Parenting: Science or Common Sense?

The media is in love again. Now that God is firmly perched in the White House, they can turn their attention elsewhere. And they have: on the new parenting book Nurtureshock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.

Nurtureshock: New Thinking about Children
is not a book about how to raise children; it’s about how not to. It’s been hailed as “one of the most important books you’ll read this year,” “fascinating,” “empowering,” and “soft-pedaled guidance for parents.” This last description – “soft-pedaled guidance” – nails it. The authors refrain from making personal judgments about modern parenting (unless they’re including themselves in the admonishment) and instead rely exclusively on scientific evidence. They are indeed soft in their approach, as they explain to America -- how should I put it -- that parents today have no idea what they’re doing.

Bronson and Merryman are dead on in their analysis. They write, “The central premise of this book is that many of modern society’s strategies for nurturing children are backfiring. The resulting errant assumptions about child development have distorted parenting habits, school programs, and social policies.” According to the authors, the reason modern parents have screwed up so bad (my phrase, not theirs) is because “key twists in the science have been overlooked.”In other words, parents stink at raising kids because they just don't know any better.

And that’s where Nurtureshock comes in. The book is chock full of impressive research that provides solid evidence for what children need from adults. But this research is only impressive to those who are surprised by the results. Traditional parents won’t be the least bit affected by this book – save for the fact that it proves they’re doing something right.

The media, on the other hand, have always prided themselves on being hip. Consequently, Katie Couric calls Nurtureshock “eye-opening”; Matt Lauer calls it “a whole other school of thought”; and Kelly Ripa concedes she’s “broken every rule in the book.” This isn’t surprising. Anyone who’s not present in their children’s lives on a daily basis to see exactly what it is children need are inevitably at a loss as to how to parent.

Which is not to say every parent at home is a natural. The authors are correct that the “maternal instinct” is merely “the fierce impulse to nurture and protect one’s child.” But “as for how best to nurture, [parents] have to figure it out.” That’s why cultural trends – like whether or not most parents stay home with their kids, whether or not spanking or time-outs are the “in” thing – are so important. Most people need to be validated for the work they do, and they want to do things the way everyone else is doing it. So if everyone is doing it wrong – which is precisely what the authors are saying -- so will they.

Fortunately for modern parents, they finally have some great advice. Bronson and Merryman have a video clip circulating on the web that assures readers “the world of parenting is about to change.” Here are some of the things they say:

“Having lopped on to some wrong ideas about childhood has led people to overlook some amazing science.”

“In each chapter of this book, we take on an idea that has become conventional wisdom, something parents and society have invested in – and we use the science to debunk that.”

“We went to the scholars who write the tests that are used for kindergarten readiness. The tests used for kindergarten screenings were wrong 72% of the time.”

Unlike the authors, I’ve never been accused of being “soft,” so forgive me if my words jump off the page with a little more bite. The fact is, for decades now parents have been fed a load of crap about children. Like the idea that children are delicate creatures incapable of handling setbacks or the word No. Or the idea that early preschool will make children smarter. Or the idea that children’s needs are no different from adult needs – particularly with respect to sleep, which is why children today are entirely sleep-deprived. Bronson and Merryman take on these popular trends and “debunk” them one by one, which has the folks in the media – who for years have been providing advice to viewers from modern parenting “experts” -- completely flummoxed.

Fortunately, not everyone is confused. As Tricia Huff, a reader from Cincinnati, writes in an Amazon review:

That children do not think like adults is hardly shocking news. Bronson and Merryman's book is a readable recitation of several interesting studies that contradict some of the child rearing advice the public have received through popular media sources such as magazines and parenting books. But many lay people interpreted the advice in such a manner that they are already doing what the current studies now recommend. For these readers the book is going to fall somewhat short of the expectation implied in the title of turning our parenting ideas upside down.

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