Counterpoint: Child-Rearing Research Is Critical

Parenting may be an art, not a science, but journalist Po Bronson argues that there is plenty of data to help inform parents about how to raise good kids. Bronson wrote the book NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We thought it appropriate to get another perspective about all this, so we called Po Bronson. He's the co-author, with Ashley Merryman, of the book "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children," which has been getting a lot of attention for the way it upends conventional wisdom on such issues as how much praise is helpful, the effect of white parents failure to talk to their kids about race and other issues. And he's with us now from member station KQED in San Francisco.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. PO BRONSON (Journalist, co-author, "NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children"): Oh thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

MARTIN: Now, one of the premises of Ada Calhoun's book, "Instinctive Parenting," is that the flood of data and advice actually undermines parents confidence in child-rearing. What are your thoughts about that?

Mr. BRONSON: Well, I appreciate you having me. I love Ada's work on babble.com, and her work there has been very successful. But some - fundamentally she's saying you dont need a book to raise a child, but then she's selling you a book about this. And you dont need a Web site to raise a child, but there's this phenomenally successful and popular Web site that people love. People's instincts to protect their child - is a very distinct neural network, and when things provoke our feelings around our kids, it's a very powerful feeling, Michel. And it's telling us, hey, let's pay attention to something. But it doesnt necessarily tell us what to do.

So, lets trigger something for you. Let's see what happens to these parenting instincts for our listeners. There was a new study coming out, and they looked at flame retardants on all the fabrics and materials that are around babies and -whether it's mattresses or blankets or the covering for child seats. And parents mothers, during pregnancy, are exposed to a lot of this stuff because they're working up the baby room. So they can take blood samples from the placenta at the time of birth, and see how many of these flame retardants have become airborne and got into that growing newborn's body during the first nine months of development. And they can track those kids five, six months later, and they can see these sizeable effects, which either make the kids not as smart or much smarter. I'm not going to tell you the answer.

But parenting instincts right now, having heard that, they're not going to answer the question. What they're going to tell you is, keep listening. Dont turn off that radio dial. I want to know the answer. It matters. Now there's this broader perspective, which is about fear and anxiety and parents being scared. I dont think it's that information makes them scared. It's that bad information makes them scared.

MARTIN: Now, as I mentioned, youve been getting a lot of attention for "NurtureShock" - in part, I think, because it challenges some modern parenting assumptions, such as that lavish praise is good for kids, and that not talking about race somehow makes kids color-blind.

So first, I wanted to ask which information you decided to focus on for your book, and were there some assumptions that you had about child-rearing that were proven false or unhelpful by your research?

Mr. BRONSON: It probably seems to people out there like, one scientist says this and the other scientist says that, and one scientist says this and this scientist says that. That is not the case. The scientists have been reproducing each other's research, and been saying one thing, for 10 or 20 years. And we as a society just haven't been listening to that.

We have this idea that, oh, red wine is good for you, red wine is bad for you. Coffee's good for you, coffee's bad for you, and all the science about kids is the same way. The scientists dont feel that way at all. And the science in "NurtureShock," each chapter has at least 10 years of replicated research behind it.

MARTIN: So you were picking things where there actually is a consensus, we just dont know about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRONSON: Exactly. So let's talk about talking about race because this was one of the big ones for me. You know, I was raising my kids believing that they were color-blind, believing that the only way racism could arrive in a child's brain was if it was taught to them. And I sent my children to a very diverse preschool, and I treated everybody in my life equally, and I thought that was going to get the message across just fine. But it doesnt because - important thing, which is that kid's brains are prone to essentialism.

They're tying to categorize the world, but they're not very good categorizers. They assume people who look like them must like the same things that they like. And that could be gender, could be hair color, could be shirt color, and it's definitely skin color because skin color is very visible and salient right in their lives. And you can hand 3-year-olds a deck of cards with little faces on them. You ask those 3-year-olds to pick out of the deck which kids would likely be their friends. Amongst white kids, 86 percent of them choose kids only of their own race. And you dont...

MARTIN: And what about non-white kids?

Mr. BRONSON: Oh, well, they dont do this because from birth, they have been taught, we dont choose people on the basis of skin color. Choosing people on the basis of skin color is wrong. Theyve been taught racial tolerance - not all of them. Three-quarters of families of color talk to their children about race overtly, from very early ages.

MARTIN: So people of color tend to feel they have to engage the issue, they do engage the issue, and that they set up a context to talk about it. And youre saying...

Mr. BRONSON: And they have very positive results from those conversations.

MARTIN: And all the white parents dont?

Mr. BRONSON: And no, but so it's the same kids, you take them when they're 4 or 5 years old. And you hand them that same deck of cards and you just say, sort it into two piles any way you want. Sixteen percent of white kids will just - one card, one card, one card, one card, two piles. Sixteen percent of white kids will put them by gender. But 68 percent of white kids will divide them by race. We have to stop essentialism and teach pro-tolerance messages to them from the very earliest ages.

And it really works. They will develop much better attitudes and get on a track where they really can do what we all want, which is to get along with people and embrace those differences rather than be scared of them, because not talking about race teaches kids one thing: It teaches them that race is taboo.

MARTIN: And you contrast that to the way most parents talk about gender, which is they have no problem saying, well, boys and girls can do, you know, whatever they want. And they really expressively frame it.

Mr. BRONSON: We have no trouble with gender, do we?

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BRONSON: Yeah. We have no problem saying, it doesnt matter whether youre a boy or a girl, you can play soccer, you can run companies, you can be doctors and that - we give this positive message to boys and girls from a very early age to defeat any bias that might naturally occur. But we are mum - and scared of saying the very same thing about skin color.

MARTIN: Talk about one other thing that challenges the conventional wisdom. You can pick one of the things that you want to focus on.

Mr. BRONSON: Can I bring one up?

MARTIN: Yeah, go ahead.

Mr. BRONSON: Because Ada brought a couple things up here. She brought up manners. I think there's this fear that kids today have no manners. And I dont know that they understand the scientific context of this, which is that we dont hit kids anymore, and that is great. And we dont demand strict obedience. We reason with our kids. We try to get them to think it through. But when they're 3, and they're 4, and they're 5, and they're 6, they're not really good at that. So the short term is that they maybe are going to be a little more restless around the table at dinnertime.

They might have a little more behavior issues than in - kids in the past, when they're 5 and 6 years old. But the long-term outcomes are clear. Kids are more independent-minded and more autonomous, and handle problems for themselves down the road. But American society is looking at the way our 4- and 5- and 6-year-olds behave and going, oh, my gosh, it's terrible the way that they're behaving - and not realizing this is perhaps the side effect of what is really, fundamentally, a good thing.

MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go, what guidance would you offer a parent who wants to sort out useful information from advice that doesnt have any basis in serious research, in just the accumulated wisdom of the ages -especially the kind of new information, I think, a lot of modern parents are most interested in. How do they sort that out?

Mr. BRONSON: Well, probably two factors to consider is when youre seeing information presented. One is, only buy it if youre really seeing the methodology of the studies laid out for you, and you really understand it, and youre seeing the numbers. Because some studies say this is true, but its very weakly true. And other studies say this is true, but it's very strongly true. And there's an important difference between those.

And we should never freak out or get scared when we're just seeing one study. You need to see the new study presented in the context of showing how it's replicated the work of others, and you see it in the context of studies. And the last thing does relate to sort of fear and hyperbole.

If you have good science to make an argument, you dont need to make threats, you dont need to invoke fears. If you see something in that context, where people are sort of threatening and saying, if you dont do this, youre going to mess up, it's very often because they actually dont have the good science to make the argument for them.

MARTIN: All right. Po Bronson is the co-author, with Ashley Merryman, of "NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children." He joined us from KQED IN San Francisco. If you want to read more about "NurtureShock," we'll have a number of links on our Web site. As I mentioned, it's getting a lot of attention.

Po, thank you so much.

Mr. BRONSON: Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin, and youve been listening TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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