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By Richard Handler
The Age of the Über–Parent
NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children
Po Bronson is a bestselling writer What Should I Do with My Life? who, like any good, earnest, nervous parent, wanted to do the right thing for his young son. So he came up with the idea of killing two birds with one stone: find out what the foremost researchers have learned about effective parenting and apply it in the laboratory of his own household.
He teamed up with Ashley Merryman, the head of a small, remarkably successful tutoring program for inner-city kids, whom Bronson describes as "something like a fairy godmother to about 40 kids." As they began writing a series of pieces for Time and New York Magazine (from where articles in this book are collected), they kept finding something that surprised them again and again: The Fallacy of the Similar Effect. Simply put, it means what works for adults doesn't necessarily work for children.
Take the hot, all-American topic of building self-esteem and the role of praise in childrearing. Ask yourself: who doesn't love praise? In the workplace, Bronson found studies that repeatedly showed that praise is quite effective in motivating workers, but he discovered that praise can have varying consequences. Before researching the story, he believed "quite firmly that it was important to tell young children they were smart, in order to buoy their confidence," but he found out that the research shows "that this habit of telling kids they're smart was backfiring. It was in fact undermining children's confidence."
Using the work of Carol Dweck at Stanford (and others), Bronson and Merryman argue that building self-esteem by praising seemingly innate characteristics, like intelligence, is misguided. In a study in the New York City public school system, Dweck learned that "giving kids the label of Ôsmart' does not prevent them from underperforming. It might actually be causing it" by undermining their motivation or paralyzing them.