October 8, 2011

How to (not) Raise Brats!

We can do more than just talk about it!

(part 3) ~ Energy of Mind.

Reality Parenting

The following is part 3 of series on “Reality Parenting,” a phrase coined by my teacher, Dharmanidhi. The first two blogs can be found here, and here. This blog will be a review of Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman’s book Nurture Shock, known as the “Freakanomics of child-rearing.” We will specifically be covering the first chapter, “The Inverse Power of Praise.”

Bronson and Merrimman start their radically awesome book out with a bang, turning upside down popular notions that we should shower our children with praise whenever possible, for whatever reason. They tear to shreds the idea that “self-esteem” is predictive of anything worthwhile in life and echo the sentiments of refreshing new voices in the “how to parent” writing world. These folks are slamming the “psycho-babble” (Rosemond, The New! Six-Point Plan for raising Happy, Healthy Children) that has convinced a generation of parents to coddle their children into brat-hood.

I like this book because it details the studies and evidence that demonstrate the authors’ claims, leaving it to the reader to see for themselves. In this particular chapter Bronson and Merriman cite hundreds of studies that show how our thinking it a good idea to always say things, like, “Good job, Johnny, you’re so smart,” or trying convince our kids that they are special, is actually turning out to be to their detriment.

To sum it up, we create praise-junkies of our children who then associate such praise with love, approval and affection. Then, children go through life only trying to earn praise and become overly concerned with surface appearances and image, rather than enjoying the pursuits of life for their own sake.

Furthermore, Bronson shows how such praise actually keeps kids from trying when they are not sure of success (and therefore praise). Why risk it? The brains of children, which actually become chemically hooked on the praise, think: If I keep doing only the things I am good at I will only keep getting love (praise) from mommy and daddy.

But, the authors also tell us we need not throw out the baby with the bath water. Praise can be useful and effective for what we all really want for our children: a confident, contented life. But, they tell us:

— Praise must be relatively less frequent (It is our duty, for our kids’ benefit, to exercise restraint and NOT praise our kids in many instances where we may be inspired to do otherwise)

— Praise should not just be doled out for anything/everything (kids become desensitized to all forms of praise, even the appropriate kind, when we praise them insincerely in our attempts to boost their self-esteem)

— Praise should be process/effort oriented and not based on results/overall character. Saying, “You are so smart” praises a character attribute in a way that makes it seem like a fixed trait that is out of the child’s control. Praising effort and the specifics of how a child engages in “process” encourages a variable that children can change and improve. In studies cited children who were primed with the idea that the brain is a muscle that can grow improved 20 times more from one test to another than those who were primed with the idea that intelligence is innate.

— Praise must be specific – (“Nice pass in the 2nd quarter” vs. “Good game.”)

— Praise must be sincere.

— Praise should be balanced with critique – children need to hear constructive criticism

Our cultural habit of over-praising and disingenuous praise for things that are expected (i.e. “Tommy, you are greatest for clearing your dish off the table!”) leads kids to a result where by age 12 most pre-teens believe that praise is for the kids who are slow and incompetent and the adults are trying to give them a crutch. Most teens are also shown to feel that they know a teacher believes in their ability when the teacher criticizes their work.

Praising kids for doing what they should do, like wash their dish or tie their own shoes, or what is natural, like eating food! (“you’re such a good eater”), or growing! all fits into the category of INVERSE effect of praise. Kids aren’t dumb and they do feel patronized.

Also, overpraised kids are shown to have less persistence because they don’t want to risk failure (not getting praised) when the going gets tough. Though self-esteem does not predict positive outcomes later in life, persistence does, according to these numerous studies. Persistence is key to a productive and happy life. Inappropriate praise hampers our kids’ development of this virtue.

It is also a brilliant insight the way Bronson and Merriman show that brushing failure aside and “focusing only on the positive” sends a message to kids that failure is so awful that it can’t even be talked about. Mistakes are not seen as natural, but as something so taboo that they need to be swept under the rug. This deprives kids of the opportunity to discuss and therefore learn from mistakes. Good intention, bad idea. Whoops!

Another series of studies shows how kids who are praised more often are shown on video “eye-checking” with their teachers more regularly as they perform tasks. They also talk more with a questioning inflection as if always nervously checking, “Am I right? Are you going to pat me on the head and tell me I am a good boy?”

I don’t want to give away all the goodies for you, but in this one chapter alone I took four, single-spaced typed pages of notes! I’ve only touched upon a few of the eye-opening findings here in this review. Other chapters include equally antinomian views (based on real evidence) on topics such as the effect of insufficient sleep on children, why white parents don’t talk about race, why kids lie, the sibling effect, the science of teen rebellion, can self-control be taught, etc.

Please join in the discussion with comments below and spread the word in our communal effort to raise responsible, competent, happy kids that aren’t brats!

Thanks and enjoy!

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