New-age parenting: Child-rearing tips from 'NurtureShock' authors

Apr 22, 2010

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children," will discuss why children lie, what factors can make or break their IQs and other topics addressed in the book.

Thank you so much for coming. I can't wait to "hear" what you are thinking about. I'm really looking forward to having a great discussion.

Dear Po and Ashley,

With so much interest in motivation, what have you learned about this? How should children be motivated in classrooms?

I feel that most children are inherently motivated, though some more intrinsically (they just want to learn), and some more extrinsically and competitively (they want to do better than their peers). Each year, in the early years, it might vary back and forth some -- all kids are aware of peer comparisons. The science of motivation in students shows that, generally, elementary school kids are well engaged, quite motivated, etc. In middle schools boredom becomes a big problem. The big difference is that in elementary schools, the kids are doing active work in class. By middle school, they're being asked to sit and listen to teachers more, and merely take notes. Motivation is almost always high when kids are actually doing work in class. So the lesson seems to be more active work in class, less lecturing. This work comes from David Shernoff, fyi.

When parents feel stuck in repetitive negative patterns with their kids, did your research show what kind of help works to break the cycle?

I think that is kind of hard to answer in the abstract. But I think that what might be helpful is to remember that kids are what was describe as a "moving target" developmentally. So they may be understanding problems differently, at different times, even though it feels to the parent as if the same argument is being had over and over again.

Do you want to tell us a bit more, so I can be a bit more specific in my answer?

Can you explain how parents should use praise effectively?

1.Don't be general or overly broad. Have your praise be specific to elements of their performance they should repeat. Steer their attention to their successful strategies.

2. Don't be disingenuous; they can tell.

3. Don't always be there with praise. Let them come to some conclusions on their own about their performance.

4. Don't ignore failure or pretend it doesn't exist (over time this stifles creativity, too).

5. You can tell your kids you love them all you want.

I have to ask, as I don't know your stand, but where do you fall on the spanking issue? Is it ever alright to at least slap a child to get their attention away from doing something harmful, or should it be avoided entirely? From your experience and research, does it ever work and, if so, when should it be allowed to happen?

Every scholar we've ever talked to believes that parents have other alternatives to spanking, and advocates those other alternatives. However, they recognize that it happens some. They also recognize that many adults have a hard time with this because they were spanked sometimes when they were young and turned out all right as people. Parents should know that spanking/not spanking is not the only issue here -- an important variable is parental anger, when disciplining. Being angry and screaming at kids (though not spanking them) is not the best route, either. No matter how you discipline, it seems to be key to make sure one does not send a message to a child that they are rejected, unloved and there is no place for them in the family.

I've already made some changes in the way I praise my three years old, in the way we talk about race, and in what I allow her to watch on television. But I have to ask, are these findings fully accepted or is there an equal amount of data saying it really doesn't matter? Did you get a lot of push back from people who don't trust science or who see it as an attack on their parenting?

That's a great question -- thank you for asking it! In a word, yes. We only chose to write about things that have been accepted by the scientists working in the child development field -- but that just hadn't left their circle yet.  At the same time, we also took care to get confirmation of the science from a number of different disciplines -- so we didn't just take some psychologists word for it. We'd listen to them, and then track down neurologists or sociologists and every other expert we could find working on the topic to see if there was a cross-disciplinary agreement. It was that consensus that gave us the confidence to write about what we did.

My 2-year-old daughter currently goes to a nice daycare three days a week. The staff is pleasant enough and my daughter seems (mostly) happy there. However, a daycare with an exceptional reputation -- I can't find ANY reports that aren't glowing, they have a waiting list many years long -- just told us they have a spot open. She's been with the kids and teachers in her current daycare since she was 9 months old. I don't know what to expect with her regarding a transition to a new place. Is it worth it to make the transition to the new place, if we're mostly happy with the place she's in now? Will my daughter be bereft about the change? Am I overthinking this?

Interesting question. We would have to know more details. We have seen research on preschools where the teachers move up with the children, from age 1 to 2 to 3 and 4, etcetera -- same teacher the whole time. On average, this provides some benefits, which would argue that consistency and constancy are important for kids. Nevertheless, millions of kids attend one nursery school or day care, then progress to a preschool or pre-K program. So, it's a matter of what, actually, this highly touted preschool provides, and also matters about the personality of your child. Does she show strong shyness, social adversity, such that making a transition would be hard on her?

I wonder if children can be trained to not lie? We always made it clear that honesty was the best policy -- if we caught our daughter in a lie, she knew that the punishment would be much worse than if she told the truth/took responsibility, etc. She's turned out to be a very honest person and has said that she didn't want to risk getting caught in a lie.  Of course, this may not work with all kids -- we have a friend who is raising a teen grandchild who just seems to enjoy lying, no matter what the consequences. I suggested enrolling her in a creative writing class.

Well, it depends on the age of the kid, of course. But yes, how parents/caregivers respond to lies will certainly increase or decrease their prevalency. Threats of punishment can actually increase lying (and kids to be better at it), but explaining the value of honesty is great for kids to hear. Makes them more willing to be truthful.


The problem is when kids see that lying is a successful way of coping with difficult social situations -- that's a pattern that is a real problem, and needs to be addressed so that they don't use use that as their default social strategy.

As for the teen, you might want to consider if this is a new pattern of lying -- or something she's done for a while. If it's a change, it may be a symptom that there is something going on in her life -- a change that she is having trouble dealing with.

My 23-month-old daughter still uses a pacifier, and often likes to carry her stuffed elephant around. She's a happy and social kid, but perhaps a tad clingier in new situations than most kids. Anyway, her daycare and my husband think it's time for her to stop with the paci and "lovey," at least during the day. I think it's a tough world, she should get her comfort where she can and the comfort objects aren't hurting her. She doesn't use her paci much during the day, just when she's upset. Am I overindulging her, or denying her an opportunity to mature? She's just so little.

Just so you know, I'm answering this question personally, not on the basis of any particular research I've seen. But I'm sorta with you. I think she should be allowed to bring her lovey and paci to day care, halve a little time with it, and learn to put it away and not be a distraction during certain times of the day. Then, perhaps, be allowed to get it out again for naps, and prior to going home. But not even bringing it to school/day care is sorta a cold turkey approach I don't really support. By 4, they ought to be able to bring it to school and stow it away all day, and perhaps by 5 recognize it should be left at home.

So how should I deal with my toddler's lying? For example, she doesn't want to brush her teeth. She told me this morning, "I already brushed my teeth today." She's only 2 and a half, so maybe she's not clear on the meaning of "today". But there are other examples. For the moment, I've been saying, "That's not true, and you must not say things that aren't true." Is there a better response?

I would say something like, "It would make me really happy if you told me the truth." Focus on how great telling the truth is, rather than the badness of the lie.  Or ask her to promise to tell the truth, before you ask a question. That also underscores the importance of honesty.

The main thing to remember is don't ask questions that you already know the answer:  "Did you brush your teeth?" when you know she didn't. Because at that point, you've pretty much asked her to lie.

I teach at a large state university in Florida. I have a news flash for parents who did not encourage their teen to work in high school -- "they are too busy" -- and did their laundry, chores, lawn work for them, for the same reason. These hothouse flowers whine about assignments, burst into tears at a low grade and leave class early to attend sporting events. Those who manage to attend class and stay for the duration are absorbed in Facebook and their playlist for at least half the time. If I block the classroom computers to capture their attention they just pull out smartphones. Get a clue. Your powderpuff kids avoid work, have short attention spans and are wasting your tuition dollars.

Yikes. I hate hearing stories like that! Well, we are trying to get the word out that kids need to develop autonomy. If it isn't in work, it could be in coaching other kids, leadership roles in schools -- so that they develop a sense of self-efficacy. It's self-efficacy, that really is such a key, and seems to be undervalued out there.

(We talk about the work of FSU prof Roy Baumeister all the time, btw)

Re: the cognitive ability: This is what makes me wonder why kids lie when we keep catching them. I think to myself "you need a better memory to pull this off." They'll also keep denying the truth even when shown evidence. E.g. "I wasn't listening to my iTouch last night." Well, what were those things I pulled from your ears at 1.30am this morning? Books stress the need to form a bond of trust with your child, but what do you do when they're not reciprocating with honesty? P.S. I read and enjoyed Mr Bronson's book -- twice.

Thanks, re: reading our book twice! (ashley and I are equal partners in this).

From your examples (itouch, earbuds, 1:30 am) it sounds like you're talking about a teen, and a teen has plenty of memory/working memory, and at that age it's not at all about cognitive ability (that's only relevant around age 2 to 4 yrs old). Sounds like the teen you speak of has developed a habit. So, what to do? Good question. The science says it's not just about having rules and enforcing them - you must do some of that, but in other domains of their life you must 1) trust them with responsibility, and 2) do everythign you can to make it clear you are encouraging them to take good risks, get out in the world, and attempt to be an adult. Parents who are encouraging their teen's autonomy (in certain spheres) are usually rewarded with more honesty in other spheres. It's important to note that many teens feel that using an itouch is sorta a personal domain, which should be none of their parent's business, and it's psychologically emasculating to feel the hovering there. But in matters of safety, or applying to college, they might really want your input and help.

I just started reading your book. I have a six-week-old daughter and am going to be a stay-at-home mom for at least her first six months. What is the most important thing I can do with this time to give her a good start in life? She seems happy and healthy right now, and as first time parents my husband and I want to keep her that way and give her every advantage we can without spoiling her. Thanks!

Other than lots of love, food, sleep ...

The last chapter of the book is about how children acquire language. It steps out the process of being attentive and responding to infant's utterances, be that with a verbal response or a loving touch of the hand. This encourages the child up through the progression of babble.

And it's also good to make sure she's getting interaction time, with other kids, other adults, their brains in that first year are really learning to understand the nuances of faces, so much so a lot of optical cortex brain -- which might go to recognizing and undertanding objects -- gives itself over to face nuance recognition. Eye contact!

I loved the book as soon as I got it. As I read it, I found a lot of the data and conclusions you shared could easily be seen from an unschooling parent's eyes. Do you think what information you shared is similar to what unschoolers promote? For example, they believe their children already have the tools to learn things themselves outside of the classroom instead of being forced. They also believe their children learn from small, daily activities more than they would learn from compulsory bookwork. Just curious, thought I'd see if you had any perspective on that whatsoever.

I haven't really seen that much research on unschooling. The primary reason being that it's awfully hard to study - every kid's experience will be different - the parents who choose to unschool have particular reasons for doing so, different backgrounds.

I do think that kids need to, as I mentioned a moment ago, to learn self-efficacy. And that kids also need to be motivated / interested in what they are doing to really learn it.

However, kids also really benefit from structure. It becomes a scaffold from which they can explore. (If there are no rules, they actually some point just decide that the grown-ups don't care enough about them to set rules.) So I guess I would say that it really depends on just how much /little of unschooling there was.

I'm also concerned about that if kids in an unschooling program may miss out on developing social skills because they're being exposed to such an unpredictable environment.

Getting our 13-year-old boy motivated is a real challenge. He's a good student, but seems happy to settle for low Bs if getting an A requires extra effort. It's tough to get him to work hard and show some diligence no matter what the task. Advice?

That's hard -because without knowing more, I often hear about kids who are unmotivated, but the truth is that they are really frustrated, so they're sort of giving up. Then there are other kids who are simply bored. But without knowing any other details....

If you can, I would change the focus away from the grade, and how much he learned from the task. Did he learn as much as he could? Did he do the best that he could? So he doesn't use a given grade as a target, and when he gets there, can slack off.

I'd also try and see if there are ways you can make the work he's unmotivated by, more exciting. If he likes soccer, for example, can you make up math word problems that relate to soccer?

Or perhaps simply break up his homework sessions with some board games you can play with him (I like Qwirkle and Blink) that will get him more motivated and engaged.

My son is turning 2. I have no idea when I am supposed to start potty training. Also, what is the best method for doing this? My friends and family have all done the bribing method (M&Ms, toy cars, etc.). Is there a "new-age" parent way of doing this. I do not look forward to this process at all.

We haven't seen true social science research devoted to the best way to potty train, we've only seen anecdotal stories by "experts" who suggest this or that way works, often, for many kids. But we have seen a lot of science about how bribing kids and rewarding them with toys puts them on a path towards an extrinsic orientation, so, those methods might prove to be necessary, but one probably shouldn't come out of the gate with them. Most boys will potty train around 2.5 to 3.5 yrs old, some parents find they can make it happen earlier, but it often is a lot more work, and then of course there are always kids who potty train later - without any negative effects down the line. Again, it's important that there be no parental anger shown around this process.

Is there a difference in the reason why a 4-year-old lies and why an older child lies?

Another great question.

Younger kids usually lie because they want to make the caregiver happy - they want to tell you what they think you want to hear.

They also want to avoid being punished.

For adolescents - according to Oberlin College's Nancy Darling, most teens say they lie to parents because they don't want to damage the relationship - they don't want you to think less of them.... And they don't want to get punished.

Another twist for older kids - only 25% of a teen's lies are straight to your face lies - instead they are usually lies of omission. And in that case, some of it is about protecting the relationship, but some of it is also about them believing there are some parts of their life that they are entitled to keep private - they just don't have to tell you. There it gets to what specifically is going on - the key with older kids is that they test you with small problems. To see your response. If you freak out, then they become more reluctant to tell you about the bigger problems.


What are your thoughts on children missing important milestones while growing up? Our son, who is now 23 and on his own, never once had a girlfriend, didn't attend prom, and never even went on a date. I know these are just artificial moments that society just came up with throughout history, but should we have paid more attention to him missing them while he was still our responsiblity? I don't think he's a very well adjusted adult because since he moved out a year ago, he hasn't made a single friend, or even acquantance. We're really second guessing ourselves now.

We would need to know more ...

You know, some milestones are artificial, but others aren't. Having a first best friend, and learning to individuate from one's family, is not artificial - it's normal, it's limbic, it's hormone related.

I think a child can miss all the artificial milestones if they are making other milestones of their own - do they have genuine interests, enjoyments, passions? Have the developed specific competence in some areas of their lives? If so, these can compensate, over the long term, for all the others.

My kid has a favorite stuffed toy that has traveled everywhere -- and attended four years of college! It lives on her bed and is just part of the normal decoration.   I think it's a constant as she's moved around in life.  Unless it becomes a big issue, please let her continue with the elephant.

My 17-month old toddler like to hide behind the shower curtain as my wife and I call to him and pretend to look for him. Is his hiding a lie of sorts? Is our pretending also a form of a lie?

I love this question!  Actually, it's really funny. Most kids see lying in very black and white terms - if it is factually incorrect it's a lie - it doesn't matter if you even made an honest mistake.

However, there seems to be this category of lies that the researchers call "trick lies" - these are exactly like you describe - and these, yes, the kid considers this playing, and that it isn't a lie, because you're supposed to know it's said in fun.

The same goes for when he suddenly says "Daddy, there's someone at the door!" but there isn't anyone there.

Any tips on teaching responsibility? I'm especially interested in hearing about it as it relates to carrying over into the classroom.

Interesting question. Just last night, I was re-reviewing all the science on homework, vs some of the gut guesses and common sense about homework. One of the things the science says is that in elementary school years, there's no correlation between amount of time spent doing homework and results on achievement tests at the end of the year (doing homework, however, for a specific class does help a child do better in that class itself). But that doesn't mean don't give any homework at all, necessarily. (the science could be thrown off by the fact smart kids do homework faster, and slower kids take longer, which is the common sense adjustment). Even then, teachers can give small amounts of homework simply because it teaches kids to work independently, to self discipline themselves, to manage their time, and take responsibility - all of which are important, and all of which will be especially crucial when they hit the years where homework studying really does matter (starting in junior high, really).

Just to add to what Po said - when I'm tutoring kids, I try to find ways within an assignment to boost their sense of responsibility. Instead of proofreading a paper, and handing it back with a bunch of red marks, I say "There's a misspelled word in line 5 - can you find it?" Nine times out of ten, they can, and they can correct it. It's about teaching them to pay more attention to what they are doing.

I am a teacher and a parent. As a teacher, I enthusiastically recommend "What Should I Do With My Life?" to my students (and probably give three copies a year as gifts). As a parent, though, I wonder whether the advice in that book isn't also applicable to parenting: there are no road maps to parenting, so follow the dictates of your values and experiences and don't be guided by others' expectations. (I sometimes think that parents and expectant parents are over-advised about child-rearing, especially affluent folks like Post readers.) Does that sound consistent with what you report in your book?

thanks re: WSIDWML!

You know, re: trusting your instincts, I was talking about this with Michel Martin on her NPR show "Tell Me More." She was using the hypothetical, "what if a mom comes to the playground with her daughter, and her instinct tells her to instruct her kid to stay away from brown-skinned children, not to make friends with them?"

She shouldn't trust those instincts!

What important to note is that most Post readers, the kind who'd come online today, are highly likely to be "authoritative parents." they reason with their kids, they express lots of love and affection, they challenge their kids but are also supportive of their kids. And this style of parenting is, overall, exceedingly good for kids. So, generally yes - just being that kind of parent is going to get a kid 90 or 95% of the way there.

We didn't write NurtureShock to appeal to the panic or fear out there among parents, or to provoke more fears. We wrote it because we find kids to be inherently magical and amazing. And the science makes kids even more interesting. It doesn't take away the mystery, but it can guide us.


It looks like we're out of time.

Thanks so much - and hope to do it again soon!

I think we're supposed to be off, here, at the top of the hour - so thanks for coming!

Don't parents often lie by exaggerating the harm of not getting into the right college, for instance, or the harm of smoking marijuana? Why shouldn't kids lie too? Show me an honest parent and maybe you'll find an honest kid.

I agree that kids definitely emulate their parents' truthfulness. I don't know if it is so much the issue in the examples you mentioned, though: I think those are topics that parents might also believe those harms are very real.

Sorry -- no question -- just wanted to let Ashley know she ROCKED last night at Burgundy Farm. Very entertaining, informative, empowering and mind-blowing! I continue to spread the word about your new way of thinking that I hope becomes the norm. ( I was the one BTW who said how 'bout we do away with the trophies and the party favors...) Thanks so much.

Oh, thank you  - that's very sweet of you! I had a great time, myself!

I'll bite: why do young children lie? I often suspect there is some mind development pattern where they seem to think it is somehow "easier" to come up with some lie that makes more sense to them than it is to tell what they know is the truth, even on matters where the truth is not anything that would get them into trouble.

Well, that's a lot to tackle in one question, I'll start it off, and we can come back to flesh this out, all right?

First, you have to ask how old the kids are, that you are talking about.  You're right that there are definitely developmental factors at work, but at least for young kids, the "easier to lie" isn't a factor. In fact, lying is actually quite difficult because it requires a lot of cognitive ability to think up a lie and remember it.

For young kids, the first reason they lie is to make a parent/caregiver happy. They lie to cover up a wrongdoing, and think that by telling you want you want to hear, everything's all right. They also lie to avoid punishment.

For adolescents, the lying is easier does sort of come into play - but there - what's actually easiest of all are lies of omission. They just don't tell you anything at all.

In This Chat
Ashley Merryman
Ashley Merryman is the co-author of "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children" and an attorney living in Los Angeles.
Po Bronson
Po Bronson is the co-author of "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children" and five other books, including "What Should I Do With My Life?".
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