TERRY GROSS, host:
Many of modern society's strategies for nurturing children are backfiring because new research in the science of children has been overlooked. That's the premise of the new book, "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children," by Ashley Merryman and my guest, Po Bronson.
An article they wrote about parenting for New York magazine won an award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Po Bronson is also the author of the bestseller "What Should I Do With My Life?"
Po Bronson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now in terms of talking about why modern parenting has failed to produce a generation of angels, you say that, you know, parents today know they're not supposed to fight in front of their children and you say there are unintended consequences of taking marital arguments upstairs, you know, in an attempt to shelter your children from a fight. What are the unintended consequences of that?
Mr. PO BRONSON (Co-Author, "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children"): Mark Cummings' lab out of the University of Notre Dame is looking at this very phenomenon very closely and he has parents simulate arguments in front of their kids, or he has kids watch videotapes of arguments and he has parents as conspirators in his experiments. And normally when a kid watches a fight between parents, an argument, a quite heated conflict, that kid will then lash out afterwards or during it and act aggressive. But there's one thing that happened in those experiments that makes all that aggressive behavior in the child go away: it's watching the fight get resolved, it's watching your parents work it out in a constructive way.
And when I read this, I understood that taking it upstairs, you know, I might have a moment of conflict with my wife and I'll say that according to Cummings' data, you know, parents are bickering to each other seven to eight times a day and the kids are a witness to it. It's wrong to imagine that kids aren't seeing this and feeling it. But when we take the arguments upstairs, the kid sees the fight begin but never sees it amicably resolved, and that's hurting kids more.
In fact, Cummings' work is now showing, this most recent data, that kids who are exposed to constructive conflict, and it can be quite heated, but when it's resolved and worked out in front of the kids, those kids are being reported by teachers as having better well-being and better social skills, and sort of more adaptive in their environment at school. We need to - parents need to model for kids how to work through arguments - how to work it out.
GROSS: So are you suggesting parents fight in front of the kids and then hopefully they'll reach an end of the argument, have an amicable resolution, and the kid will learn from that?
Mr. BRONSON: Mark Cummings would never say, hey, go out and fight in front of your kids, it's a really good thing to do. He would say that, more that, don't pretend your kid isn't seeing some of your conflict. Parents believe they are sort of hiding their kids from this conflict but the kids can feel it. And so the important thing is to be aware when you did start something in front of your kids to then really try to model, for the benefit of the kids, working it out. And that might mean holding your tongue and enthusiastically trying to compromise in front of the kids so they can see from their parents how to do this with their own friendships.
GROSS: In your book "NurtureShock" you cite a really interesting study that compared, quote, progressive dads, traditional dads and disengaged dads, in their styles of parenting. What is meant by progressive dads?
Mr. BRONSON: Well, these are the modern fathers who are co-parenting, who can change a diaper one-handed and pop up the port-a-crib in 30 seconds and know how to, you know, feed the baby and put the baby to bed and are very actively involved in their children's lives.
GROSS: And a problem that emerged in this study is that the fathers who came under this category of progressive dad are having trouble - some of them, anyways, were having trouble disciplining their children. They didn't want to hit their children or scream at them of course, but they weren't sure what to do instead. What was the discomfort that they had with the idea of disciplining their children?
Mr. BRONSON: Progressive dads - they imagine this wonderful, you know, tight bond with their kids, and they haven't really thought about the fact that disciplining their kid is going to be part of the job. And they don't necessarily - they know how to be great to their kid and nice to their kid but they don't necessarily have a strategy for disciplining. And as a result they experiment as discipliners. They - one day they'll say well, you know, no dessert. And the next day they'll act really mean to their kid or angry or offended, trying to show their kid what they've done is wrong. And then the next day they'll withdraw some other privilege or say you have to go to bed early and it becomes very inconsistent.
And the science of disciplining your kids says the one mistake to make is to be inconsistent. Any form of consistent discipline is better than inconsistent discipline where you're losing your cool and you're confused. And as a result the children of progressive dads, when they were rated by teachers and others at their schools, were acting out or being just as aggressive as the children of disengaged dads.
GROSS: So did that surprise you?
Mr. BRONSON: Yeah. Because I'm a progressive dad for sure, and I saw myself in that data. I saw myself in Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan's data, that most of my childhood, or most of my kids' childhood - I wasn't really sure what to do about when problems came along and how to react to them. And I saw it and I learned to just calm down and make sure I'm being consistent and talk calmly to them and not lose my cool or lose my temper or not be offended when my kid, you know, does something wrong.
GROSS: So, as somebody who considers himself a progressive dad, were you having trouble being the disciplinarian with your children?
Mr. BRONSON: Yes. For my son and my daughter it was - I, like many of the progressive dads, experienced almost a sense of embarrassment that I'm in this situation, that I have to discipline my kid. Because I would've thought, you know, that as this modern parent doing all these supposedly good things for my kid, that they wouldn't be acting out at school. They wouldn't be causing problems. They wouldn't have joined in in the teasing of that boy. They wouldn't have pushed that girl.
GROSS: And they would've just, like, learned from your example as a good person.
Mr. BRONSON: Yeah. Because, you know, we're such lovely parents.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BRONSON: And so I was - I - and the way that I dealt with this, I do realize, I had been inconsistent. And seeing that portrait has really helped me sort of just calm down about this and be more consistent. And especially not act offended and not lose my cool.
GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Po Bronson and he's the co-author of the new book "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children." Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you are just joining us, my guest is Po Bronson. He has been writing about parenting for the past few years and his new book is called "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children." It's co-authored with Ashley Merryman. Let's move on to the issue of sleep, which you also write about in your book, "NurtureShock." And there's been some interesting studies on how sleep functions differently in children than in adults and the consequence of not have - consequences of not having enough sleep are different for children than adults.
Let's start with the fact that one study shows that children are sleeping an hour less than they did thirty years ago. How is that measured? How do they know that?
Mr. BRONSON: It's not a single study, that would be an aggregation of dozens of studies, work from the National Sleep Foundation amongst many other scholars have been looking at this. And when you look at the whole picture, you'll see a disturbing trend, which is that we all remembered not getting a lot of sleep when - certainly when we were in high school. In the last 30 years, we subtracted another hour from that. So, imagine what you used to get and how sleepy you were and then subtract an hour and that's what today's kids are doing. The average high schooler's sleeping 6.65 hours per night.
And the science is interesting here because it says that - sleep scientists will tell you, you should be sleeping without an alarm clock, you should be sleeping, you know, nine, 10 hours a night. Okay, I think that's not real. People aren't going to do that. But if you subtract the first hour, which is what we did when we were kids, you don't see a whole lot of impairment. But when you subtract the second hour, which is what we've done in the last 30 years, you see a huge steep falloff. And you see a dramatic sort of impairment of cognitive abilities and you see this sloshing over into other dimensions of children's lives.
GROSS: Are children sleeping less because school is starting earlier?
Mr. BRONSON: Many school districts, to save money, have gotten rid of the two fleets of buses. The old fleet - one fleet would take kids to the elementary school and the other fleet would take kids to the high schools. And by having a single fleet and starting high schools very early - 7:30, 7:15, 7:50 in the morning -those buses could then turn around, pick up the other set of kids in the elementary school and let them start at 8:30 or 9:00.
And so, yes, high schools are starting earlier and earlier around the country. And it's had a dramatic effect. A few districts - intrepid districts, looking at the science of sleep have - they've been willing to bite the bullet and trust the science, which I recognize isn't necessarily easy, and move their school start times back an hour. One of these districts in Minnesota did that and they saw the SAT scores for the best and the brightest in the district leap by over 200 points.
GROSS: Tell us some of the things that researchers have learned about the importance of sleep in children when they're learning?
Mr. BRONSON: Adults spend only four percent of the night in what's called slow-wave sleep. Kids spend 40 percent of their slumber in slow-wave sleep. We've always heard this idea that there's these different stages of sleep, you know, REM sleep, non-REM sleep, slow-wave. We're not really sure what those were for. Well, it turns out that these different phases of sleep are being used by the brain to take short-term memories and re-encode them as long-term memories to be recalled later. And different forms of memories are being re-encoded in the different stages of sleep. And it's - you know, children are especially vulnerable to sleep loss because it's cutting way down on their slow-wave sleep, when a lot of cognitive stuff is being encoded in their brain. And the result is that the sleepy kid not only is sort of tired, and therefore perseverates and can't maintain attention, but that their brain literally didn't get done encoding things.
GROSS: Are there other cognitive issues that have come out of sleep research?
Mr. BRONSON: You know, the surprise, Terry, is not that sleep matters, it's how much it matters and how little bits of difference can even - can matter as well. You know, Carskadon's data out of Rhode Island and Wahlstrom's data out of Minnesota shows that - I'll broadly characterize it here - that A students average 15 more minutes sleep than B students, who average 15 more minutes sleep than C students, and so on. Every 15 minutes can count.
And Dr. Avi Sadeh out of Tel Aviv University did some work where he had sixth graders and fourth graders get a little more sleep, half hour more sleep than they usually get, or a half hour less than they usually get, for three nights. And then he gave them intelligence tests. And the sleepy sixth graders were testing out like the fourth graders, that a loss of even three nights of sleep for a half hour each night was equal to the difference between a sort of a fourth grader and a sixth grader on the sort of subcomponent IQ tests.
And again there the idea was every half-hour counts. And we treat our children's sleep - I call it the slush hour before they go to bed - we sort of treat it like a national debt, you know, what's another 15 minutes on the bill? But we wanted to argue that when every 15 minutes counts, you know, maybe parents will now begin to pay attention to what's going on in that slush hour of their children's lives.
GROSS: So, what are the recommendations that have come out of this, in addition to the recommendation that schools should continue - should consider starting a little later, not starting at 7:15 or 7:30.
Mr. BRONSON: It seems so easy to say - oh, well let's go to bed earlier. I mean, science has been arguing that forever and people have been hearing that forever. And we're not listening to it. I hope if people understand that every 15 minutes counts, they might begin to trust some of the science and inch it back a little bit. In some ways this is one of those reductionist things, that the broad advice is, of all this incredible science, is this puny little advice point: go to bed earlier. It almost doesn't just- do justice to how interesting the science is.
GROSS: And it's just easier said than done, too.
Mr. BRONSON: It's certainly easier said for done. I mean, what we're fighting against is this notion in our society that resisting sleep is a character strength. Sleep is for wusses. And, you know, sleep when you're dead. And it's these mentalities that, you know, parents who are filling their kids' lives with so many activities and then the kids are bringing in all this technology and social networking and unwittingly we haven't really known the true cost of the sleep. And as their parents, we could say - yeah, I'm sleepy but I'm surviving. And what's important to note is that what's going on in your brain is an adult brain. What's going on in your kid's brain is quite different.
GROSS: Well, Po Bronson, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. BRONSON: Thank you, Terry. Really appreciate it.
GROSS: Po Bronson is the co-author of the new book, "NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children." You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.