Friday, June 17, 2011

Quote a Day #3 - NutureShock

The Book:

NutureShock by Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman.

The Quote:

"At least 90% of American parents use physical punishment on their children at least once in their parenting history.  For years, the work of Dodge and others had shown a correlation between the frequency of corporal punishment and the aggressiveness of children.  Surely, out-of-control kids get spanked more, but the studies control for baseline behaviour.  The more a child is spanked, the more aggressive she becomes.

However, those findings were based on studies of predominately Caucasian families.  In order to condemn corporal punishment as strongly as the research community wanted to, someone needed to replicate these results in other ethnic populations--particularly African Americans.  So Dodge conducted a long-term study of corporal punishment's affect on 453 kids, both black and white, tracking them from kindergarten through eleventh grade.

When Dodge's team presented its findings at a conference, the data did not make people happy.  This wasn't because blacks used corporal punishment more than whites.  (They did, but not by much.)  Rather, Dodge's team had found a reverse correlation in black families--the more a child was spanked, the less aggressive the child over time.  The spanked black kid was all around less likely to be in trouble. ...

To understand, one has to consider how the parent is acting when giving the spanking, and how those actions label the child.  In a culture where spanking is accepted practice, it becomes 'the normal thing that goes on in this culture when a kid does something he shouldn't.'  Even if the parent might spank her child only two or three times in his life, it's treated as ordinary consequences.  ... Conversely in the white community Dodge studied, physical discipline was a mostly-unspoken taboo.  It was saved only for the worst offenses.  The parent was usually very angry at the child and had lost his or her temper.  THe implicit message was: 'What you have done is so deviant that you deserve a special punishment, which is spanking.'  It marked the child as someone who has lost his place within traditional society.

It's not just a white-black thing either.  A University of Texas study of Conservative Protestants found that one-third of them spanked their kids three or more times a week, largely encouraged by Dr James Dobson's Focus on the Family.  The study found no negative effects form this corporal punishment--precisely because it was conveyed as normal."


NutureShock is probably the most interesting parenting book I have sitting on my bookshelf.  The focus of the book is to review some recent scientific research into parenting topics that is yielding unexpected results, and to present the findings that most challenge the assumptions currently prevalent in parenting advice. 

As my daughter starts to head into the toddler years, questions of discipline and boundary setting loom.  How am I going to handle this?  I was raised in a household where 1-2-3-smack was my mother's response to undesirable behaviour when I was little, and I have never had a problem with her using this method.  I have a close, loving relationship with my mother - I don't think it did any damage.  But these days not only does smacking seem socially unacceptable, my own personal feeling is that I just don't like the idea of smacking my baby.  My heart leaps when she injures herself.  To inflict pain on her deliberately just... feels wrong.

After reading NutureShock, I am still unsure about whether I want to use smacking.  But it reminds me of one thing - nothing is black and white.

I thought it was a great book, so I did some googling to see whether others agreed.  Overall, reviews are pretty positive.  However, one negative review (Christine Cavalier at PurpleCar) caught my eye.  She wrote:

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.

I'm not quite sure how she leaps to her conclusion about it pushing a conservative agenda, as the smacking excerpt is by no means representative of the kind of approaches that are defended or advocated.  In another part of the book, for example, the authors write about a study that suggests that children who are punished more harshly when they lie are no less likely to lie, but tend rather to lie more convincingly.  That would not be the conservative position.  At no point does the book suggest bullying is a non-existent problem or shouldn't be addressed - but it asks questions, fair questions, about the programs that are being rolled out.  Given that we are all required to send our children along to schools (or somehow come up with the resources to homeschool - not to mention homeschool competently) it is not disrespectful to be asking some questions.  It is entirely appropriate.  The reviewer does not point to the studies (or even where we could see the studies) behind these programs, despite asserting that the majority of programs currently used in schools are evidence-based and rigorously studied.

Cavalier is a research psychologist who specialises in educational psychology and communication psychology, and she is quite forceful in her view that non-psychologists should not write books that purport to deal with child psychology.  She criticises NutureShock for using 'colloquial language' instead of adopting a proper 'academic tone', which she finds 'jarring'.

I have to say I don't have a lot of sympathy for these ivory tower concerns.    If no one writes anything but articles in dry academic jargon (for the most part published in journals that ordinary parents cannot even access) then how does that help anyone?

Despite the vast majority of parents lacking formal training in psychology, let alone child psychology, we are expected to conduct all day-to-day parenting decisions, behaviour management decisions, relationship decisions, and generally be our children's most formative psychological influence. 

Don't implement the suggestions in the book! Cavalier warns.  But what exactly is she afraid of?  Most of the book is filled with dangerous, outrageous advice like - children who have longer attention spans do better at school, and: if you don't want your child to lie try not to model lying to them.  Seriously, no one is going to damage their child with this sort of advice, even if it's dead wrong.

More fundamentally, what does Cavalier think parents do all day?  Sit around doing nothing until a child psychologist gifts them with perfect advice.  There is no lack of popular parenting advice on how to approach parenting, most of which is written by persons who have only the vaguest idea of child psychology, given that the majority of it seems to ignore pretty fundamental parts of child psychology like attachment theory.  Smack your child.  Don't smack your child.  Unless you do it very violently or abusively and irrationally, your kids are probably going to be just fine.

But setting aside these quibbles with her review, Cavalier's overall point is fair: this is not a book that should be taken as a rigorous scientific tome.  But I don't think it pretends to be.    NutureShock is by no means a 'how to' guide for parents, but I found it one of the most useful books for reflecting on my assumptions about what I think I know about kids.  As the jacket title suggests, it is 'provocative'.

For an idea of the tone of the book and the kind of topics covered, visit the NutureShock website.


  1. Very interesting, especially how in cultures where smacking is "normal" it has a positive effect but if its "taboo" it can be detrimental. I think that kids want boundaries and clear consequences. Like you I'm unsure what those should be for now. I need to make up my mind though because I think inconsistent discipline can be very confusing for my child and my hubby and me.

  2. Here's a book I recommend for practical parenting advice: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish.

    That will give you non-violent and effective ways to communicate with a child.

    Another book for parents of multiple children that is very helpful is Siblings Without Rivalry, also by Faber and Mazlish.

    If you are looking for parenting advice, these two books will set you on the right path. These books have been around for decaes and are the standards in child rearing that psychologists site most often.

    Good luck with your parenting and definitely keep reading. Please let me know what you think of these two books once you've read them.

    -Christine Cavalier

  3. Thanks for the suggestions, Christine, but those books seem aimed at older children. Do you have any suggestions for pre-verbal children?

  4. i never wanted to be a smacker but sometimes when you've tried all other options what else can you do. i give warning to my kids to let them know. i do'nt believe in smacking as discipline for them hurting each other though. and it is definately an age thing...i will not smack any child who does not understand what they are doing.

  5. Kids have 3 options when they are smacked.
    1. Believe they deserved it (that they deserved to have pain inflicted on them)
    2. Believe they didn't deserve it (focusing thus on themselves and encouraging self-righteousness for most likely the wrong reasons)
    3. Suppress the fact that they just got hit

    No sane and loving parent wants to hurt their kids. However, smacking does hurt kids, whether that was our intention or not. It *does* teach them things... but probably not the things that we intended to teach them.

    Before you think I'm on a moral high horse, let me assure you, I'm not. I have personally smacked my child on occasion in the past, but not for a while now, after realising that it wasn't doing anything good for my relationship with my daughter (whether two or three smacks had done any lasting damage is, I think, a no-brainer - of course it hasn't, but had it gone on and on, it might have), thinking about it hard and changing the way I saw the entire issue. I wrote the following post to consolidate what I'd learned/gathered.

    PS. For a book on toddler parenting without smacking, have you read Robin Grille, Connection Parenting?