Prior to collaborating on NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, Po Bronson had authored five books, including the New York Times #1 best-seller, What Should I Do with My Life? In addition to his book, he has written for Time, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Wired, and NPR’s Morning Edition. Po is a married father of two, living in San Francisco. Ashley Merryman’s work has appeared in Time, New York magazine, and the Washington Post. Ashley, who lives in Los Angeles, also runs an all-volunteer tutoring program for inner-city children. Together, Po and Ashley have—just in the past two years—won four major awards for their writing. In addition to NurtureShock’s release, they’re now writing this NurtureShock blog for Newsweek.com. I hope you enjoy this interview about parenting based on NurtureShock (and think a little about this could apply to parenting your company).
Question: Are children “little adults”? Do their minds work like an adult’s?
Answer: Of course, if you ask a parent if his child’s brain works the same as his, he’ll say, “No.” However, in practice, it’s surprising how often we expect kids to respond to things in the same way that adults do; we use ourselves as the frame of reference.
A good example of that is how adults use praise. Adults expect praise and financial rewards for their good work—bonuses are motivating. So people assume praise or prizes—even money—motivate kids, but there is no evidence that’s true. If anything, the opposite seems more true. Kids increasingly seek activities that bring immediate, tangible benefits, and doing something just for the joy of it fades away.
Question: If they aren’t “little adults,” should we do the opposite of what adult-logic would suggest?
Answer: It’s enough to stop assuming that kids share our perspectives and start asking kids what they understand. Even young kids can be quite articulate about how they see the world, and hearing their answers can lead to some fascinating insight. Almost all 5-year-old kids know that lying is “bad,” but then scientists asked them why lying was bad. The kids replied that lying was bad because it got them punished. It had little to do with the value of honesty.
Question: What should one do if he/she sees friends or relatives praising their kid’s intelligence?
Answer: I’d suggest that they focus their praise on what the kid is doing—that is, “You worked really hard on that, didn’t you?” My very-short-hand cocktail party explanation for the research on praise is that praising intelligence teaches kids that success is based on an innate skill either they have or they don’t. What we want to teach kids is that their fate is in their hands—that they can change outcomes, depending on how much they work at things.
Question: What’s more dangerous: over-nurturing or under-nurturing kids?
Answer: I’d take the overly attentive parent over the parent who ignored a kid any day. And more enriched environments and interactions are great for kids. There’s some research indicating that more attentive parenting for one kid may change parent-child interactions for generations.
I think over-involved parenting is a real issue only when it prevents kids from being able to make mistakes and work things out on their own. Sure, we can offer advice if they are stuck, but making mistakes is how kids learn problem-solving. I mean, every CEO I’ve interviewed has told me the same thing: it’s in the missteps, not the successes, that you learn the most.
Question: On a scale of 1-10, where 1 is strict and 10 is lenient, where should parents be?
Answer: A three, maybe? But the issue isn’t simply about strictness versus leniency: it’s also about warmth. Scholars always look at discipline and warmth of a parent-child relationship at the same time. If the parent-child relationship is generally warm, caring, and supportive, that dramatically improves the effectiveness of discipline. Nancy Darling, a researcher at Oberlin, is the one who really clarified the discipline issue for me. She said that it’s easy to make rules, but it’s hard to enforce them. So the better approach is to set just a few rules on things that a parent believes are truly important, and when those are violated, be consistent in the response (i.e., punishment). However, even for those rules, once in a while, if the kid has a legitimate reason why you should bend a rule, it doesn’t damage your authority to agree. It actually increases your authority because your kid knows that you can be reasonable and fair.
Question: How should one teach kids about race?
Answer: There’s a fear, particularly among white parents, that talking about race teaches kids to be racist. But the reality is that parents’ silence leaves kids with a vacuum of knowledge to fill on their own. The other trap is that a lot of us fall into saying things like, “Everybody’s equal.” That’s just too vague for young children to understand: they don’t even know that is a comment about race. The better course is to talk about race in the same way we talk about gender. We have no problem saying, “Girls and boys can both be good at sports.” That’s how we should talk about it.
Question: How can you tell if a school is operating according to the findings of your book?
Answer: I hope schools will address how they assess children for gifted programs, so that they become less focused on early testing. I also hope that schools will look past ethnic demographics and determine if kids are having meaningful cross-race interactions outside the classroom.
Schools that require kids to get on buses at 7 am or earlier trouble me. Dr. Mark Mahowald threw down a gauntlet when he told me that school schedules are for adults’ convenience, not for kids’ learning. No one has even tried to refute his argument. School start times need to move back.
Question: What’s a parent to do if he/she is basically raising their kids in the wrong way according to your book?
Answer: Both Po and I think that most people do the best they can for their kids, so NurtureShock isn’t about laying blame. We aren’t saying there is a “right” or “wrong” way to raise a child. NurtureShock is intended to catalyze a new way of thinking about learning and growth. I’d rather people read the book with an orientation towards the future, rather than worry about past mistakes.
I do hope that parents and other caregivers consider kids’ actions in light of the science. If the science seems to have an explanation that illuminates their kids’ behavior, then it would make sense to follow the scientists’ recommendations—or look for more information out there. I know there were a lot of things that once I’d read the science, I had to change.
Also, I’d never say that the research applies in every circumstance with every kid. Kids are much more complicated than that. If the science just doesn’t seem to be consistent with that kid’s development, maybe it’ll be more relevant later. The scientists themselves are enormously respectful of parents’ individual experiences.
Question: What does it mean if a kid is a skillful liar?
Answer: It depends on the child’s age. Between 3 and 4, almost all kids begin experimenting with some lying. So, at a very young age, the ability to lie actually signals cognitive advancement because lying requires kids to know one reality while trying to convince someone of something else entirely. They have to keep those two competing ideas going on in their heads at the same time. The important thing is how we respond to those initial lies—making sure that kids understand we value honesty. That it makes grown-ups happy to hear the truth, even if the truth means admitting some wrongdoing.
For kids older than 7, lying—skillful or otherwise—is more of a concern. At that point, kids can start to believe that lying is the best way to handle uncomfortable social situations. Once that strategy is in place, lying becomes much more difficult to stop.
Question: After writing the book, what child-raising practices have you or Po changed?
Answer: Every chapter changed how we did things. One quick example: I was really struck by an idea that one scholar, Debbie Leong, pointed out: good students know when they are doing well and when they’re having trouble. Kids who struggle are genuinely unsure of how they are doing. The key is to help them develop this self-awareness. So I used to look at a kid’s essay, marking up the mistakes so that he could fix them. Now I point to the paper and say, “Somewhere in this line is a mistake. What is it?” Nine times out of ten, they find it without my help. And if they’ve repeated the error, they often spot it on their own later on. They really become aware of how important it is to pay attention to their work.
Question: Your book cites study after study—what if they have their own bias, flaws, etc., such that the studies are no more “true” than what parents are doing now?
Answer: Scientific methodology has transformed over the past ten years. The scholars can now statistically analyze findings to see if they hold true across race, gender, age, and other factors. But beyond that, the best scholars are extremely critical of their own work. They’re the first to point out what their studies do and don’t accomplish; they seem as eager to tell you what went wrong with a study as what went right. And rather than bristle under hard questioning, they usually welcome the input.
As for what’s in NurtureShock, when psychologists, neuro-imaging scientists, demographers, sociologists, and others all independently come to the same conclusions, there’s real strength in the findings. That’s the kind of scientific consensus we wanted to see before we included research in the book. And if a study seemed rife with bias-issues or methodological concerns, we didn’t include it in the book.
Also, we included a lot of specifics on the scientists’ experiments. We did so because we didn’t want people to just take our word on the research; we wanted readers to have enough information that they could make up their own minds about the findings. The value of understanding the scientists’ process isn’t limited to a specific result. It’s more about learning what questions we need to ask scientists now and in the future.
Question: Knowing all that you know, what is the one summary piece of advice you want to give to parents?
Answer: Be truthful with kids. While it isn’t necessary to be brutally honest, before I praise a kid, I ask myself if I really believe what I’m saying. If I do, then I think it’s probably right to say. It’s better for a kid to hear parents argue and resolve the quarrel, then it is to pretend the argument never occurred because the kids usually already know about the dispute. It’s the result they’re unsure of. A lot of communication by adults is intended to manipulate kids, and they’re usually on to us. And when we are constantly trying to outsmart kids, it may work in the moment, but ultimately it can hurt our credibility. Then kids don’t believe that they can turn to us when they need some honest advice. If we expect kids to be truthful with us, we should be truthful with them.
As I read the book and received the answer to my questions, I noticed the applicability of their advice to dealing with employees. For example, do you praise employees with money or do you foster their intrinsic joy for their work and sense of accomplishment?
And how about these substitutions to the last answer? “Be truthful with employee. While it isn’t necessary to be brutally honest, before I praise an employee, I ask myself if I really believe what I’m saying. If I do, then I think it’s probably right to say.”
The bottom line is that NurtureShock is a book that small business owners should read for the sake of their kids and their companies.