About your kids and grand kids
Back when I used to listen to Dr. Laura as I was driving, someone made the mistake of telling her a child would not lie. She immediately disabused the caller of that argument, saying they lie all the time. Fortunately, they are usually not very good at it and if they are, they have a future as a Democrat politician.
For more than a century American parents—ever more distanced from grandmothers and suspicious of tradition—have looked to social science to explain their children to them. Thus they have gobbled up books and articles by experts who periodically deliver the latest truths about child-rearing. Back in 1945, when Dr. Spock published his "Baby and Child Care," readers' devotion to expert opinion was so intense that he began his book with the reassuring words: "Trust yourself." Not that he believed it. The book was jammed with advice.
Now, in "NurtureShock," Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman survey the newest new findings about child development. Little in the book is all that shocking, but given our enthusiasm for turning tentative child research into settled policy, the studies that the authors discuss are of more than passing interest.
A striking example is the latest research on self-esteem. As Mr. Bronson and Ms. Merryman remind us, the psychologist Nathaniel Brandon published a path-breaking paper in 1969 called "The Psychology of Self-Esteem" in which he argued that feelings of self-worth were a key to success in life. The theory became a big hit in the nation's schools; in the mid-1980s, the California Legislature even established a self-esteem task force. By now, there are 15,000 scholarly articles on the subject.
And what do they show? That high self-esteem doesn't improve grades, reduce anti-social behavior, deter alcohol drinking or do much of anything good for kids. In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be counterproductive. Many children who are convinced that they are little geniuses tend not to put much effort into their work. Others are troubled by the latent anxiety of adults who feel it necessary to praise them constantly.
The benefits of teaching tolerance and promoting diversity look equally unimpressive in the current research. According to "NurtureShock," a lot of well-meaning adult nostrums—"we're all friends," "we're all equal"—pass right over the heads of young children. Attempts to increase racial sensitivity in older students can even lead to unintended consequences. One researcher found that "more diversity translates into more divisions between students." Another warns that too much discussion of past discrimination can make minority children over-reactive to perceived future slights. As for trying to increase emotional intelligence, the education fad of the 1990s, it doesn't seem to promote "pro-social values" either. It turns out that bullies use their considerable EQ, as it is called, to control their peers.
You might assume from these examples that the authors want to make a point about our national gullibility in the face of faddish science. Unfortunately, they deconstruct yesterday's wisdom at the same time that they embrace today's—even when research is on the order of "do-we-really-need-a-$50,000-study-to-tell-us-this?" or of dubious practical value. Kids lie, they inform us. In fact, 4-year-olds lie once every hour. Still, Mr. Bronson and Ms. Merryman are impressed by research showing that "lying is an advanced skill," supposedly demonstrating both social and cognitive sophistication.
As for teenagers, well, they lie too. Parents shouldn't worry about them, though; they fib not because they want to get away with stuff they shouldn't be doing but because they don't want to upset mom and dad. Depending on your point of view, you might not be surprised to learn that permissive parents don't get more truth-telling from their teens than stricter parents. In any event, teens like conflict because, it is now claimed, they see it as enhancing their relationships with their parents.
While the book has problems of its own, it does demonstrate why schools are having so much trouble educating. They would be better off setting standards and holding teachers and students accountable for meeting those standards.