Sister Bernadette was having none of my hijinks. Her face was as old and gray as her patience, and time was running out on both. Usually when my first grade self got a bit “bold” (Sister’s favorite word for me), a swift and decisive reaction from her was enough to get me in my seat. This day, though, I was on a roll. I had the class in stitches, and like any good comedian I wanted to ride it out. I was incorrigible.
Sister Bernadette, in a rare gutsy move I hadn’t seen before or since, made me stand in front of her desk facing the class in a waste paper basket. The message: “You’re garbage.” Sister was betting on my ability to be embarrassed.
This old school nun was not a good gambler. She made two fatal mistakes: 1. She overestimated my moral sense. 2. She underestimated my ingenuity. She had me stand with my back to her and my face to the crowd. Immediately I was miming and moving my hands, continuing to make the class laugh. She told me to stand straight with my arms locked at my sides. I stood perfectly still. Except for my face. I started contorting my mouth, nose and eyes in all sorts of crazy shapes. More laughs!
The basket was then moved to the side of her desk where I could face her. That’s when pure boredom set in. Still, I wasn’t absorbing the lesson, until my older brother came in the classroom with a message from his 4th grade teacher. In hindsight, Sister must have, without my notice, summoned my brother down on a messenger ruse. This was a devastatingly clever strategic move on her part, because the thought of my mother knowing about this incident terrified me to the point of pure panic. Instant, hysterical tears came pouring out of me and I lost my breath. The beating that awaited me when I returned home would be so severe I wouldn’t be able to sit for a week. Sister Bernadette finally seemed satisfied and I was permitted to go back to my seat. Lesson learned. I never acted up that much again in her classroom.
In his new book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, New York Times journalist Paul Tough presents research about the importance of traits like resilience, optimism, self-control, and conscientiousness to long term success. These characteristics appear to be more important than early-intervention academic support for long term success in children growing up under the poverty line. Tough, an education reform reporter and author of the poverty-reform call-to-arms book Whatever It Takes, cites studies that give a different view on what schools, parents and the government can do to break the poverty cycle through education; success, these studies say, lies not in early intervention and implementation of traditional cognitive skills (reading, math) but by teaching the “non-cognitive” skills that noteworthy people appear to have in abundance since toddlerhood.
This “strong character” argument in education is nothing new. Parochial schools and many elite private schools use “building character” as a selling point as much today as they did 200 years ago. Tough reports that the current education system’s shift away from inculcating character traits toward teaching to standardized testing (the
quantitative measurement of basic academic skills) only took hold in the 20th century. This skill-measuring approach was solidified by the most recent testing-on-steroids No Child Left Behind program. And, Tough notes, it is just easier to test skills like reading, addition and subtraction. “Soft-skills” are harder to quantify. How does one judge a child’s self-control? How do you measure curiosity? What defines “grit” in a first grader?
Enter the Marshmallow test. It turns out there are ways to measure character traits. This famous test, conducted by researcher Walter Mischel in 1972 at Stanford University, put one large, yummy marshmallow in front of a 4-year-old, then instructed the child to wait to eat the treat. If she could wait for 10 short minutes, the researcher said, she would have two marshmallows, but only if she waited the whole time. If she couldn’t wait, she could ring a bell and the researcher would come back and the preschooler could eat the one marshmallow.
Some preschoolers made it through the ten minutes, some didn’t. There were varying lengths of tolerance, of course. None of this is very interesting. The mind-blowing part of this study was what Mischel and others learned years later. It turns out that the length of time the 4-year-old waited directly correlated to her level of achievement decades later. The kids who could wait were more likely to graduate from high school, avoid teen pregnancy, and dodge other pitfalls, then go on to college and eventually earn more. The researchers studied the tapes and discovered the successful delayers had creative ways to distract themselves from the tempting treat. Some sang songs, some turned their backs to the marshmallow, others played with their hands. One kid even napped. The kids who couldn’t hold off for even just a little bit tended to fall into the nightmares that poverty can bring, dropping out, drugs, crime, and early sexual intercourse. The message was clear: the early character skill of being able to delay gratification was essential to accomplish long-term goals.
Tough cites some similar thought-provoking examples of this character research that ended up delivering the question of measurable traits to neuroscientists. Neuroscientists love their EEG’s, PET scans, CAT scans and functional MRI’s, and they employed the tech to discover if any brain variations were happening between the successful kids and the “at-risk” youth the education system tries so desperately to help. The tech showed some disturbing results: brain anatomy is altered, yes, physically altered, by stress. Repeated stress introduced into early lives can prevent the construction of the pathways children need in order to develop good character traits and solid cognitive skills.
This isn’t to say that those pathways can’t be generated later. If lower-income parents, Tough posits, can learn some theories and practices adopted from the attachment parenting movement, the children’s brains can recover and the kids can thrive and succeed even whilst living in poverty. There is some evidence to support this, and Tough gives some real world examples of what an “attachment to build character” program looks like. He also spends quite a large chunk of the book studying unique and wildly successful inner-city chess clubs as well as some pathway-to-college programs in Chicago’s poverty-ridden districts.
How Children Succeed is pretty compelling. Tough is a seasoned writer. He frames the dry research with rich profiles of educators and academics. His stories of students affected by these programs pull at your heartstrings.
Personally, the book brought me back to fundamental questions that come with being a parent in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia. No child I know is struggling with poverty. The kids here attend very well-ranked public and private schools. Despite their secure middle-class lives, these children’s bad behavior frustrates me almost daily. Not only would the majority of these kids not be able to wait 5 seconds for the marshmallow, they would not be able to keep their hands off the bag as the researcher opened it. I couch my complaints to my husband as “lack of discipline” but Tough’s book peels that onion back a bit more and reminds me these children lack fundamental character traits. And indeed, Tough mentions how this dearth can affect more affluent children, especially those born to classic “helicopter” parents (attachment parents gone astray). I worry for the preschool children who torture their infant siblings, I am concerned for the kids who can’t sit in a restaurant, or those who simply cannot allow their parent two quiet minutes for an important phone call. These parents, in a misguided effort to shield their children from suffering, are creating self-control-free mini-tyrants. We all worry for the future of our country when we’re standing in line behind these little monsters at Whole Foods. A little character-trait training could do us all some good.
That fateful day in the beginning of my first grade year, I rode the bus home in fearful silence. I dragged my feet when my two older brothers got off the bus with the dozen (wild!) public school kids that also lived in the dilapidated apartment complex across from an equally dilapidated US Army depot. It was still September, my first month at the small club that was Monsignor McHugh Elementary school and here I was, already labeled garbage. My brothers were home probably for a full minute before I got to the door. I expected one of my mother’s famous full-on, thick-leather-70’s-belt blitzes, but all I got was the typical (and contradictory) “I-miss-my-baby-all-day” smothering. My brother didn’t rat me out. He let me dodge a bullet, and I always respected him for it. I learned loyalty and compassion from him that day.
My parents divorced when I was in 4th grade. We stayed in that apartment complex, my brothers and I sharing a room, until I was 12-years-old. Life was stressful, but my brother had just enough rare moments of precocious wisdom to carry me through to adulthood. I chafed every single teacher at Msgr. McHugh and at my catholic high school, but there were a few strong, trustworthy folks there who provided me with some solid footing. And early in my life, my bond with my mother was good enough to create the brain I needed for success.
My neighbors weren’t so lucky. By the time I was in second grade, I could feel myself pulling away from my playmates by leaps and bounds. They would spend any loose change immediately on candy; I would save it. They would play pranks and steal little things here and there, and I would walk by myself in the woods. I would read; they would watch hours upon hours of TV. By the time we left the complex when I was 12, I was college bound and they were running with crowds that would lead them down tragic paths. The discrepancy was painfully apparent. An old neighbor stopped my mother in the grocery store, years later, to ask how she managed to get me off to college when her granddaughter, my childhood friend, was pregnant by the time she turned 16. My mother couldn’t do anything but shake her head. She often had the same question.
In How Children Succeed, Paul Tough may have just offered the answer. (less)
**spoiler alert** I don't want to rain on a parade here; I see most of the reviews are glowing. I do have a few comments, though, as to why I thought...more**spoiler alert** I don't want to rain on a parade here; I see most of the reviews are glowing. I do have a few comments, though, as to why I thought the book was only "OK."
Here are three main "mehs" I have with the book (I have more but these are my main ones):
1. The author doesn't truly get the point of her whole experiment until page 293 or so, and even then, Wyma hardly has a true grasp on the concept. Our behaviors, as humans, affect one another and in turn our own well-being. Common courtesy, empathy, resilience, and grit are the survival characteristics Wyma is truly teaching; these are the very core skills we need to be good people, and Wyma only touches upon this idea toward the end of the book. Granted, she is no child-psychology expert, but still... I'd expect a bit more insight sooner rather than later from someone who used to hold high-powered jobs. (And on a side note here, I felt like the Christianity was thrown in for marketing purposes. Not much of it sounded sincere).
2. Basic economic theory and behavioral theory is ignored. Never pay for chores. There are many, many writings that debunk the misguided notion of pay or allowance for children's household work, showing that it is a law of quickly decreasing returns with a backlash of inflation in the mix. Again, this woman is no expert, but it's disappointing to see an educated, privileged woman fall into famously debunked myths. For more information, see Freakonomics or any of Dan Ariely's work. Also, the other hidden side of this chore experiment is nagging. To avoid nagging and deal out more relevant (not monetary) immediate consequences, see How to Talk So Kids Will Listen by Faber & Mazlish.
3. Wyma's "experiment" is just a version of helicopter parenting. Stay with me here, it's a bit hard to explain. Throughout the book, Wyma insists her children are being handed a disservice when she does all the errands, tasks, housework, etc., without the children's help. In the beginning of the book Wyma admits she skipped the teaching sessions because it was easier for her to do things herself. She chided herself for raising privileged kids, as if the only way to teach children to be responsible is to break your back instructing them on how to do daily tasks. I don't owe my children a correct bathroom-cleaning technique. That is something they will pick up in time. I do owe them their best shot in life, and doing chores builds skills toward grabbing that best shot, but I need to take care of my entire family as well as myself. My kids will learn the skills in the book as they grow, because I raise them to be empathetic, resilient and hard-working. I think it's OK if parents decide to post-pone the gas pumping lessons forever, especially if they need to get to work on time.
Here are three main "WAY TO GOs":
1. Wyma learns how to stop underestimating her children. Human children are capable of a lot. Most of the time they are left to exercise their manipulation skills, all under the guise of "Oh, he's a just baby, he doesn't know any better." You wouldn't say this if you've seen all the research as well as all the anecdotal evidence I've seen about the animal kingdom and human children. They're smart and resourceful and you should give them a chance. They have agency. Foster it.
2. Sibling rivalry is kept to a minimum. Perhaps Wyma didn't report it, but absent were the torturous whines about fairness, work loads, etc. It seems like Wyma could've either had a good editor or her kids do have a general respect for each other.
3. Humor helps. There aren't rip-roaring comedic scenes in the book but there's a definite sense of humor throughout the book (and hopefully throughout the household). Humans are imperfect. You gotta laugh at yourself. No one has to be supermom. Just do your best.
I hope you all have a great time with your kids. Check out the books I mentioned if you want some more peace and respect in your house.
Before I give you more details on my review, let me give you some of my background.
I have a 6-year-old son and a 12-year-old...moreWow.
And not in a good way.
Before I give you more details on my review, let me give you some of my background.
I have a 6-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter. I also have a BS in Psych and a Masters in Ed Psych. I study behavior and psychology as a hobby as well as use it in my freelance writing career. I read pop psych books like others devour romance novels or baseball statistics (check out my Social Media reading list or my behavioral economics list for my favorite books in these areas).
To top this all off, I breast fed my babies until they were both over two years of age. I'm a middle-of-the-road Democrat. I'm married to a PhD in Philosophy. This book seems like it was custom-written for the white- suburban-college-educated mommy that I am.
Except it isn't. I'm not sure I know for whom this book was written, because it doesn't present any solid information in a way that is applicable or helpful.
Kohn has made a career rallying against behaviorism. Behaviorism, as a theory, works very well. It is fully supported by years of research. Yes, most academics would agree that a purely behavioral approach to any endeavor lacks long-term effectiveness in humans. That's where the Cognition theories come in to pick up the slack. These two theories of human behavior and motivation, used in conjunction, have been proven worthy repeatedly in helping people learn, grow, and lead better lives. Kohn rejects the Behaviorism outright and focuses solely on the Cognition. Just as a purely behavioral approach reduces humans to unconscious animals, a purely cognitive approach elevates humans to an impossible, advanced-aliens-from-outer-space level. Alone, neither theory works all that well across the board.
Along with Kohn's pedantic writing style is a disturbing lack of cited research to back up his wide statements about the effects of certain parenting solutions. This is a deal-breaker for any parenting book. You just can't take parenting psychology seriously without copious amounts of cited research. In fact, you should be very suspicious of such a book.
That being said, let's take a look at the not-new theories Kohn presents.
While I accept some of Kohn's premises (respect children's ability to make decisions, expect age-appropriate, ability-appropriate behavior), I disagree with his disregard of parents' emotions and feelings. Kohn expects the parent to be ever self-sacrificing, ever-searching for pure motivations behind their children's behavior.
Children can be immoral, selfish, violent, abusing, manipulative horrible little animals, just like any other humans.
Yes, the Ideal Parenting Rulebook dictates that parents should love their children more than themselves, more than anyone or anything else on the planet. I get it. But I am not a mere object in my child's growth. I am a functioning human being with needs, goals, objectives, and emotions that are oftentimes in conflict with my children's. And guess what? If there are some important battles on the line, or even if I'm flat out of patience, I win the battle. Why? Because I know better what is the greater good for the family and I also know that if I don't preserve my own sanity, we will all fail.
Police culture has a great phrase for this: Raise your children, or we will. In other words, if you neglect your duties as a parent, the state authorities will pick up the slack when your child fails. Our job as a parents, as the police see it, is very basic: raise children who are capable of taking care of themselves (and perhaps others) and their society. I'm not sure Kohn would agree with this view.
To be fair, I already practice a lot of what Kohn promotes. I am well-schooled in human ability, brain development, etc., and that schooling allows me to reason appropriately at different stages with my kids. Indeed, reasoning with kids becomes more effective as they (very slowly) gain more ability to reason.
Kohn thinks kids have more ability to reason at earlier stages than I do. He is also willing to suppress or downplay his own needs in order to accommodate his child way more frequently than I am willing to do so. Raising your children to expect accommodations that only a deeply devoted, self-denying parent would give is perhaps a disservice to the child. Plus I posit that such neglect to one's own feelings will eventually promote distrust on the child's part and resentment on the parent’s part.
Instead, I let my children observe my annoyance when they misbehave. I'm a human, I am allowed to be annoyed at such things. I have never once hit my children, but I have used "love withdrawals" because being excluded is the natural consequence of breaking social norms, fair or not. I don't think a time out here and there is going to shake my children's belief that I love them. On the contrary, my willingness to deliver a reality check will eventually be seen as an act of love in itself, if it isn't seen that way already. I've seen kids in homes where they can sense that the lack of consequences translates into something akin to apathy, and the effects are devastating.
Kohn would argue that he does in fact place restrictions on his children's behavior. He would say that he just puts off those restrictions until absolutely, utterly, no-choice necessary. His main points are not about behavior control, though. If he had you in the elevator and could impart some "wisdom" on you, he'd say: "Don't underestimate your children's ability to regulate themselves, reason, and make good decisions. Give them the space to do that. Don't let your upbringing dictate how you raise your own kids."
This, of course, is good advice. Even though Kohn lacks research to back up his claims, he makes many solid points in the book that may be eye-opening to the everyday parent. Unfortunately, along with the lack of citations, there's a dearth of practical steps and practices for implementation of his attachment-parenting theories. He throws in a few question worksheets at the end of the book but they are too little, too late.
By leaving out these practical tips, Kohn abandons those of us in the trenches. As a mother of young children, I find life very unpleasant when I'm around terribly misbehaving kids. As much as I try to remain empathetic to the parents, I begin to hate this "unconditional love" (read: inability to set boundaries on behavior) approach. Most of the time, in my observation, the parents aren't confident enough to demonstrate some leadership qualities and are terrified their children will hate them as much as they hate their own parents.
So I’m supposed to not want to strangle the kindergartner who is taking my child’s food, peeing under the picnic table during lunch, screaming for his own way and generally making life miserable for everyone within a 5 mile radius? I’m supposed to keep arranging playdates with this mother who admits she “has no control” over her children? Sorry, Kohn. A little behaviorism would solve a lot of issues here. A good habit introduced into that kid’s repertoire would make the world a nicer place.
Yes, I feel for a poor tired kid who has to trudge through the grocery store with their mother. But life is tough. Learning how to mitigate the grocery aisles when you're miserable is training for mitigating the freeways and the rat race. Throwing a tantrum in the cereal aisle earns you no favors in life and deserves a negative response, just like road rage is unacceptable and deserves jail time. To avoid going to the grocery store when it is necessary, or to rearrange my entire life so as to keep children comfortable (especially when it is beyond reasonable), is doing children a disservice.
We are not living in the utopia that Kohn imagines. We are not all Upper East Siders who can choose a school for our children that matches our "unconditional" parenting style. We are not all white, educated Northerners whose culture allows for this privileged, time-heavy, money-sucking parenting approach. We are not the privileged upper class where physical goods are never to be made paramount over even a second's worth of children's lives. The fact is, for most parents, a small moment of misbehavior from a child can severely impact our quality of life. Many of us can't afford new televisions if our child thinks it's a good idea to throw the lamp at it. We have to place reason aside for a second or two until that child realizes such destruction won't be tolerated. Many of us don't have the energy to explain to a child about how that television keeps the peace in our marriage, is our only connection to the outside world, or is the only form of entertainment we can afford. Many children wouldn't understand the impact of that lamp, figuratively or literally, so more active behavior modification parenting techniques are frequently necessary in our world.
We are not living in unconditional environs. To be honest, I'll always love my children in some way, but if they turn into psycho- or socio-paths I would find it a bit difficult to remain supportive of them. Their behavior has consequences. It's my job to gently deliver a little taste of what the outside world has in store for them. I don't beat them because in life, that's illegal. Adults can't hit other adults. It's against the law. I don't beat them, also, because I am privileged enough to have learned the lack of effectiveness of corporal punishment in the long run as opposed to other more humane methods.
I react with hurt when my children insult me, because that is how I feel and that is how other people would react. I don't hide my annoyance when they refuse to stop repeating a phrase over and over, causing my brain to burn in my skull, because that kind of behavior will get them fired from whatever job or friendship or endeavor they take on at any stage of their lives.
I listen to them when they give reasons of why they didn't hand in their homework, but I make it clear that I expect their behavior to change anyway. I don't listen to their excuses when the “missing homework” behavior continues. I don't listen to explanations when they are really just justifications (see Dan Ariely's work about the false attributions people consistently give for their own motivations/behaviors in my behavioral economics reading list.). Results matter. Intent doesn't always matter. This is life. To shield children from this basic cognitive/behavioral reality is to warp their perspective and set them up for real-world disappointments.
I agree with Kohn on many levels. This book is worth skimming through your local library’s copy if you are not a Psychology person and are looking for some different perspectives on parenting. But at the end of the day, just like always, do your best with what you’ve got. Try something new. And don’t let fear or habit dictate your parenting.
**spoiler alert** NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman 2009
New York Magazine journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Me...more**spoiler alert** NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman 2009
New York Magazine journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman team up to add commentary and more information to their articles in this new book published by Twelve, a division of the Hachette Book Group.
The last page of the book has this blurb about Twelve:
“TWELVE was established in August 2005 with the objective of publishing no more than one book per month. We strive to publish the singular book, by authors who have a unique perspective and compelling authority.”
They lost me at “compelling authority.”
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman are journalists, not scientists. This book isn’t a synthesis of research; it’s an opinion piece with a conservative bent (indeed, Ashley Merryman’s back-flap bio boasts that she “lives in Los Angeles, where she runs a church-based tutoring program for inner-city children.”)
I’m not advocating gatekeeping; there is definitely a place for independent research and grass-roots efforts. Child Psychology isn’t one of those places. NutureShock is just another parenting book in a long line of book written by reporters for profit. The authors have a reputation for reporting on overlooked studies with rare results, and they boast in their chapter notes that their New York Magazine articles were popular. Compiling and expounding on past work seems to be the best way to write a book these days; this doesn’t mean that the articles, as a book, make a cohesive or worthy statement.
Basically, I found the book to be the amateur, armchair science that is fun to read in small bites while on the train. Read it for entertainment purposes, but don’t implement the few approaches outlined at home; they aren’t tested enough, and the results have yet to be repeated to gain respect in academia.
The book does, unwittingly, bring up some good points about statistics, studies, and systemic judgments based on those studies. Statistics and study results are nothing to respect when presented alone. The best way to make decisions about anything is to weigh multiple instances of evidence, to never rely on one event. The authors do their best to rip up school district decisions on testing, anti-obesity and anti-bullying programs, by claiming these decisions were not based on scientific results but just made using traditional thought and instinct. While some programs in districts may be made more based on hope than science, the majority of IQ testing and other educational programs are based on years of study and a large meta-analysis of results of hundreds of studies. To suggest otherwise, as the authors do, is hasty, irresponsible, and insulting to educational scholars, teachers, and parents.
The authors proceed to cite a study here, a successful preschool program there, to illustrate their point that decisions about children should be based on evidence. I agree. But A LOT of evidence. Not an anecdotal story or two (which the authors provide), nor 1 or 2 labs that keep getting the same results for their handful of articles. The authors bemoan the lack of long-term studies in almost every chapter, yet fail to mention the very sophisticated and accurate methods of behavioral statistics answers this issue. They sing praises of a preschool program called Tools of the Mind, but conveniently forget to list the challenges associated with the program. This book is a thinly disguised attempt to steer the conversation toward a conservative agenda in education.
The writing is ok. Their lack of academic tone in parts is jarring. For example, on page 190, the authors use colloquial language where they shouldn’t have: “… a separate word to distinguish the kind of popular teen who diminishes others –in Dutch, for instance, the idiomatic expression popie-jopie refers to teens who are bitchy, slutty, cocky, loud and arrogant.”
An academic article would have used words like “promiscuous,” “disagreeable,” and “condescending,” especially since the Dutch don’t use the English colloquial words that are listed. I also question the choice of listing the derogatory words for females first, or at all.
At times the authors conduct their own “studies,” but we should disregard these results. We have no idea what the sampling was, what the control group was given (if there even was a control group), or how the study was designed at all. Until their results can be repeated many times, then one-off studies should merely bring up ideas for further study.
The only good that comes out NutureShock is the reminder to hold studies, especially those recounted by non-scientist media, in suspicion. If you are planning to pick up this book, read it for entertainment purposes only. It may make you think a bit differently in some aspects of child-rearing, like how your teen may see arguing as the opposite of lying, or how we whites actively avoid talking about race. The authors should have stayed with reflecting trends in traditional parenting, and avoided passing themselves off as authorities. (less)