When I was about twelve years old, my mother told me something that helped me to define myself: I was not a quitter. The context of this comment was that I had just returned home, despondent, and flopped myself huffily into a chair. For the fifth year in a row, I had not made the community theater’s summer musical. Five years I had auditioned with the best of hopes along with all the other kids, only to be cut. What my mother said, after commiserating with me in her matter-of-fact way, was how much she admired me for going back, year after year, and not giving up. Other people were not built like that, she said. Other people would have stopped trying.
I did not stop trying, and when I was thirteen—after joining a choir and taking drama classes—I was cast in a non-speaking walk-on part. The next two years, I was in the all-cast chorus, with the occasional line and some group songs. The year after that, I was in a smaller chorus, and the year after that, I played Liesl in The Sound of Music. Was I great at it? Not particularly. But all this experience--and the fact that I had earned it all through hard work--improved my confidence exponentially.
According to the new book Nurture Shock, what my mother did was exactly right. She did not praise me for things beyond my control, like intelligence (which I possessed) or innate musical talent (which I did not). She praised me for something within my control: my determination to keep trying even when it got embarrassing.
The opening chapter of Nurture Shock not only takes American parents to task for the generic, insipid ways we praise our children—“Oh, you’re so smart!”—but provides some fascinating scientific research to show that praising kids for things they can’t control actually does significant long-term damage to their self-esteem. So I’m already changing the way I praise my daughter: more “I’m really proud of the way you studied every night for that science test even though you would have rather eaten tripe!” and less “You are good at science.”
The opening chapter may be the best, but most of the others are very strong too. Here are a few surprising things I learned:
- Teaching driver’s ed in school seems like a very good idea, but may actually be a lousy one. Teens who don’t get it in school often take longer to get their license, which is the best way to prevent accidents. It’s not the teenagers’ faults; it’s a problem with their brains, which haven’t yet developed appropriate cautions about risk-taking.
- Your most important relationships as a kid may be with your older siblings. How they treat you defines you—but parents can make a huge difference by encouraging kids to play together as a team, and by making sure that older siblings learn cooperative play with their friends and peers first. The conventional wisdom that says that kids learn to play with siblings at home and then apply that knowledge to their relationships at school is precisely backwards.
- Good news! Adolescence is more traumatic for teens’ parents than it is for the teens themselves. Parents are more affected and depressed by conflict than their teens are, and more likely to view fights as counterproductive.
Undoubtedly, some of the research Bronson and Merryman tout in this book will be scrutinized and even debunked someday, but some of it will stick. For myself, I have started to follow the authors’ NurtureShock Twitterfeed. Unfortunately, they’ve recently stopped doing their blog on the science of parenting for Newsweek, but you can still access some fascinating archived posts here.