Q&A with Po Bronson, author of Nurture Shock

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Po Bronson has a message for parents: Drop your assumptions about test scores, about lying, about siblings vs. onlies, tiger moms vs. ostrich dads. Since 2009 when it was published, Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children has garnered steady attention for its title and its ideas. The book’s insights about child behavior have helped Po coach his own two young children through their early school years. Sitting down for a chat with Red Tricycle, Po, who lives in the Bay Area, gives details on his parenting tactics, and why his friends are not “Tiger Mothers.” He also tackles one of the bugaboos of modern parenting: media and the question of how much screen time is too much? Nutureshock

RT: Your book has been described as covering the new science of children. How is this new science?
PB: What we were looking for was actually not “new, new shiny, shiny science.” What first interested Ashley and I was the work by Carol Dwek (who is now at Stanford) on the inverse power of praise.  An article noted that she had reproduced her study on all ages from kindergarteners to Columbia college students. Dwek was also doing EEG studies, bringing in polling data, and everybody in the sciences had been agreeing with her for the past 10 years.  What amazed us was that Carol Dwek’s work had gotten no real intellectual traction with the public, and we wondered what else was out there. We went looking and we were amazed by what we found. We thought these things would already be completely adequately covered by the blogosphere.

RT: This book unpacks current studies on why kids lie, testing standards, the inverse power of praise, why siblings fight, myths about “onlies,” to name just a few. What were the criteria for choosing each of these topics?
PB: After the original article on the power of praise, we decided that what we were looking for with the other chapters in Nurture Shock should be studies with a ten- year track record, where the science had been replicated by many different scholars, and still felt fresh. Each of the chapters covers a different area, and each is equally significant and relevant.

RT: How do you know if you suffer from “Nurture Shock,” and how do you recover from it?
PB: The title of the book is really only a description of some shocking science about nurturing.  But yes, there is a kind of shock that tends to come when your lovely sweet child becomes aggressive at school, or when your teens start to rebel. The shock comes periodically when you’re thinking “I got this,” and then suddenly, things change and you’re thinking, “I don’t have this.”

RT: Which of the findings resonated most in terms of your own family?
PB: In terms of my personal prism, I got a lot out of “The Inverse Power of Praise” “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” and “Plays Well With Others.”  The stuff about lying, over the long term, has been significant. When our daughter was three, those techniques really helped us because she’s got a personality type who could have been more of a manipulator, but we used the material, and it hasn’t become a problem.  The stuff about brain development was meaningful to us because we watched our son’s brain change a lot in second grade. He went from being just average or behind in everything to, suddenly, really intellectually capable.

The stuff we do everyday comes from the chapter “Plays Well With Others,” about children’s aggression and cliques. To manage and work with their challenges, and to understand what to say, and what we could say  the material from that chapter was really powerful.My son just wants to be not completely left out. My daughter wants to be close to the center of things. So they’re very different sides of this.

The issue is that kids with social savvy will turn to any available technique to achieve social centrality.  We think of kids as being good or bad, angelic or evil by nature, but in fact the kids that are very pro-social also use relationally aggressive tactics. Pro social tactics are things like, “Come to my house, play with me, I’m sorry.”  Relationally aggressive stuff is  “You’re not my friend anymore, I don’t like you, you’re not coming to my house.”

In my daughter’s case, she felt socially central at her preschool, but in kindergarten the mix of girls was confusing for her and she felt vulnerable. I saw her using these relationally aggressive tactics. To try to get a kindergartener to not want to be socially central, to tell a kindergartener to be above all that, well, you’re not going to win that argument.  It’s too heady a concept, to tell a kindergartener “you need to be your own person.” She needs to be part of the social group. But I taught her how to get her there with pro social tactics, that those tactics would get her where she wanted to be a lot faster, with a lot less stress, with a lot less pushback. It’s been a year since I’ve heard anything from another parent or a teacher.

I bring up a bright memory of a successful week of writing letters to her friends to remind my daughter of what can be accomplished with pro-social tactics. I have been coaching her that it’s OK to want to be socially central, but it matters how you get there.

RT: What’s the deal with the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother? Are we supposed to push our kids harder?
PB: That book explores fears that there are other people out there working five times as hard as you and your kids are. If my kid has to compete for spots, now I have to do that. There’s a bit of the prisoner’s dilemma in it.

In our society, there seemed to be an assumption that we should not expose youngsters to competition, and to cheerlead everything they do. We were really buying into that for quite a while, and at the same time, there was some wondering if that was really what our kids needed. You want your kid to internalize these goals, but even when they do, sometimes the question is still “Well, but how hard should they work at that?”

My guess is those people who are responding well to Chua’s book aren’t going to turn into her; It just gives them permission to be 5% more demanding of their kids. I doubt anyone’s going to 50%.  I think it’s pretty maniacal, what Amy Chua did.

RT: What do you make of the public dialogue about the movie Race to Nowhere?
PB: The discussion behind the documentary goes back to this rat race sense that you get from the Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Race to Nowhere shows the trend in public schools to get test scores up, putting more responsibilities onto kids, drilling hours and hours of homework, and their childhoods are being squandered.  Parents and kids are caught up, but the kids are the real victims. All I can say is there’s a lot of it out there.

At the same time, I know my friends aren’t that way. I have friends who are really insecure about not doing that. But I don’t have Amy Chuas in my life. I know lots of kids who are extremely good athletes, extremely bright, but they’re not getting there by being crazy about it. I don’t really live in that world.

RT: What are your thoughts on children’s exposure to media? Is violence on TV as much of a culprit as we were brought up to believe?
PB: The big debate now is really over media’s influence on  the early sexualization of children. Jane Brown’s study (Ph.D., M.A.) described it as the “media diet.” Brown’s premise was if you have a large media diet (lad magazines, Internet, etc.) you’d get to a point where it was like having a best friend who was more sexual than you and you were often influenced in this relationship.

Yes, we have to police and patrol what our kids watch, but informed parents can make those decisions. Maybe they’ll be a little bit too strict and their kids will watch TV at someone else’s house. Or they might be too lax and their kids will see something that makes them uncomfortable.  But most parents aren’t going to go too wrong on that one.

RT: My son is doing this new thing with his friends where they’ll have play dates and they’ll sit next to each other playing their mini video game consoles (Nintendo DS) and helping each other out with beating the levels. Should I be worried?
PB: It can be a real common ground. Just as going out and playing soccer is instant connection, this can be about creating a friendship based on multiple access points. Kids want to feel safe and secure in their friendship.   They can say, “When so and so comes over we joke around together, we play soccer together, we like the same foods, we actually enjoy video games together. “  But if you had just one basis of friendship (video games), that’s not so good.

And it’s about moderation. Do kids whine and complain about their screen time limits? Do they know that when you’re not there, not to cheat? They internalize. This can be a valuable lesson–to learn to moderate themselves. It’s a good sign if the kids shows initiative for what to do to avoid boredom. They say, ‘Hey let’s go outside and play some baseball.” But it’s a process. It doesn’t happen right away.

RT: What’s your take on the debate about over structured kids and the premise of the book “The Last Child in the Woods”?
PB: . I think the notion is sort of idyllic. When I look back on my childhood, me and my brothers were latchkey kids. We came home at 2:30 and we had hours and hours. Were those hours and hours time developmentally well spent? Did we self organize? Ultimately there were huge, vast amounts of boredom.

There’s some misperceived science about the overscheduled child.  A little boredom can be good, sure.  Having a summer break where you have unstructured time and get to see what’s on the other side of boredom is great. But people have this romantic idea of boredom, and it really is a risk factor.  That said, studies have shown that over-structured kids don’t know what to do with even ten minutes of free time. Some kids’ lives are way over-structured, but many kids who have heavily structured lives are thriving in that. But some healthy amount of free time is really important. My son is a fierce guardian of his free time, of which there is not a lot, but he will be upset if we don’t respect that he needs a little bit of it every day.

RT:  What’s on tap for you and your next collaboration with Ashley Merryman?
PB: Ashley and I are working on issues around human development. There’s a lot of interesting science we’re looking at, but we are still working on developing a thesis.

—Jennie Rose

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