Updated 28-Jun-2024

Nurtureshock - Book Review

Nurtureshock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman is an amazing read that challenges so many preconceptions we have about children and child-raising. As the parent of a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old I can say that this book has had a big impact on my thinking.

There are so many insights across the chapters, that for the sake of my future self, and any interested in this book, I will provide some detail of what I learned in reading this book.

Find Nurtureshock at your local bookstore or at Amazon. More reviews of Nurtureshock on Goodreads.

The Power of Praise

Praise of intelligence has a debilitating effect. For praise to work it needs to be specific and about effort. Praising children for being smart has the opposite effect, as they won't try things that are difficult as it threatens their self-image of being smart. If something is hard it means they are not smart, rather than that they need to try more or try harder.

In addition, the focus on self-

Children and Sleep

6th graders deprived of 30 minutes of their sleep in each of three days perform at the level of 4th graders. Sleep is that important for cognitive functioning.

Sleep also helps turn short-term memories into long-term memories.

The book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker has a lot more on this topic. The main things are:

  • Same bedtime every night, same time to wake up every morning
  • Need uninterrupted sleep
  • Screens (blue light) before bed disturb sleep
  • Cooler bedroom helps with good sleep
  • Shower before bed helps cool core temperature, even if a hot shower (increased blood flow at skin helps cool the body).
  • No time-shifting of sleep times (for example, stay up later and sleep in later on weekends), that doesn't work

Talking about Race with Children

  • Do talk about it, children are already creating categories in their minds
  • Talking about the negative effects of racism all the time can be de-motivating
  • Focus on ethnic pride as the approach

> Black children who'd heard messages of ethnic pride were more engaged in school and more likely to attribute their success to their effort and ability.

Why Kids Lie

> Most classic strategies to promote truthfulness just encourage kids to be better liars.

So many insights and contradictions to commonsense understandings.

  • Five year olds are better at lying than three year olds
  • Lying for children is not complicated with concepts such as intent, but is simply literal untruth-telling. Understanding this helps make sense of when children are upset with a parent for saying something such as "we will go to the park today" and then later when it turns out there was already a scheduled swim meet, saying "I forgot that we will go swimming today instead of to the park". Literalness and sticking with a plan is part of truth-telling for small children.
  • Lying is bad because it destroys trust. Children learn at first only it is bad because it gets a child into trouble.
  • It is important to not let lying slip by, but to address it
  • Don't lie to children (as much as possible), and expect them to lie to you, but also to help guide them past lying

Aptitude and Intelligence Tests

  • At Kindergarten, entrance tests have a 40% correlation with future academic success. These numbers get much better, perhaps as high as 80%, but only after the 2nd grade.
  • EQ emotional intelligence accounts for 10% correlation, and executive function and focus account for perhaps 20%. However these correlations overlap with each other, so it isn't an additive 70% correlation, but rather still less than 50%.
  • Don't bother with these tests for Kindergarten admittance, except in excluding very low performance.
  • Instead, test after Primary 2, and sort into two groups, or three.


> Sibship is a relationship in which the boundaries of social interaction can be pushed to the limit. Rage and irritation need not be suppressed, whilst politeness and tolerance can be neglected.

  • In the US, single child families are now more common than two child families.
  • Sibling relationship quality is remarkably stable over the long term
  • The tone established when they were very young, be it controlling and bossy or sweet and considerate, tended to stay that way.
  • the rate of conflict can be high, but the fun times in the backyard and in the basement more than balance it out. This net-positive is what predicts a good relationship later in life. In contrast, siblings who simply ignored each other had less fighting, but their relationship stayed cold and distant long term.
  • 75% of fights are about sharing physical possession of toys or other things
  • Older siblings train (to be social) on their friends and then apply what they know to their little brothers and sisters
  • Shared fantasy play represents one of the highest levels of social involvement for young children
  • In order for joint fantasy play to work, children must emotionally commit to one another, and pay attention to what the other is doing
  • They have to articulate what's in their mind's eye -- and negotiate some scenario that allows both their visions to come alive. When one kid just announced the beginning of a ninja battle, but the other wants to be a cowboy, they have to figure out how to still ride off into the sunset together.
  • For parents, focusing blindly on fairness can derail sibling relationships

Teenage lying

  • Out of thirty-six topics, the average teen lies to their parents about 12 of them
  • Teens outright lie, lie by half-truths, and lie by omission
  • The most common reason for deception is: I'm trying to protect the relationship with my parents; I don't want them to be disappointed in me.
  • Parents believe there is a tradeoff between being permissive and getting more disclosure, but that is not the case. In fact, kids take the lack of rules as a sign their parents don't actually care -- that their parent doesn't really want this job of being the parent.
  • By withholding information about their lives, adolescents care out a social domain and identity that are theirs alone, independent from their parents or other adult authority figures.
  • Objection to parental authority peaks around 14-15, and is stronger at age 11 than age 18
  • Parents who are most consistent about enforcing rules are the same parents who are most warm and have the most conversations with their kids. Rather than hiding 12 areas from their parents, they might be hiding as few as five.
  • For teenagers, the opposite of lying is arguing, as telling the truth would produce an argument. It is worth the argument if the teenager can win some concession. In households where there is more obedience, there is more arguing about the rules.
  • Moderate conflict with parents during adolescence is associated with better adjustment than either no-conflict or frequent conflict.
  • Pushover parents give into their kid because they can't stand to hear them cry or whine, and placate them just to quiet them. They want to be their kid's friend, and are uncomfortable being seen as the bad guy. In fact this does not reduce the amount of deception by their children. Instead, parents with consistent enforcement of rules, but who also make sure their child feels heard, and who can negotiate around rules some of the time, are the ones who are lied to the least.

Teenage brains

  • Adolescents do turn to drinking because they are bored in their free time. However, boredom is a part of the makeup of the brain of an adolescent. They respond little to progressive stimulus, and then overrespond to a high degree of stimulus (much like a drug addict needs more to get high). Teen brains can't get pleasure out of doing things that are only mildly or moderately rewarding.
    • Young kids find any sort of reward thrilling, adults brains activate according to the magnitude of the reward, teenage brains don't light up unless the rewards are high, and then they are overstimulated when compared with children and adults.
  • Adolescents' brains have depressed prefrontal cortex (where risks and consequences are weighed), when their reward centers are (over-) stimulated. In exciting real life circumstances, this rational part of the brain gets overridden by the reward center.
  • The teen brain can think abstractly, but not 'feel' abstractly -- at least not until it's had more life experience to draw on. And 'feeling' like it's a bad idea is what it would take to stop oneself from doing it.

Teenager-parent relations

  • Parents find arguments with adolescents very stressful, but the children do not as much. The main factor is not frequency or magnitude of arguments but if and how they are resolved. Parents who negotiate ultimately appear to be more informed.
  • 75% of teenagers report having happy and pleasant relationships with their parents.
  • The 25% who have been fighting with their parents had been doing so long before puberty
  • In the self-help aisle, the babies are all cuddly and the teens are all spiteful. Pop psychology caters to parents, whereas the social scientists have been polling the teens, most of whom did not find adolescence so traumatic.

Teaching self-control

  • Drivers' education courses do not reduce teenage accidents, mainly because learning the rules of the road do not prevent accidents, but poor decision skills (which teenagers have). This is not a matter of experience but of age and brain development. In school districts where drivers' ed courses are cancelled, there is a drop in accidents (in one study, 27%). Graduated-licensing programs which delay the age when teenagers can drive at night or with friends in the car are the most successful at reducing crashes (20-30%).
  • Many programs, such as D.A.R.E. are ineffective. This is what the authors call mistaking good intentions for good ideas.

Tools of the Mind

Tools of the mind is a program that works wonders, by bolstering Executive Function (EF), changing not so much the content but teaching methods in pre-school and kindergarten. The authors chronicle a variety of Tools of the Mind interventions and results which are fairly astounding. The keys are tapping into intrinsic motivation and extended play.

  • Executive function (EF) includes: planning, setting goals, predicting, controlling impulses, maintaining concentration, persisting through trouble, and orchestrating thoughts to fulfill a goal.
  • During playtime, children learn basic developmental building blocks necessary for later academic success, and in fact they develop these building blocks better while playing than while in a traditional class.
  • Young children learn abstract thinking through play.
  • Tools encourages private speech by first teaching kids to do it out loud -- they talk themselves through their activities.
  • When writing a letter on the board, a teacher asks which one is the better version. This helps the children discriminate and brings in awareness of what makes a letter a better one. (I did this with my firstborn, who was able to recognize uppercase, lowercase, and cursive letters at a very young age).
  • Many exercises have children taking turns, such as children practicing their penmanship and taking turns circling the best versions of their letters and words. In buddy reading, one child reads and the other listens, and then they change roles. Reading time works even for pre-readers, as they can retell a story based on pictures and what they remember of the story.
  • Motivated children (motivated because they can choose their own work) increases performance, allowing for greater learning.
  • Depending on how it is measured, being disciplined (high in EF) can be better than being intelligent (high in IQ) in terms of predicting future academic success. However, when combined (high in EF, high in IQ) there is a dramatic interaction effect and the child is much more likely to be successful. In one study, high EF and high IQ combined to give a 300% greater likelihood of doing well in a math class, that is 300% greater than those with high IQ alone.

Apply Tools of the Mind at home

  • Having children do planning for their work and even for play
  • Instead of correcting mistakes, give hints and ask the children to find the mistake
  • Introduce comparisons so children can see which is a better example
  • After reading a story, give the book back to the child and have them tell the story back (even with pre-readers)

There is much more that needs to be discussed regarding Tools of the Mind. The core notion is that extended play properly scaffolded can dramatically increase executive function and in turn bolster development.

Prosocial and violent media

Violent media influences behavior and makes children more physically aggressive, though it is not a strong link. However, so-called pro-social media that is meant to teach lessons and good behavior in fact has a lot of relational aggression (ignoring others, saying that the children cannot play with them, etc.). Verbal aggression is direct insults and name-calling, and pro-social media is rife with it.

Even though the plot of pro-social media is to introduce wrongs and then correct those wrongs by the end of the show, small children are unable to connect the end of a show with the beginning, and therefore simply learn directly the aggressive behavior being modeled in the shows. This means that pro-social media is actually more deleterious than standard superhero-style fighting media.

Arguments in the home

Moms report 8 disputes per day, dads report slightly less. 45% of the time children are witness to these disputes. Spouses express anger to each other 2-3 times more often than affection. These are simply the facts in households (and these are those without spousal abuse).

> Children's emotional well-being and security are more affected by the relationship between the parents than by the direct relationship between the parent and the child.

However, the issue isn't that children are witness to arguments, but that in many cases they do not see the resolution of the arguments. In experiments, if children see resolution after an argument, then they are fine with it (stress hormones do not increase), however if the arguments simply stop or the parents leave the room to finish their argument, and the children do not see the conclusion, then they have increasing stress. The arguments can become pretty intense, and yet if it's resolved, kids are okay with it. Most kids were just as happy at the conclusion of the session as they were when witnessing a friendly interaction between parents.

Corporal punishment

This is actually unsurprisingly both damaging and not, depending upon whether or not it is seen as normal within the home culture. Children key off their parents' reaction more than the argument or physical discipline itself.


Most scholars have agreed that bullying can have serious effects, and that it absolutely needs to be stopped. However, they've balked on the 'zero tolerance' approach.

The kids become fearful -- ont of other kids, but of the rules -- because they think they'll break them by accident.

Any automatic, severe punishments cause an erosion of trust in authority figures. Yet zero tolerance is becoming ever more common.

There is one big problem with lumping all childhood aggression under the rubric of bullying:

> Most of the meanness, cruelty, and torment that goes on at schools isn't inflicted by those we commonly think of as bullies, or 'bad' kids. Instead, most of it is meted out by children who are popular, well-liked, and admired.

Aggressiveness is most often used as a means of asserting dominance to gain control or protect status. Aggression is not simply a breakdown or lapse of social skills. Rather, many acts of aggression require highly attuned social skills to pull off, and even physical aggression is often the mark of a child who is 'socially savvy', not socially deviant.

When parents attempt to teach their seven-year-old daughter that it's wrong to exclude, spread rumors, or hit, they are literally attempting to take away from the child several useful tools of social dominance.

Children already know that parents think these behaviors are wrong -- they've heard it since they were tots. But they return to these behaviors because of how their peers react -- rewarding the aggressor with awe, respect, and influence.

It is a mistake to think there is a unary measure of sociability, with children on one part of the spectrum of prosocial to antisocial. Children high in prosocial abilities also act in antisocial ways. They are just socially busy. Children who successfully use both prosocial and antisocial tactics to get their way are bistrategic controllers.

> Kindness and cruelty are equally effective tools of power. The trick is achieving just the right balance, and the right timing.

Data suggests that up to 1 in 6 children can be characterized as bistrategic controllers.

In one study, children who watched a lot of educational television were far more relationally aggressive, but they were vastly more prosocial to classmates as well.

> When we changed the channel from violent television to tamer fare, the kids just ended up learing the advanced skills of clique formation, friendship withdrawal, and the art of the insult.

Today's average middle schooler has a phenomenal 299 peer interactions a day. The average teen spends sixty hours a week surrounded by a peer group (and only sixteen hours a week surrounded by adults).

Language learning

Infants and toddlers are acutely attuned to speech in front of real humans, but absolutely do not pick up the same things from watching videos. The more complex aspects of language, such as phonetics and grammar, are not acquired from TV exposure.

Studies show an inverse dose relation, the more that infants watched Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby videos, the fewer words they recognized. This made Bob Iger angry and he denounced the study.

Infants and toddlers are sensitive to phonemes in languages at a young age, and face-to-face interaction. DVDs rely on disembodied audio voice-overs, unrelated to the abstract imagery of the video track, and babies learn to decipher speech partly by lip-reading. They watch how people move their lips and mouths to produce sounds. Babies must first learn segmentation of sounds. They learn this at about 7.5 months, for people whom they see speaking. But they cannot segment the sounds if they are not watching a human face make those sounds. The sounds are once again gibberish. Even for adults, seeing someone's lips as they speak is the equivalent of a 20-decibel increase in volume.

> When a child sees someone speak and hears his voice, there are two sensory draws -- two simultaneous events both telling the child to pay attention to this single object of interest -- this moment of human interaction. The result is that the infant is more focused, remembers the event, and learns more.

While the sheer amount of language complexity in a home can be a strong indicator for early and broad language acquisition, it is the reactions to what the children are doing which appears to be most critical. The variable that most explained the difference in the number of words a child knows by 18 months is how often a parent rapidly responded to their child's vocalizations and explorations. The importance is once the child initiated communication, making sounds or pointing, how quickly the parent responded, with words or with a touch. Words are associated with things, just when the child makes the sound and the object is touched, spoken to, or indicated in some way by the parent.

This spells a great and growing problem because of the massive distraction that mobile devices have on parents and other caregivers. Parents are simply paying attention less to what their children are doing, and without the rapid response, the child is not learning speech at a normal pace. Sadly, the retarded attention of caregivers retards the attention and development of the children.

Note that children do not need constant reinforcement. Also, the children were not repeating back parent's language but adopt a phonological pattern rather than exact speech.

Two-year-olds benefit from the parent letting the child lead, and then responding with language when a child is already gazing at an object. Parents can screw this up by intruding rather than letting the child's curiosity guide their vision and touch, and therefore the object-label to be given. Also, parents can assume that the child is trying to say something, rather than look at something, and respond to the imagined words rather than what the child is looking at.

> Pretending an infant is saying words, when they can't yet, can really cause problems.

Object-labeling is just one of any number of ways that adults scaffold language for toddlers. These are things parents tend to do naturally, but not equally well.

When adults talk to young children about small objects, they frequently twist the object, or shake it, ore move it around -- usually synchronizing the movements to the singsong of parentese. This is called motionese, and it's very helpful in teaching the name of the object. Moving the object helps attract the infant's attention, turning the moment into a multisensory experience. But the window to use motionese closes at fifteen months -- by that age, children no longer need the extra motion, or benefit from it.

Hearing language from multiple speakers helps enormously. Fourteen-month-old children fail to learn a novel word if spoken by one person, even if repeated. Hearing multiple speakers gave the children the opportunity to take in how the phonics are the same, even if the voices vary in pitch and speed. By hearing what was different, they learned what was the same.

45% of utterances from mothers begin with one of 17 words: what, that, it, you, are/aren't, I, do/don't, is, a, would, can/can't, where, there, who, come, look, and let's. With 156 two- and three-word combinations, we can account for the beginnings of two-thirds of the sentences mothers say to their children. These predictably repeating word combinations are frames. Frames include grammar, which in turn teaches vocabulary (rather than the opposite common belief that vocabulary teaches grammar).

It was thought that children learn nouns before verbs, but actually it is word position, as they tend to learn the last words in sentences before earlier words, as they heard them more clearly. Until children are 18 months old they cannot make out nouns in the middle of a sentence.

Variation sets have the same context and meaning, but the vocabulary and grammar change.

Shape bias helps children make sense of commonality in some shapes while ignoring differences. This can be easily taught by saying This is a wug. Can you find the wug?. Vocabulary skyrockets.

Shape bias, variation sets, frames, motionese, object-labeling, all dramatically impact rate and volume of language learning in infants and toddlers.

Chomsky's universal grammar is being slowly displaced by auditory and visual inputs, contingent responses, and intuitive scaffolding, which steer children's attention to the relevant pattern.

It is easy for parents to believe in some innate genius guiding their child's development. They are only seeing the output, not the mechanisms underneath, or their role in the many interactions that scaffold language acquisition. Language skills as innate is being challenged. In studies with fraternal twins, only 25% of language acquisition is due to genetic factors. Overall, language measures are stable in elementary school, but not before then. However, research into language measures taken at age three strongly correlate with academic performance at age nine, so early language ability is an advantage.


There is a core assumption of positive psychology that positive emotions like gratitude are inherently protective, they ward off problem behavior and prevent troubled moods. The idea that one can feel good, have good well being, and at the same time be stressed out has been overlooked. Gratitude has a positive effect on children who have less affect. However, for children who are normally experience hope and excitement, it can have a negative effect, especially with children who have a strong need for autonomy and independence. Good and bad is not a dichotomy, whether it be actions or emotions.

The main issue with gratitude as with many other issues is the fallacy of similar effect. That is, that children will react as adult do, to various interventions.