. In prepubescents and grownups, when it gets dark outside, the brain produces melatonin, which makes us sleepy. But adolescent brains don’t release melatonin for another 90 minutes. So even if teenagers are in bed at ten p.m. (which they aren’t), they lie awake, staring at the ceiling. Awakened at dawn by alarm clocks, teen brains are still releasing melatonin. This pressures them to fall back asleep—either in first period at school or, more dangerously, during the drive to school.

Several scholars have noted that many hallmark traits of modern adolescence—moodiness, impulsiveness, disengagement—are also symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation. Might our culture-wide perception of what it means to be a teenager be unwittingly skewed by the fact they don’t get enough sleep?

Sleep loss increases the hormone ghrelin, which signals hunger, and decreases its metabolic opposite, leptin, which suppresses appetite. Sleep loss also elevates the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is lipogenic, meaning it stimulates your body to make fat. Human growth hormone is also disrupted. Normally secreted as a single big pulse at the beginning of sleep, growth hormone is essential for the breakdown of fat. It’s drilled into us that we need to be more active to lose weight. So it spins the mind to hear that a key to staying thin is to spend more time doing the most sedentary inactivity humanly possible. Yet this is exactly what scientists are finding. In light of Van Cauter’s discoveries, sleep scientists have performed a flurry of analyses on large datasets of children. All the studies point in the same direction: on average, children who sleep less are fatter than children who sleep more. This isn’t just here, in America—scholars all around the world are considering it, because children everywhere are both getting fatter and getting less sleep.

The relationship between poor sleep and obesity is much stronger in children than in adults.

While very few calories are being burned while blacked out on the sheets, at least a kid is not eating when he’s asleep. In addition, kids who don’t sleep well are often too tired to exercise—it’s been shown that the less sleep kids get, the less active they are during the day. So the net calorie burn, after a good night’s rest, is higher.

But perhaps we are blind to the toll it is taking on us. University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. David Dinges did an experiment shortening adults’ sleep to six hours a night. After two weeks, they reported that they were doing okay. Yet on a battery of tests, they proved to be just as impaired as someone who has stayed awake for 24 hours straight.

3: Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race

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

We might imagine we’re creating color-blind environments for children, but differences in skin color or hair or weight are like differences in gender—they’re plainly visible. We don’t have to label them for them to become salient. Even if no teacher or parent mentions race, kids will use skin color on their own, the same way they use T-shirt colors.

But it’s important for parents to know that merely sending your child to a diverse school is no guarantee they’ll have better racial attitudes than children at homogenous schools.

The unfortunate twist of diverse schools is that they don’t necessarily lead to more cross-race friendships. Often it’s the opposite.

The more diverse the school, the more the kids self-segregate by race and ethnicity within the school, and thus the likelihood that any two kids of different races have a friendship goes down

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.

The first thing they’ve learned is that children learn to lie much earlier than we presumed.

By their fourth birthday, almost all kids will start experimenting with lying. Children with older siblings seem to learn it slightly earlier.

In their homes, four-year-olds will lie once every two hours, while a six-year-old will lie about once every hour.

Most lies to parents are a cover-up of a transgression. First, the kid does something he shouldn’t; then, to squirm out of trouble, he denies doing it. But this denial is so expected, and so common, that it’s usually dismissed by parents. In those same observational studies, researchers report that in less than one percent of such situations does a parent use the tacked-on lie as a chance to teach a lesson about lying. The parent censures the original transgression, but not the failed cover-up. From the kid’s point of view, his attempted lie didn’t cost him extra.

The qualifying role of intent seems to be the most difficult variable for children to grasp. Kids don’t even believe a mistake is an acceptable excuse. The only thing that matters is that the information was wrong.

Any false statement—regardless of intent or belief—is a lie. Therefore, unwittingly, Dad has given his child the message that he condones lies.

In longitudinal studies, a six-year-old who lies frequently could just as simply grow out of it. But if lying has become a successful strategy for handling difficult social situations, she’ll stick with it. About one-third of kids do—and if they’re still lying at seven, then it seems likely to continue. They’re hooked.

Increasing the threat of punishment for lying only makes children hyperaware of the potential personal cost. It distracts the child from learning how his lies impact others.

Kids who live in threat of consistent punishment don’t lie less. Instead, they become better liars, at an earlier age—learning to get caught less often

But just removing the threat of punishment is not enough to extract honesty from kids.

What really works is to tell the child, “I will not be upset with you if you peeked, and if you tell the truth, I will be really happy.” This is an offer of both immunity and a clear route back to good standing.

“Young kids are lying to make you happy—trying to please you.” So telling kids that the truth will make a parent happy challenges the kid’s original thought that hearing good news—not the truth—is what will please the parent.

Parents need to teach kids the worth of honesty just as much as they need to say that lying is wrong. The more kids hear that message, the more quickly they will take this lesson to heart.

No matter how small, lies no longer go unnoticed.

Parents often entrap their kids, putting them in positions to lie and testing their honesty unnecessarily.

5: The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten

Regardless of what is being tested, or which test is used, they all have one thing in common. They’re all astonishingly ineffective predictors of a young child’s academic success.

What this means is that many kids who turned out to be very good students were still fidgety and misbehaving at age five, while many of the kids who were well-behaved at age five didn’t turn into such good students.

And it could be that in a few years, a scholar will emerge with a hybrid test of IQ and impulsivity that will predict a five-year-old’s future performance. Until then, it needs to be recognized that no current test or teacher ratings system, whether used alone or in combination on such young kids, meets a reasonable standard of confidence to justify a long-term decision. Huge numbers of great kids simply can’t be “discovered” so young.

Within the brain, neurons compete. Unused neurons are eliminated; the winners survive, and if used often, eventually get insulated with a layer of white fatty tissue, which exponentially increases the speed of transmission. In this way, gray matter gets upgraded to white matter. This doesn’t happen throughout the brain all at once; rather, some parts of the brain can still be adding gray matter while other regions are already converting it to white matter. However, when it occurs, this upgrade can be rapid—in some areas, 50% of nerve tissue gets converted in a single year.

From age 3 to age 10, two-thirds of children’s IQ scores will improve, or drop, more than 15 points. This is especially true among bright kids—their intelligence is more variable than among slower children.

As a child ages, the location of intellectual processing shifts. The neural network a young child relies on is not the same network he will rely on as an adolescent or adult. There is significant overlap, but the differences are striking. A child’s ultimate intellectual success will be greatly affected by the degree to which his brain learns to shift processing to these more efficient networks.

6: The Sibling Effect

Why siblings really fight.

Observational studies have determined that siblings between the ages of three and seven clash 3.5 times per hour, on average. Some of those are brief clashes, others longer, but it adds up to ten minutes of every hour spent arguing.

Only about one out of every eight conflicts ends in compromise or reconciliation—the other seven times, the siblings merely withdraw, usually after the older child has bullied or intimidated the younger.

She determined that kids don’t have an incentive to act nicely to their siblings, compared to friends, because the siblings will be there tomorrow, no matter what.

In many sibling relationships, the rate of conflict can be high, but the fun times in the backyard and in the basement more than balance it out. This net-positive is what predicts a good relationship later in life. In contrast, siblings who simply ignored each other had less fighting, but their relationship stayed cold and distant long term.

“See it your way, see it my way.”

Fewer fights are the consequence of teaching the children the proactive skills of initiating play on terms they can both enjoy. It’s conflict prevention , not conflict resolution . Parents are mere facilitators; when back at home, their job is to reinforce the rule that the kids should use their steps together to work it out, without the parents’ help.

The average book demonstrated virtually as many negative behaviors as positive ones. Despite all but one being overtly crafted to have a happy ending, along the way kids were constantly taunting each other, belittling a sib, and blaming others for their wrongdoing.

The most common reason the kids were fighting was the same one that was the ruin of Regan and Goneril: sharing the castle’s toys. Almost 80% of the older children, and 75% of the younger kids, all said sharing physical possessions—or claiming them as their own—caused the most fights.

“young children may fail to develop prosocial relationships with their siblings if nobody teaches them how.”

Less emphasis needs to be placed on the psychology, and more needs to be on skill-building.

Older siblings train on their friends, and then apply what they know to their little brothers and sisters.

If, however, the child hasn’t developed these good habits on friends, and the younger sibling comes along, now there’s very little incentive to learn the skills of shared play (choosing an activity both can enjoy, inviting the other and/or asking to be included, recognizing when someone is busy or wants to play alone).

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.

The objection to parental authority peaks around age 14 to 15. In fact, this resistance is slightly stronger at age 11 than at 18. In popular culture, we think of high school as the risk years, but the psychological forces driving deception surge earlier than that.

“Ironically, the type of parents who are actually most consistent in enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids”

The Mod Squad study did confirm Linda Caldwell’s hypothesis that teens turn to drinking and drugs because they’re bored in their free time.

The researchers saw that it wasn’t just kids with lots of free time who were bored. Even the really busy kids could be bored, for two reasons. First, they were doing a lot of activities only because their parent signed them up—there was no intrinsic motivation. Second, they were so accustomed to their parents filling their free time that they didn’t know how to fill it on their own. “The more controlling the parent,” Caldwell explained, “the more likely a child is to experience boredom.”

In a study comparing the brains of teens to the brains of adults and young kids, Galvan found that teen brains can’t get pleasure out of doing things that are only mildly or moderately rewarding

Their reward center cannot be stimulated by low doses—they need the big jolt to get pleasure.

Their prefrontal cortex seemed to be showing a diminished response whenever their reward center was experiencing intense excitement. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for weighing risk and consequences.

At the very moment when experiencing an emotionally-charged excitement, the teens’ brain is handicapped in its ability to gauge risk and foresee consequences.

In abstract situations, teens can evaluate risks just like adults. Given a scenario, they can list the pros and cons, and they can foresee consequences. But in exciting real life circumstances, this rational part of the brain gets overridden by the reward center.

Not all adolescents are primed like this.

The neuroscience of risk-taking is a very advanced field, but it doesn’t offer many solutions; some teens are wired to take big risks, done deal.

In fact, there are all sorts of risks that terrify teens far more than adults.

In many cases, the fear of embarrassment turns teens into weenies.

That’s the teen brain at fifteen in a nutshell—fearless to jumping off roofs, but terrified of having its love of Nickelback exposed. Might there be a way to harness the latter to minimize the former?

Occasionally teens told the truth because they knew a lie wouldn’t fly—they’d be caught. Sometimes they told the truth because they just felt obligated, saying, “They’re my parents, I’m supposed to tell them.” But the main motivation that emerged was that teens told their parents the truth in hopes their parents might give in, and say it was okay. Usually, this meant an argument ensued, but it was worth it if their parents might budge.

In the families where there was less deception, there was a much higher ratio of arguing/complaining. Arguing was good—arguing was honesty. The parents didn’t necessarily realize this. The arguing stressed them out.

Certain types of fighting, despite the acrimony, are ultimately a sign of respect—not of disrespect.

“Parents who negotiate ultimately appear to be more informed,”

“Parents with unbending, strict guidelines make it a tactical issue for kids to find a way around them.”

The type of parents who were lied to the least had rules and enforced them consistently, but they had found a way to be flexible that allowed the rule-setting process to still be respected.

parents rate all the arguing as destructive, while teens find it generally to be productive

8: Can Self-Control Be Taught?

Tools of the Mind strategies

Children of every grade show up in the evenings at Ashley’s tutoring facility; she now makes them write down a plan for how they’ll spend their two hours, to teach them to think proactively. When they get distracted, she refers them back to their plan. She no longer simply corrects children’s grammar mistakes in their homework; instead, she first points to the line containing the mistake, and asks the child to find it. This makes them think critically about what they’re doing rather than mechanically completing the assignment. With kindergartners who are just learning to write, Ashley has them use private speech as they form a letter, saying aloud, “Start at the top and go around….” I use similar techniques with my daughter. Every night, she comes home from preschool with a page of penmanship, filled with whatever letter she learned that day. I ask her to circle the best example on each line—so she’ll recognize the difference between a good one and a better one. At bedtime, she and I do a version of buddy reading: after I’ve read her a book, I hand it to her. Then she tells the story back to me, creatively narrating from the illustrations and whatever lines she remembers verbatim. Occasionally, when she and I have the whole day together, we write up a plan for what we’ll do. (I wish I did this more, because she loves it.) I also give her prompts that extend her play scenarios. For instance, she loves baby dolls; she’ll collect them all, and put them to bed—this might take five or ten minutes. At that point, she no longer knows what to do. So I’ll encourage her to wake the babies up, take them to school, and go on a field trip. That’s usually all it takes to spark her imagination for over an hour.

9: Plays Well With Others

The more educational media the children watched, the more relationally aggressive they were. They were increasingly bossy, controlling, and manipulative. This wasn’t a small effect. It was stronger than the connection between violent media and physical aggression.

many educational shows spend most of the half-hour establishing a conflict between characters and only a few minutes resolving that conflict

More exposure to violent media did increase the rate of physical aggression shown at school—however, it did so only modestly. In fact, watching educational television also increased the rate of physical aggression, almost as much as watching violent TV.

Educational television had a dramatic effect on relational aggression.

Children appear to be highly attuned to the quality of their parents’ relationship—Cummings has described children as “emotional Geiger-counters.” In one study, Cummings found that children’s emotional well-being and security are more affected by the relationship between the parents than by the direct relationship between the parent and child.

“The arguments can become pretty intense, and yet if it’s resolved, kids are okay with it.” Most kids were just as happy at the conclusion of the session as they were when witnessing a friendly interaction between parents.

Cummings recently has shown that being exposed to constructive marital conflict can actually be good for children—if it doesn’t escalate, insults are avoided, and the dispute is resolved with affection. This improves their sense of security, over time, and increases their prosocial behavior at school as rated by teachers. Cummings noted, “Resolution has to be sincere, not manipulated for their benefit—or they’ll see through it.” Kids learn a lesson in conflict resolution: the argument gives them an example of how to compromise and reconcile—a lesson lost for the child spared witnessing an argument.

“To protect kids is a natural parental instinct,” Allen explained. “But we end up not teaching them to deal with life’s ups and downs. It’s a healthy instinct, and fifty years ago parents had the same instinct, just that they had no time and energy to intervene. Today, for various reasons, those constraints aren’t stopping us, and we go wild.”

Most scholars have agreed that bullying can have serious effects, and that it absolutely needs to be stopped. However, they’ve balked on the “zero tolerance” approach.

Many incidents involve poor judgment, and lapses in judgment are developmentally normative—the result of neurological immaturity. All of which was a fancy way of saying that kids make mistakes because they’re still young. They noted that inflicting automatic, severe punishments was causing an erosion of trust in authority figures.

When parents attempt to teach their seven-year-old daughter that it’s wrong to exclude, spread rumors, or hit, they are literally attempting to take away from the child several useful tools of social dominance. “This behavior is rewarded in peer groups,” observed Cillessen, “and you can say as a parent, ‘Don’t do this,’ but the immediate rewards are very powerful.” As long as the child is compulsively drawn to having class status, the appeal of those tools will undermine the parent’s message.

These kids see that, when used correctly, kindness and cruelty are equally effective tools of power: the trick is achieving just the right balance, and the right timing. Those who master alternating between the two strategies become attractive to other children, rather than repellant, because they bring so much to the party. Not only are they popular, they’re well-liked by kids, and by teachers, too (who rate them as being agreeable and well-adjusted).

When we changed the channel from violent television to tamer fare, kids just ended up learning the advanced skills of clique formation, friendship withdrawal, and the art of the insult. In taking our marital arguments upstairs to avoid exposing the children to strife, we accidentally deprived them of chances to witness how two people who care about each other can work out their differences in a calm and reasoned way. We thought that aggressiveness was the reaction to peer rejection, so we have painstakingly attempted to eliminate peer rejection from the childhood experience. In its place is elaborately orchestrated peer interaction. We’ve created the play date phenomenon, while ladening older kids’ schedules with after-school activities. We’ve segregated children by age—building separate playgrounds for the youngest children, and stratifying classes and teams. Unwittingly, we’ve put children into an echo chamber.

10: Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn’t

Intermittent rewards are ultimately more powerful than constant rewards.


Asked college students to keep a gratitude journal—over ten weeks, the undergrads listed five things that had happened in the last week which they were thankful for. The results were surprisingly powerful—the students who kept the gratitude journal were 25% happier, were more optimistic about the future, and got sick less often during the controlled trial. They even got more exercise.

When our lives are blessed, and things are going well, there seems something morally decrepit in how we so easily overlook how good we have it.