Why You Should Praise Less, Sleep More, and Tell One Lie to Raise Well-Adjusted Kids

We did the heavy reading so you don't have to.
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Published October 2, 2017
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Fatherly is a publication for modern fathers looking to make the best of a good situation.

You’ve heard of 2009’s Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. It’s one of those modern classics in the parenting genre that takes on all the conventional wisdom, popular myths and outdated and discredited research you’ve been fed (with a tiny spoon). But, alas, when you get home from work, Better Call Saul trumps deep data about discipline and sleep training. So it sits on the shelf.

You can leave it on that shelf, because contained below are the cherry-picked insights from Bronson and Merryman. They say that parents should disabuse themselves of this notion they know all (and see all) and embrace not being a perfect parent. Then, they should rely on pithy book recaps from parenting websites to tell you how to raise your kids. That’s a scientific fact. (Not actually a fact.)

Nurture Shock doesn’t try to be a comprehensive guide to child-rearing, but it does shine a light on those corners where bad science and weird lore have led to ineffective child-wrangling. Compelling (and concise) info below:

1. Praise Is Screwing Up Your Kids

Ever since a few days after Woodstock, people have believed that they are special and smarter than others. Those people had kids, and they told their kids they were special and smart, believing it would improve their confidence to face intellectual challenges. Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford doesn’t mean to melt your unique snowflake, but she’s found an abundance of evidence that quite the opposite is true.

  • In experiments where one group of kids were praised for being smart and the other group wasn’t, the non-praised kids consistently chose to accept more challenging tasks, whereas the praised kids stuck with tasks they knew would be easy.

  • Research shows that kids as young as 7 are onto their parents’ bullshit. When showered with praise, they are just as skeptical of the sincerity as adults are.

  • While gratuitous praise had a negative effect on subjects’ performance, the message that ‘the brain is a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to grow’ improved math scores almost immediately.

  • In research on Chinese children, test subjects whose mothers criticized their results instead of praising the children improved their performance after each round of testing (and motherly berating).

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What You Can Do With This

  • Don’t stop praising your kids altogether, but be specific and sincere when you do.

  • Praise effort over traits. ‘You’re so smart’ doesn’t work as well as you ‘tried so hard.’

  • Discuss mistakes and strategies for improvement with your kids. But do it like a loving parent, not like a Texas football coach.

2. Sleep Deprivation Is Screwing Up Your Kids

Ninety percent of American parents surveyed think their children are getting enough sleep, but 60 percent of teens surveyed reported extreme daytime sleepiness. Go ahead and blame Snapgram (or InstaFace, or whatever the kids are doing on their phones), but it doesn’t change the fact that teens don’t get enough sleep. Even worse, younger kids are sacrificing sleep for homework, extracurricular activities, and quality time with their guilt-ridden, workaholic parents.

  • Some scientists believe sleep problems during the formative years can cause permanent changes in brain structure.

  • Links have been found between sleep deprivation and the rise of ADHD.

  • Sleep deprivation is linked to childhood obesity.

  • There is a strong correlation between lack of sleep and poor academic performance.

  • When high schools decide to change their start times to one hour later, test scores and student behavior improves dramatically.

What You Can Do With This

Cool it with the over-scheduling. All that “enrichment” and college application fodder won’t even stick in the addled brain of a sleep-deprived child.
Dr. Judith Owens says you should think of sleep as a basic necessity for your child’s well-being: “Would you let your daughter ride in a car without a seat belt? You have to think of sleep the same way.”

3. Affluent White Parents Are Screwing Up Kids

Maybe it’s good intentions. Maybe it’s discomfort. But caucasian parents (especially socially progressive ones) generally don’t talk about race with their young children beyond vague, happy platitudes about being the same on the inside. Because kids are “prone to in-group favoritism,” without any real talk about race, this striving to be “color-blind” can actually lead to white supremacist attitudes among white toddlers. And there’s nothing cute about a 3-year-old with a face tattoo.

  • For decades, many parents and parenting “experts” have mistakenly assumed that kids won’t notice race until society points it out to them; but even toddlers instinctively categorize people by their outward characteristics.

  • Minority families often don’t have the luxury of pretending that race is not a topic worthy of discussion.

  • When you think it’s too early to talk about race, your kids are forming their own conclusions. After this developmental stage it’s hard to get them to change their attitudes.

  • Ironically, diverse schools with high numbers of different ethnicities support self-segregation, and this environment doesn’t necessarily lead to more cross-race friendships. It may actually have the opposite effect.

What You Can Do With This

  • Have conversations about race — even in uncomfortable, explicit terms. One experiment showed that when white kids learned about the prejudice Jackie Robinson endured (compared to the group who knew the sanitized “sports hero” version), their attitudes towards black people became more favorable.

  • Minority children should have preparation for future discrimination, but constant discussion can make kids more likely to blame everything on discrimination or become convinced they’ll never succeed in a racist system.

  • Giving minority kids pride in their ethnicity is helpful in building self-confidence and making them more likely to attribute their successes to effort and ability. White kids can already perceive that they belong to a privileged group. So because of that power, pride conversations for white kids would be redundant and racist.

  • Don’t assume that because you enrolled your kids in an ethnically diverse school, you are exempt from having difficult conversations about race.

4. Your Lies Are Screwing Up Your Kid

You think that your kid would never lie to you, and if they did, you would know. You are wrong.

  • In study after study, parents, teachers, and strangers perform just slightly better than a coin toss in determining if a child is lying to them.

  • By age 4, if it seemed like they could get away with it, 80 percent of children studied cheated on a game and then lied when asked if they cheated.

  • With few exceptions, 4-year-olds lied once every 2 hours and 6-year-olds lied once every hour.

  • Harsh punishment for lies only makes kids better liars — they will work harder to become masters of deception, and double-down on lies to avoid punishment.

  • Young kids lie to make their parents happy by telling them what they want to hear.

  • We model dishonesty to our kids with all our “white lies” that cover up social awkwardness or hurt feelings.

  • We encourage kids to withhold information from adults by chastising them for “tattling.”

What You Can Do With This

  • Two lies make a truth. If you lie to your children by saying “Even if you [insert crime for which they are on trial], I won’t be upset with you. If you tell the truth, I will be really happy,” your kids will likely trend toward the truth. They’re trying to make you happy, and that’s why they lie.

  • Become comfortable with your hypocrisy.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

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