Why parents are getting it wrong

Too much praise is bad. Smacking could be good. And lying is a sign of intelligence. So says a controversial new book on raising children. Clint Witchalls reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online

My nine-year-old daughter, Abby, came back from art club with a large cardboard box full of the beautiful things she'd made. She slowly unpacked each item to gasps of admiration from me and my wife. We had to turn our backs while Abby unpacked the chef d'oeuvre.

"You can turn around now," Abby said. On the floor was a magnificent sculpture of an Indian elephant. It was painted red and on its back was a blue howdah, covered in sequins.

"Abby, that's amazing," I said. "What a beautiful elephant."

"What did you expect?" Abby replied.

It wasn't a cocky: "What did you expect?" and it wasn't a rhetorical question either. Abby really wanted to know what I expected. After all, had she not always produced great art? Her self-esteem in this particular field is as high as it can go, and I believe, justly so. And that's great, isn't it?

Well, not necessarily. According to a book that is taking the US by storm, Nurtureshock: Why Everything We Think About Raising Our Children is Wrong (published in the UK on 4 February), too much self esteem can be a bad thing. The authors, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, point to research that shows that high self-esteem does not increase a person's prospects of getting good grades or having a stellar career. People with high self-esteem are no less likely to drink and be violent than their self-doubting peers. In fact, highly aggressive people tend to have high self-esteem.

Praising children can be a poisoned chalice, too. Research at New York City state schools shows that telling kids they're "smart" all the time makes them anxious and causes them to underperform. You can see the kids thinking: "If I'm so smart, how come I can't figure out the answer to this question?" which leads to anxiety, which leads to not trying.

The authors of Nurtureshock say most parents claim to use instinct and common-sense when raising their young, but often, our instincts are "polluted by a hodgepodge of wishful thinking, moralistic biases, contagious fads, personal history and old (disproven) psychology". Praising children for every achievement – no matter how minor – in an effort to build their self-esteem is one such fad.

When I was in primary school in the 1970s, my report cards were peppered with phrases such as: "could do better", "must focus more in class" and "needs to pull his weight". Even if I was a uniquely inept student, my wife, a primary school teacher, tells me that teachers couldn't get away with using phrases like that today. Everything has to be couched in positive language. There's no stick these days. It's all carrot.

Maybe the authors of Nurtureshock have got a point. The whole praise culture has gone a bit too far. If someone is good at something, tell them, but don't carpet-bomb your children with praise.

When I watch The X-Factor and see the teary-eyed parents standing in the wings watching their son or daughter massacre a song, I can't help but think: if only those parents had the courage to tell their kid that they can't sing, maybe they wouldn't now be facing humiliation in front of millions of people. Instead of spending years working at something they have no aptitude for, they could have been spending their time finding the thing they are good at. But we've become too fearful of shattering our offspring's nascent egos.

But praise is not always bad, Po Bronson tells me. "Praise has beneficial effects as long as it is specific and sincere," he said. "But it won't raise self-esteem, it will raise children's self-efficacy – their understanding of how to succeed and deal with the skills they're trying to learn." Bronson and Merryman advise parents to praise their children's effort rather than just doling out general statements like "you're smart". Unfortunately, they are not always forthcoming with this sort of advice, but then Nurtureshock is not supposed to be a parenting manual. The book is a showcase of the latest research in fields such as neuroscience and child psychology. Bronson and Merryman – both journalists – have an eye for finding research that overthrows long-held assumptions about what it means to be a good parent. However, in doing so, the book raises more questions than it answers.

For example, a section of the book is devoted to the subject of smacking children. For a while, it has been known that children who are smacked are more likely to be aggressive. The received wisdom is: if you use violence against children, they will use violence against others. Studies that demonstrated this fact, however, had sampled white kids only. Dr Kenneth Dodge, a professor at Duke University, wanted to see if the outcome would be the same for black children, so he followed a group of 453 children, both black and white, from preschool through to 11th grade (16- or 17-year-olds). What he found was a reverse correlation between smacking and aggressive behaviour among black children, that is, the more the children were smacked the less aggressive they were over time.

Another study, conducted by the University of Texas, found the same results among Conservative Protestants, which led Dodge to the conclusion that, among cultures where smacking is the norm, the outcome appears to be positive. For many white American parents, however, smacking is the punishment of last resort and there is a big taboo attached to it. Sadly, the authors leave it at that. It is easy to infer from this that Bronson and Merryman condone smacking among cultures where it is the norm. To reinforce this perception, the authors also take a swipe at "progressive dads" – dads who are actively involved in raising their children – because they're often inconsistent with their punishment. One day they're confiscating their son's Xbox, the next they're tut-tutting over the same offence. So, what is the solution? A consistent punishment, such as a belt across the backside?

"The only empirical evidence, as far as I am aware, on the possible benefits of physical punishment, suggests that short-term behavioural compliance may result," says chartered psychologist, Kairen Cullen. "The negative effects far outweigh any benefits."

When I put it to Bronson that Nurtureshock seems to condone corporal punishment, he replies: "We are not pro-spanking." If only he had been that unequivocal in the book. The danger with Nurtureshock is that, even though it's not supposed to be a parenting manual, many people will use it as one. If parents aren't given specific guidance, they're left to read between the lines.

The authors' take on bullying is equally vague. They point to studies that show that bullies are not knuckle-dragging social outcasts – like the Nelson Muntz character in The Simpsons – in fact, research shows that bullies are usually the popular kids. Bullying is used by these kids to achieve social dominance.

"When parents attempt to teach their seven-year-old daughter that it's wrong to exclude, spread rumours, or hit, they are literally attempting to take away from the child several useful tools for social dominance," write Bronson and Merryman. Does that mean that we should turn a blind eye to bullying because it's a useful tool for popular kids?

Not so. "Bullying behaviour should always be addressed by parents, teachers, and peers," Bronson reassures me. "And to best do that, it helps to understand why it occurs and what kids get from their socially dominant behaviour – which is, so often, popularity and social ranking."

What Bronson and Merryman are critical of is a zero-tolerance approach to bullying – something that has become quite popular in the UK. With a zero-tolerance approach all we are doing is substituting one form of oppression (the fear of being bullied) for another (the fear of breaking the rules). Zero tolerance is too all-encompassing, the authors argue, covering everything from name-calling to minor put-downs.

When parents think of bullies, they almost invariably think of other children. No one wants to entertain the fact that their own kid might one day indulge in a bit of bullying. I certainly couldn't see my kids bullying anyone. Then, one day, Abby came out of school wearing a sticker that said: "For good behaviour".

"Who gave you that?" I asked.

"No one," Abby replied. "I took it off another kid."

Under zero tolerance rules, Abby's behaviour could be construed as bullying. At least I could take comfort in the fact that she was being honest about her bad behaviour. According to Nurtureshock, the trait that most parents want for their children is honesty (I would have gone for kindness, but there you go). So, clearly I wasn't failing on all fronts.

But then Bronson and Merryman say that lying is a more advanced skill than truth telling: "A child who is going to lie must recognise the truth, intellectually conceive of an alternative reality, and be able to convincingly sell that new reality to someone else. Therefore, lying demands both advanced cognitive development and social skills that honesty simply doesn't require."

I'm in no hurry to advance Abby's cognitive development in this area. Being the parent of two teenagers, I know that lying will eventually become part of her autonomic nervous system; as regular and predictable as a heartbeat. And how I'll deal with it then, I have no idea, because, by that time, the next parenting paradigm shift will be taking place, and I'll have to jettison my cherished beliefs once again.

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