Parenting Resources

The New Science of Child Development and What It Means for How You Approach Parenting 

In their New York Times bestselling book, Nurture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman make a bold assertion: that many of our most deeply held truisms about good parenting constitute little more than “a hodgepodge of wishful thinking, moralistic biases, contagious fads, personal history, and old (disproven) psychology.” The term nurture shock refers to the panic that parents feel when the mythological fountain of knowledge about how to best raise children does not magically kick in and deliver the intended results. Bronson and Merryman deliver a similar shock by presenting the newest child development science that exposes how many of our most established assumptions about childrearing are not credible. Their thorough and clearly presented overview of the latest advances in child development science enables readers to think differently about children in terms of a number of issues including:

  • Lying                        
  • Gratitude                                    
  • Confidence              
  • Sibling Conflict
  • Intelligence            
  • Sleeping                               
  • Aggression              
  • Racial Attitudes     
  • Self-control              
  • Teen Rebellion
  • Language Acquisition

Here are just a few highlights from the book about common myths that guide how many of us parent, and what the newest science tells us about what really matters and what really works.

Lying

Many of us believe that honesty is a paramount virtue, and yet the reality is that lying is actually a sign of intelligence and savvy. Lying demands advanced cognitive development and social skills that are not required with honesty. Therefore, learning to lie is a developmental milestone. Kids who start lying by ages two or three (and can control “verbal leakage by ages 4 or 5) perform better on academic testing. Moreover, punishing children for lying is only likely to increase the probability that they will lie, except they will become more expert in the art of deception. To encourage more honesty and less lying in children, adults need a twofold approach. First they need to reassure children that they will not be punished for telling the truth, but just as importantly, they also need to convey that honesty is its own reward. Parents who communicate “I will not be upset with you if you took the toy, and also, if you tell the truth, I will be really glad,” are teaching children a new way of thinking about how to make their parents happy. It is critical for kids to learn the worth of honesty as much as they need to understand that lying is wrong.

Language Acquisition

Every year parents spend billions of dollars on videos and gimmicks in an attempt to jumpstart their children’s language acquisition. There have been conflicting studies about whether or not baby DVDs enhance or impair language acquisition. According to the newest science, it seems that baby DVDs neither delay nor promote neural development. In short, they have virtually no effect non-auditory processing because they tend to rely on disembodied audio voice-overs that are not connected to the abstract imagery of the video track. The newest science demonstrates that infants need to see faces and lips moving to learn speech segmentation and comprehend speech. Hence, baby DVDS would probably do a better job if they showed human faces speaking, however, there would still be a lack of interaction which we now understand to be a vital to language acquisition. Infants need to experience how adults respond to them and to their vocalizations.

A commonly held misconception is that the sheer volume of words parents speak to their children significantly affects language acquisition. To some extent this is true. Studies reveal that infants in welfare families hear about 600 words per hour, while those in working-class families hear about 900 per hour, and those in professional families hear about 1,500 per hour. Moreover, parents in professional families also used more complex sentences and a richer vocabulary. At the time of their third birthdays, children from professional families have a vocabulary that averages about 1,100 words, while those from welfare families average only 525 words. But just as the old paradigm leads us to believe that a child’s language output is determined by the enormity and quality of the input they receive, the science that contributes to the new paradigm indicates that rather than pushing large chunks of language into baby’s ears, it is more important that parents really notice and respond accordingly to what is coming from their children (via their mouths, eyes and fingers). “How a parent responds to a child’s vocalizations – right in the moment – seems to be the most powerful mechanism pulling a child from babble to fluent speech” (p. 207). Relatedly, language acquisition is influence by the relative skill parents have with respect to “turn taking” (e.g., when parents and children take turns “talking” as if having a mock conversation). While most parents appear to innately engage in turn-taking, some do it better than others, and those who exhibit better rhythmic coupling with their children have children who develop greater cognitive abilities.

Intelligence

Intelligence testing of five year olds, and children even younger, has become increasingly common. Test results are used to determine placement in both prestigious private schools and public school programs for gifted children. The problem is that many schools and school districts operate under the false assumption that intelligence is stable and innate and that it can be accurately assessed even during the preschool years. Their policies assume that whatever scores children earn at age five will be similar to what they will score at age eight, ten or beyond. Unfortunately, some children are late developers and as such, their true ability does not take shape until around the age of eight. The new research confirms that scores obtained at the age of eight tend to be good predictors of later performance, while scores obtained at any earlier point in time are weak predictors.

The twenty largest public school districts in America all offer some type of gifted program and twelve of these begin their programs in kindergarten. Moreover, of these twenty, not one requires children to score high on an achievement test or IQ test in late years to justify their staying in the program. Many states and school districts are adverse to the idea that children should be re-tested to confirm that their placement in a gifted program is warranted. In Florida, a 2007 bill to reform state gifted education couldn’t make it out of committee until a provision demanding testing every 3 years was struck from the plan” (p. 105).

“From the unfinished cortex to the shift in neural networks, none of the critical mechanisms of intelligence are yet operational at the age most children are taking a test for entry into a gifted program or a private K through 8 school. We are making long-term decisions over kid’s lives at a point when their brains haven’t yet even begun the radical transformations that will determine true intelligence” (p. 113). Consequently children who may perform well initially may end up under-performing over time, while children with low initial scores, may end up having far greater abilities over time. Yet many schools and gifted programs have no mechanism to screen out those whose intelligence does not hold up over time, and to create entry opportunities for those who were merely late bloomers.

Praise and Confidence

Another common misconception is that it is helpful to offer children constant praise, and specifically, to affirm that they are smart. The rationale underpinning this is that praise builds confidence and children who are confident in their intellect (or some other ability) will have the fortitude to persevere when they face academic (or other kinds of) challenges. Yet a new body of research strongly indicates the opposite. “The brain has to learn that frustrating spells can be worked through. A person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear” (p. 24). Children who are constantly praised for being smart start to believe their intellect is innate and therefore does not require effort. When they are faced with academic challenges they give up rather than pushing themselves to try harder. This is not to say that all praise is problematic. Some praise can have positive effects but it depends on how the praise is offered. For example, it is more effective to praise a child’s efforts rather than his or her intelligence. Therefore, rather than telling your daughter how smart she is, tell her something like, “It’s great how hard you worked on that paper.” Or rather than praising your son by saying “You played great,” it is more useful to praise a specific effort, such as “It’s great how you worked to get the ball.”

Sleeping

It has long been assumed that children handle sleep loss similarly to adults, meaning that sleep loss is tiring by manageable. However the newest research demonstrates that sleep loss is exponentially more damaging to young people. For adolescents in particular, cognitive and emotional development is impaired by loss of sleep. Moreover, because adolescents have a much harder time than adults and children falling asleep earlier, they need to sleep later to make up for the fact that many of them fall asleep later. Hence, the typical 7 to 7:45am start of the high school day sets adolescents up for sleep loss, which is correlated with diminished academic and social performance. The solution is simple enough; delay the start of the high school day by at least an hour, yet most school districts baulk at this suggestion for reasons that have more to do with adult preferences and faulty presumptions, rather than sound science.


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