NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children
Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman 2009
New York Magazine journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman team up to add commentary and more information to their articles in this new book published by Twelve, a division of the Hachette Book Group.
The last page of the book has this blurb about Twelve:
“TWELVE was established in August 2005 with the objective of publishing no more than one book per month. We strive to publish the singular book, by authors who have a unique perspective and compelling authority.”
They lost me at “compelling authority.”
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman are journalists, not scientists. This book isn’t a synthesis of research; it’s an opinion piece with a conservative bent (indeed, Ashley Merryman’s back-flap bio boasts that she “lives in Los Angeles, where she runs a church-based tutoring program for inner-city children.”)
I’m not advocating gatekeeping; there is definitely a place for independent research and grass-roots efforts. Child Psychology isn’t one of those places. NutureShock is just another parenting book in a long line of book written by reporters for profit. The authors have a reputation for reporting on overlooked studies with rare results, and they boast in their chapter notes that their New York Magazine articles were popular. Compiling and expounding on past work seems to be the best way to write a book these days; this doesn’t mean that the articles, as a book, make a cohesive or worthy statement.
Basically, I found the book to be the amateur, armchair science that is fun to read in small bites while on the train. Read it for entertainment purposes, but don’t implement the few approaches outlined at home; they aren’t tested enough, and the results have yet to be repeated to gain respect in academia.
The book does, unwittingly, bring up some good points about statistics, studies, and systemic judgments based on those studies. Statistics and study results are nothing to respect when presented alone. The best way to make decisions about anything is to weigh multiple instances of evidence, to never rely on one event. The authors do their best to rip up school district decisions on testing, anti-obesity and anti-bullying programs, by claiming these decisions were not based on scientific results but just made using traditional thought and instinct. While some programs in districts may be made more based on hope than science, the majority of IQ testing and other educational programs are based on years of study and a large meta-analysis of results of hundreds of studies. To suggest otherwise, as the authors do, is hasty, irresponsible, and insulting to educational scholars, teachers, and parents.
The authors proceed to cite a study here, a successful preschool program there, to illustrate their point that decisions about children should be based on evidence. I agree. But A LOT of evidence. Not an anecdotal story or two (which the authors provide), nor 1 or 2 labs that keep getting the same results for their handful of articles. The authors bemoan the lack of long-term studies in almost every chapter, yet fail to mention the very sophisticated and accurate methods of behavioral statistics answers this issue. They sing praises of a preschool program called Tools of the Mind, but conveniently forget to list the challenges associated with the program. This book is a thinly disguised attempt to steer the conversation toward a conservative agenda in education.
The writing is ok. Their lack of academic tone in parts is jarring. For example, on page 190, the authors use colloquial language where they shouldn’t have:
“… a separate word to distinguish the kind of popular teen who diminishes others –in Dutch, for instance, the idiomatic expression popie-jopie refers to teens who are bitchy, slutty, cocky, loud and arrogant.”
An academic article would have used words like “promiscuous,” “disagreeable,” and “condescending,” especially since the Dutch don’t use the English colloquial words that are listed. I also question the choice of listing the derogatory words for females first, or at all.
At times the authors conduct their own “studies,” but we should disregard these results. We have no idea what the sampling was, what the control group was given (if there even was a control group), or how the study was designed at all. Until their results can be repeated many times, then one-off studies should merely bring up ideas for further study.
The only good that comes out NutureShock is the reminder to hold studies, especially those recounted by non-scientist media, in suspicion. If you are planning to pick up this book, read it for entertainment purposes only. It may make you think a bit differently in some aspects of child-rearing, like how your teen may see arguing as the opposite of lying, or how we whites actively avoid talking about race. The authors should have stayed with reflecting trends in traditional parenting, and avoided passing themselves off as authorities.