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Posts Tagged ‘parenting’

When I search for Nurtureshock, the very first search result informs me that the book “has been featured on Good Morning America, Nightline, All Things Considered, Fresh Air, and in Newsweek”. It also has consistently good reviews across many websites that allow user-led discussions. Any residual reservations that one may have about reading a parenting manual, are addressed by the authors when they insist that they’re not the kind to parent by the book either. They then entice us with the tried and tested formula of telling us how the book will challenge many of our “bedrock assumptions” and question what we’ve always assumed to be true.

The central premise of this book is that many of modern society’s strategies for nurturing children are in fact backfiring – because key twists in science have been overlooked.

Nurtureshock: New thinking about children, written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, is divided into several chapters, each addressing a trait or behavior that parents may consider desirable or undesirable in their children, but will agree are wholly unavoidable: confidence, intelligence, lying, sibling tension, teen rebellion, aggressive behavior, self-control, and so on.

Praise

The first chapter, and the best in my opinion, works on shattering the myth that praising children’s intelligence boosts their confidence. Research has shown that children who are praised for being smart, and praised frequently, begin to discount the importance of effort, get more competitive and become risk-averse. Even before I became a parent, I noticed how at playgrounds, parties, and other public spaces where I encountered children, parents, both enthusiastic and distracted, were generous with ‘Good job!’ and ‘Great work!’. And why not? Conventional wisdom says that expressions of praise boost a child’s self-esteem, and self-esteem is an important predictor of later success. What parent would not want to be thought of as encouraging and unconditionally loving?

Interestingly, research has found that parents might have a less noble agenda:

…the continued appeal of self-esteem is largely tied to parents’ pride in their children’s achievements: it’s so strong that “when they praise their kids, it’s not that far from praising themselves.”

Praise, researchers says, works best when it is not frequent, but intermittent; when it is really specific and sincere. Let your child know that he did a good job listening to you, or being careful with his books, or not spilling her fruit. Let them know that the effort they put in is important; that the brain is a muscle, it grows and becomes smarter when you challenge it.

Sleep

For many new parents, the joy of parenthood can be dulled by the rather debilitating sleep deprivation they face those first few months. Soon, the baby starts sleeping for longer periods of time, and the parents’ bodies learns to cope with what it learns is going to be a chronic condition. Parents learn to function with half the amount of sleep they are used to. Bronson and Merryman say that parents often forget that children and adults are built differently, and assume that what works for adults, works for children as well. Since praise works well in adults, they assume it must do their kids a world of good. Since adults seem to be able to function fairly well with moderate sleep deprivation, they reason that their kids might be tired but they’ll manage just like their parents do. Not true.

[In children] “a loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to [the loss of] two years of cognitive maturation and development”.

Several scholars have noted that many hallmark traits of modern adolescence – moodiness, impulsiveness, disengagement – are also symptoms of chronic sleep deprivation.

Among the middle schoolers and high schoolers studied, the odds of obesity went up 80% for each hour of lost sleep.

The lesson here is to protect your child’s sleep time consistently. Sometimes, parents tend to schedule their children’s bedtime around their own convenience. Understand that children need sleep more than adults, and are affected by sleep deprivation differently.

Talking about race

Parents also assume that exposing children to diverse environments is essential and sufficient for their kids to understand that everyone is equal. Not true.

…kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they’re going to form these preferences on their own. Children categorize everything from food to toys to people at a young age. However, it takes years before their cognitive abilities allow them to successfully use more than one attribute to categorize anything. In the meantime, the attribute they rely on is that which is the most clearly visible.

…which is often the color of their skin, the shape of their eyes, or the language they speak.

Merely sending your child to a diverse school is no guarantee they’ll have better racial attitudes than children at homogenous schools – they self-segregate by race and ethnicity within the school.

So, be explicit about how it is wrong to judge people based on these attributes, and don’t shush your kids when they bring it up on their own.

Lying

Contrary to what most parents think, their children tell lies and learn to do so at a very young age. Their lies are mostly motivated by a desire to avoid conflicts and displeasing their parents. They start with bad, obvious lies (saying they didn’t take the cookie when they are holding one) and move on to more sophisticated deception (learning to dust the crumbs after they take a cookie), as they learn what works and what doesn’t. Lying is actually a huge developmental milestone, and a sign of intelligence.

Be more aware of your own ‘white’ lies, as children are keen observers, and learn a lot from their parents. No matter how big or small, white or not, don’t let kids’ lies go unnoticed. In addition to teaching them that lying is wrong, teach them the value of being honest. Kids usually know that lying is wrong, so the threat of punishment alone is not going to keep them from lying. Let them know explicitly that you will not be upset by whatever they have done, and will be happy if they do tell you the truth. Don’t try to trap kids and try to test their honesty (by asking them angrily, “did you do this?”, when clearly they have done ‘it’).

Intelligence and IQ tests

Again, unlike in adults, measured intelligence is not a constant in children. IQ tests administered to children are not meaningful until they reach second or third grade, and are not good predictors of academic success when given to younger children. The authors use supporting research to make the point that by testing for intelligence in preschoolers, the ‘gifted children’ programs are not allowing for late-bloomers to test in. This flawed structure also often does not allow for retesting in the later years to ensure that the children who got in the programs really belong there.

As a child ages, the location of intellectual processing shifts. The neural network a young child relies on is not the same network he will rely on as an adolescent or adult. There is significant overlap, but the differences are striking. A child’s ultimate intellectual success will be greatly affected by the degree to which his brain learns to shift processing to these more efficient networks.

Sibling tension

Having a sibling does not necessarily translate to better social skills, especially in older siblings. Children learn social skills more from friends and non-sibling playmates (who they’ve to take care not to lose) and practice these skills on their siblings (who are always going to be there). If you have more than one child, encourage them to value each other’s company, and find common interests.

Teen rebellion

Although arguing with a teen-aged son or daughter can be the source of much distress for the parents, the teenagers themselves might think of arguments as constructive and strengthening. Teenage deception is as ubiquitous as preschool lying, and for much the same reasons – to avoid conflicts and unpleasantness. Being the super-permissive parent does not necessarily mean that your child will be less dishonest as kids can take it to mean that their parents don’t really care.

The type of parents who were lied to the least had rules and enforced them consistently, but they had found a way to be flexible that allowed the rule-setting process to still be respected.

Make fewer rules and enforce them, but be willing to listen to your child and negotiate if required. Be a collaborator and don’t stonewall them with the conversation ending “Don’t argue with me!”.

…moderate conflict with parents [during adolescence] is associated with better adjustment than either no-conflict or frequent conflict.

Self-control can be taught

Turns out that children can be taught to perform amidst distractions, control impulses and be disciplined. The authors discuss a pre-school program called Tools of the Mind, where kids come up with their own play-plan and script their imaginative play; engage in buddy reading in pairs, where they learn to take turns to read, listen while their partner is reading, and control their own impulses to read first; recognize ‘good’ work from average work where they’re asked to practice writing the alphabet and circle the best ‘A’ (or another letter) that they’ve written. Such exercises are thought to strengthen the part of the brain that is responsible for concentration and setting goals, develop an awareness of how well they are doing when their work is completed accurately and motivate them to perform better.

Being socially competent

Is aggressive behavior in children always a sign of future problems? In this chapter, the authors challenge the conventional notion that “a truly socially-competent child is non-aggressive” and alert parents to the idea that pro-social and antisocial behaviors are not necessarily the opposite ends of a single dimension, and that many kids tend to use both behaviors effectively. Even children who are not physically or verbally aggressive, may be what the authors call relationally aggressive and engage in ignoring peers, telling lies, or withdrawing their friendship. While parents tend not to let their kids watch violent television for obvious reasons, even educational media for kids might teach them to engage in these subtly aggressive behaviors (and in prosocial behaviors, as well). Children are also affected by the relationship between their parents.

The problem is not witnessing conflict between the parents, the problem is not witnessing the resolution of the conflict – being exposed to constructive marital conflict can actually be good for the children – if it doesn’t escalate, insults are avoided, and the dispute is resolved with affection. This improves their sense of security, over time, and increases their prosocial behavior at school as rated by teachers.

Language skills

Early language skills are not dependent on exposure but interaction.

The central role of the parent is not to push massive amounts of language into the baby’s ears; rather, the central role of the parent is to notice what’s coming from the baby, and respond accordingly.

In other words, parent responsiveness may have an impact on an infant’s rate of language acquisition.

This book is essentially a compilation of research, and because it deals with so many disparate topics and brings up the details of a number of research projects (which often seem to contradict each other’s findings), I did find the book rather overwhelming. I wish the authors had been a little more discriminating about discussing the research in detail, and dwelled a bit more on the practical implications of the findings. In some chapters, the authors do describe their experiences with their own children and I would have loved to read more of them.

The first chapter on praise made the most sense to me and I now mentally cringe everytime I praise my son with a ‘Very good’ and am learning to be more specific and less generous with my compliments. I am also learning to be more aware of my own behaviors when he is around.

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I have a question for you. If you were looking to buy toothpaste for your toddler, a boy, and someone gave you toothpaste (perfectly good toothpaste) for free, would you take it? Would you behave differently if the tube was pink and had a picture of Dora on it?

My son brushes his teeth with (and secretly swallows) Dora toothpaste. There, I’ve said it. I didn’t buy the said toothpaste to necessarily make a point, but only because I got a really good deal on it. That said, I’ll admit that I did hesitate a tiny bit, and later felt that I could really be making a point. But this is toothpaste we are talking about, and our preference regarding dental cleaning supplies is privy only to a rather small group of people who might step into our bathroom. If I notice a great deal on a pretty Princess backpack, I will certainly pass.

When I was growing up, baby clothes were just baby clothes, not girl clothes or boy clothes. Babies then looked angelic, grumpy, and naughty, much as they do now, in a cute, genderless way. Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture, grew up in a different part of world and is a couple of decades my senior, but it does seem like she has similar memories of babies dressed in light-colored unisex clothing.

“…less than a century ago, all children wore frilly white dresses and unshorn hair until at least age three.”

Completely ignorant of what fashion-forward parents dressed their muffins and buttercups in, I first walked into the store to be visually assaulted by entire aisles of cotton candy colored apparel and accessories. As Sally Field remarks in Steel Magnolias.

“That sanctuary looks like it’s been hosed down with Pepto Bismol.”

For every four shelves of pink, there was one rather pitiful shelf of blues and browns, for the boys. I may be exaggerating a tiny bit, and there may have been red polka dotted dresses somewhere, but they were all pinked out. My son, I am confident, has not worn pink more than twice so far. When he was a baby, he was without exception taken for a girl, and we were advised that dressing him in pink would be equivalent to making him wear a sequined headband that spelled out GIRL in glittery capitals. Not that we found anything pink suitable for a boy. As the parent of a boy, I thought it unfair that girls had monopoly over pink. Orenstein, the mother of a girl, laments that girlhood has become entirely monochromatic.

I wanted my son to develop his own interests and refused to buy into stereotypes that boys like moving vehicles and not much else. By the time he turned one, he had twenty of them – pickup trucks, race cars, firetrucks, and dump trucks. All gifts. Turns out, he loves them. He also enjoys playing dress up, pretend playing with Kipper- his dog and friend (and a soft toy), pretend cooking, and playing with blocks. While I may choke up with parental pride at his being so well-rounded, I know very well that he will change when he starts school and sees what other boys do, don’t do, or are not supposed to do. I also know that this may well be a part of growing up and the pre-school news flash that boys and girls are different.

Orenstein is the author of Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night, and One Woman’s Quest to Become a MotherHer long and agonizing quest to become a mother ends with the arrival of her daughter, Daisy. As Daisy grows from a baby to a preschooler, Orenstein begins to wonder about the kind of messages she is giving her daughter when she (Daisy) and her friends play (and identify) with Ariel and Cinderella, lounge in Disney Princess beanbags, and entertain in Disney Princess Summer Palace Slumber Bags or Bed Tents, which my Toys R Us flyer informs me are “Perfect for providing the royal treatment to visiting princesses”, and generally participate in contemporary girlie-girl culture.

She wonders…

…is the Princess Culture simply innocuous fun?

Is this all just a case of much ado over nothing? Calling them princess (and buying them  appropriately royal dresses and helmets and kneepads) is just our way of letting daughters know how special they are to us. Princesses are special. They can also be compassionate and inspiring. They can allow your child to cultivate imagination and construct a fantasy world (which all kids do anyway), filled with special creatures and special possessions.

…or does it pave the path to premature sexualization, emphasis on physical perfection, or worse?

Princesses are also exclusively privileged, perfectly proportioned, and have plenty of things. So, are we also teaching our girls to be snotty, obsessed with their looks and materialistic? Or, are we over-thinking it?

According to the American Psychological Association, the girlie-girl culture’s emphasis on beauty and play-sexiness can increase girls’ vulnerability to the pitfalls that most concern parents: depression, eating disorders, distorted body image, risky sexual behavior.

A long time ago, marketers figured out that hypersegmenting the tot world and magnifying the differences between boys and girls would make a very good strategy to sell boy stuff and girl stuff. Which is why we have boy toys and girl toys (some of which are just pink versions of Lego). Now, while your daughter can get away playing with Thomas the train (most of the times), you might be warned that your son will be scarred for life if you get him a kitchen set. Not a tutu, just a kitchen set. Some feel that all this segmentation discourages cross-sex friendships in our little ones. And Orenstein worries that “if early experiences with mixed-sex play have a lifelong positive impact on kids’ behavior, aptitudes, and relationships, the segmentation of every possible childhood item by sex was more troubling than I had initially imagined”.

“Playing princess is not the issue,” argues Lyn Mikel Brown, an author, with Sharon Lamb, of “Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters From Marketers’ Schemes.” “The issue is 25,000 Princess products,” says Brown, a professor of education and human development at Colby College. “When one thing is so dominant, then it’s no longer a choice: it’s a mandate, cannibalizing all other forms of play. There’s the illusion of more choices out there for girls, but if you look around, you’ll see their choices are steadily narrowing.”

– From Orenstein’s article in the New York Times, What’s Wrong With Cinderella?

What is wrong with Cinderella, anyway? “It’s just, honey, Cinderella doesn’t really do anything”, says Orenstein. Cinderella, Ty Girlz, American Girl, and Bratz do have a common denominator – they are all pretty. In fact, some are sizzlin’, know how dress to impress, and admit to being shopaholics (I once shopped for 12 hours straight!). Apart from promoting “shopping as the path to intimacy between mothers and daughters”, does this also teach our daughters to value their appearance above everything else?

…is it even possible to escape total and complete immersion in this culture? And what does that entail?

In Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers’ Schemes, authors Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown argue that girls are given just two choices by marketers: they are “either for the boys or one of the boys”. A girlie-girl would obviously be for the boys. Being one of the boys is not necessarily a better model either because, Orenstein says, “it discourages friendship with other girls: a girl who is ‘one of the boys’ separates herself from her female peers, puts them down, is ashamed or scornful of anything associated with conventional femininity”. No parent will wish for their child to be different, punished for it  and unaccepted by peers. Moreover, consciously avoiding anything that smacks of the girlie-girl culture might inadvertantly send the message that there is something wrong about being female.

All our kids, boys and girls, need a childhood hero (or heroine). What choices can we offer our girls that are neither hyperfeminine, nor aggressive, and free of agenda? (The world of boys is another book, or three).

I love a book that raises questions. Unfortunately, when there are far too many questions and far too few answers, my ill-equipped mind gets into this unpleasant state of cognitive restlessness. While the book promises that “armed with awareness and recognition, parents can effectively counterbalance its influence in their daughters’ lives”, I am no closer to understanding how I can help my child, or a hypothetical daughter, achieve that balance.

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