Call me unbalanced, but parenting books exert a schizoid power over my brain. While my “eager-beaver, wanna be a better mommy” personality yearns to devour these ubiquitous how-to manuals, the other side of me — call her Ms. Easily Unimpressed — smells a rat and turns up her nose.
“You can’t fool me with your bogus generalizations about my children,” I silently critique the grinning author on the back flap. “You don’t even know them.”
Eventually, the curious, more gullible me wins out, and I crack open the cover only to come across the first patently inane assertion and drop the book mid-sentence, never to be picked up again.
Thus, like many parents I know, I’ve read parts of dozens of these tracts on raising happier, smarter, more responsible children, but finished precious few. It’s not that they are so inherently bad — it’s just that they all seem to have an ax to grind that says a heck of a lot more about the authors’ desire for a really cool ax (or their own professional biases) than the many nuances of real-life parenting. The psychologists prescribe innovative therapeutic solutions; the learning specialists recommend new-fangled mental calisthenics. Eventually, the authors let their bias show.
This is when a parent shrinks back and wonders: Why am I outsourcing my most important job to a paperback?
NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, offers a welcome respite from the unified field theory of parenthood. As journalists — he’s a writer/dad, she’s the director of a tutoring center for inner-city kids in Los Angeles — they both have a stake in discovering useful strategies for raising children and encouraging their learning. But since they aren’t experts in a single field, they can afford to focus on the most promising new ideas to emerge from recent studies.
The book is worth reading. (If that’s not glowing praise from an overemployed parent with young children, I don’t know what is.) But just in case you can’t get around to it this weekend, here are a few golden nuggets:
Call kids smart, and you damage them for life
Just kidding! But the research is clear: Labeling kids with even positive innate attributes can undermine their confidence in their own ability to tackle difficult problems. Stanford University’s Carol Dweck observed that children who were told they were intelligent shied away from greater challenges, while another group of kids who were praised for their stick-to-itiveness attempted to solve more-difficult problems and often succeeded. This, Dweck has theorized, exemplifies the difference between a “fixed mindset,” in which the mind is viewed as a receptacle of a certain amount of inborn talent and intelligence, and a “growth mindset,” in which the mind is regarded as a muscle that can become stronger with effort.
Waking up to our giant sleeping issue
Did you know that on average teens in the United States now get an hour less sleep than they did 100 years ago? Bronson and Merryman plunge into the research about sleep and children’s cognitive acuity to argue that what we attribute to a “cranky teenager” personality disorder may really be a nationwide case of sleep deprivation. Studies show that just a few sleepless nights can make a huge difference in academic performance. Other researchers have found a correlation between early starting times at high schools and lower student performance, leading some school districts to change their schedules. Finally, the authors look at the research that suggests extreme athletic schedules, piles of homework, and screen-time diversions are causing a national teen-sleep debt approaching our national deficit.
Lying cheats every last one of them
We may think our children don’t lie — or at least the older ones don’t — but that’s wrong, wrong, double wrong, say Bronson and Merryman. Adult assumptions about children and lying are wildly off the mark, even when it comes to parents assessing their own kids’ honesty. Most people assume that younger children — around 4 or 5 — are less reliable and that boys lie more often than girls, but studies by Victoria Talwar of McGill University suggest that older kids lie more and that girls fib every bit as much as boys. What’s more interesting, our attempts to teach children honesty often do quite the opposite: The reason older kids lie more often is that they’ve learned from us. Talwar discovered that white lies, softened criticism, and broken promises (pro forma adult behavior) all fall into the big-lie category in the minds of young children.
So how do you get kids not to lie — or at least to readily confess if they do? Tell them that you won’t punish them for the infraction and that they will make you happy by telling the truth. Kids who think they might get punished or disappoint their parents will continue lying to avoid negative consequences.
Sibling rivalry theory
Are kids with sibs better socialized than their sib-free counterparts? The research is definitive: It depends. Come again, you say? It depends on how those siblings treat one another: Those who fight more learn to be aggressive, while those who interact cooperatively learn positive social skills. Laurie Kramer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been trying to crack the code on sibling rivalry for decades. Her studies have attempted to improve sibling relationships in the long term — not by ridding the relationships of all conflict, but by increasing the siblings’ positive connection via fun play and cooperation. According to Kramer, siblings can learn to build more-positive relationships by learning skills developed in close friendships: creative play, negotiation, and flexibility.
Hey kid: Control yourself!
Though hundreds of well-funded courses designed to curb risky behavior (like drug use or reckless driving) show little efficacy, there’s a new preschool paradigm called Tools of the Mind that seems to have discovered a working recipe for teaching tykes to regulate their impulses. Why is that so important, aside from our not wanting to raise another generation of tailgating, crack-smoking adults? Because self-control turns out to be a hugely important skill. Some research has found that self-discipline is more predictive of academic success than IQ scores.
Indeed, as Merryman and Bronson point out, Tools of the Mind has been so successful that it can’t keep its funding for underperforming children. The tricky thing about replicating its success at home is that the program employs lots of strategies — from having kids plan their own imaginative play to having them correct each other’s work — and it’s hard to know which of them are the most successful. But the general idea, applicable to anyone from 2 to 20, is that when kids acquire higher-thinking skills — planning their own projects, self-assessment techniques, creative play, and team building — it accelerates their basic academic learning too.
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October 2012 / Teens
Why teens lie
Teens and dishonesty
Parents often desire emotional closeness with their teens, which should cultivate honesty in their relationships. But research shows that a shockingly high percent of teens lie, and not always for the reasons you may think.
In their 2009 book, “Nurture Shock,” authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman summarize the findings of Dr. Nancy Darling as they deconstruct the science of teen rebellion in an eye-opening chapter about lying.
One of the most shocking statistics revealed is the sheer number of teens who lie: 96 percent!
Does that mean parents are misjudging the quality of the relationship or love shared with their teen? Probably not.
To understand the discrepancy, we must understand a little more about why kids are lying and what — if anything — parents can do.
Why they lie
Darling, of Penn State University, studied high schoolers and learned that 96 percent of them hid the truth from their parents. What were they lying about? She found that teens lie about what they spend allowance on, whether their homework is done, whether they are dating, the clothes they wear away from home, the movie they’re seeing, and with whom they’re spending time. They also lie about drinking and drug use, what music they listen to, how they spend afternoons, whether a party is being supervised, and riding in a car driven by a drunk teen.
Are you thinking that your honor student probably lies less? Well, it turns out that kids who lie don’t fall into one demographic — honor students, overscheduled kids — they all reported deception. Of 36 potential topics, the average teen lies to his parents about 12 of them.
Bronson and Merryman report that:
• Teens reported telling an outright lie 25 percent of the time.
• Teens reported avoiding the topic 25 percent of the time.
• Teens reported simply withholding relevant details about 50 percent of the time.
Before her research, Darling admits that she believed kids probably lied to avoid getting into trouble. So, she says, it was surprising to learn that the most common reason for the teens’ deception was actually: “I’m trying to protect the relationship with my parents; I don’t want them to be disappointed in me.”
They do love you. But in their mind, loving you might mean protecting you — by lying.
And Darling says she was surprised by the number of parents with anxiety about pushing their kids into rebellion.
“Many parents today believe the best way to get teens to disclose is to be more permissive and not set outright rules,” she indicates.
However, being permissive does not open the door to learning more about a teen’s life! When parents lower their standards, teens interpret the lack of rules to mean parents don’t care and don’t want the job of being a parent. It definitely does not pay to be permissive.
Should you be worried?
For many parents who fear that their already rebellious tweens will be more rebellious in their teenage years, you may actually not have to worry.
Research in Bronson and Merryman’s book suggests that teens objecting to their parents’ authority peaks at around age 14 to 15. What is shocking is that this need for autonomy is stronger at age 11 than at age 18! So if you’ve been thinking the high school years are the high-risk years, think again.
Most parents get stressed out by arguing with their teens, but Bronson and Merryman note that it appears that in families with the least amount of lying, there is a higher ratio of arguing or complaining. Why? Teens don’t necessarily see arguing and fighting as harmful or destructive.
The authors suggest the flipside to arguing for many teens is lying! So, a teen can lie to the parent and then go do what he wants behind the parent’s back, or argue — in his mind, negotiate with his parent — and avoid lying. More than anything else, it seems to be most important to the teen how an argument gets resolved and whether he feels heard.
The research suggests teenagers are destined to lie about some things, but there are some ways parents can create a climate so their teens lie about less.
“The parents who are the most consistent in enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids,” indicates Darling. Such parents set a few key rules (it’s too unrealistic and impossible to enforce 20 rules) and explain why the rules are in place. By doing so, these parents demonstrate flexibility.
This spirit of collaboration encourages teens not to lie. Extend freedom to your teen so he can make his own decisions. Instead of hiding 12 areas from you, he might only be hiding as few as five.
Michele Ranard has a husband, two teens, and a master’s in counseling.
Bronson, Po and Merryman, Ashley. “NurtureShock.” Hachette, 2009.
Updated 4:38 pm, December 9, 2016
©2012 Community News Group