Wednesday, February 2, 2011

NutureShock paperback vs Tiger Mother: A Letter from Po Bronson

So this reveals what a groupie I am...but yes I'm on Po Bronson's email list. And while he signed my hardcover copy of NutureShock last night, I also got permission to re-post the letter below. I'm planning on writing a post with some of the highlights from last night's talk at Explorer, but in the meantime thought this would be interesting to share since he did spend quite a bit of time on Tiger Mother. --Kim Kooyers, MW2s.

January 18, 2011

Dear Readers,

The really good news is, I can run again. Not very fast. And only once or twice around a track. There's about a kitchen faucet's worth of titanium in my hip and pelvis, installed four months ago. I am in awe of what doctors can do these days. Man, I am happy. The last eighteen months I had a hard time working, I could barely walk and was often on crutches, one surgery had failed, and all I could think about was the joy of running around freely like a kid.

The saving grace this past eighteen months - at least during the daytime when I sat here at my desk - was the ongoing success of NurtureShock. I really want to thank our readers for that. Even after the launch, the book continued to sell so well in hardcover that there seemed to be no need to release it in paperback. It spent over 365 days in Amazon's nonfiction Top 100, and was named to over thirty "Best of the Year" lists, by iTunes, Barnes&Noble, Discover, The Onion, and so many others.

Finally, though, NurtureShock is now out in paperback. So if you have a friend...maybe a friend whose teenagers are starting to rebel...or a friend who is trying to boost the confidence of his five year old...or a friend who has to constantly separate young siblings from arguing in the back seat...please buy some more copies. And thirty of our best Newsweek columns from last year are posted on

If NurtureShock was last year's big child development book, without a doubt the even bigger parenting book of 2011 is Amy Chua's "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother," which everyone's been talking about since an excerpt ran in the Wall Street Journal nine days ago, titled "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior."

I actually read the book months ago - read it when I got out of the hospital. My old Random House boss Ann Godoff now runs Penguin, and she'd sent me a galley. In NurtureShock (p 22), we wrote about a study that compared mothers in Hong Kong against mothers in Illinois, which used hidden cameras to record mothers talking to their 11-year-olds during a break between two short pattern-finding IQ tests. After the break, the Chinese kids' performance leaped 33 percent, largely because their mothers used the five minutes to tutor their kids. The American mothers mostly used the five minutes to chill and take the pressure off. So Ann thought I'd like the book, and I was glad she had a hit for her house.

I just couldn't endorse the book, though. Not because Amy Chua admits to insulting and guilting her daughters constantly...and not because Amy Chua deprives her kids of playdates and sleepovers...and not because Amy disses athletics and drama. Believe me, I've spent years now watching scholars' videotapes of how parents and kids really interact, I get used to that stuff.

Rather, I couldn't endorse it because too much of the book felt like braggadocio about how great her daughters were at piano and violin. Hey, we all do it...we take immense pride when our kids do well...some of that pride slips out now and then, absolutely...but a whole book predicated on children's superiority made me uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, despite all the objections and caveats, Tiger Mother is really selling. The fact that people are buying the book - not just talking about it - suggests there's a real craving out there for inspiration, maybe permission to push kids a little harder when they don't try. And that is partly the same vein that catapulted NurtureShock, going back to our original article on the science of praise. However, that's where the similarity ends.

Over the holidays, coincidentally, I also read Andre Agassi's memoir, Open. Both Open and Tiger Mother are stories of parents gone maniacal in their drive to make their kids number one, at the expense of any real childhood. The difference is, while Andre Agassi still loved his dad, he knows that doesn't excuse what his dad did to him. Even when he became #1 in the world, it didn't excuse it. A lost childhood has no price.

Ashley and I have studied parenting in China quite a bit, and two points are immediately relevant. The first is, the tradeoff between being a warm, loving, cuddly parent and being a parent who makes your child focus on learning is a false tradeoff. Going back to that study of mothers in Hong Kong I mentioned, during that five-minute break the Chinese mothers smiled and hugged their children just as much as American mothers did (and were no more likely to frown or raise their voices.) Importantly, these contemporary Chinese mothers did not insult or guilt their kids.

So when you hear about top math scores from Shanghai, don't think the success comes from cruel and harsh parenting. It comes from being supportive of learning.

We have to be careful in judging kids behavioral outbursts. Every time a pundit goes to a grocery store and sees a four year old throwing a tantrum, they write a column how American parents have become softies. They long for the old days when kids were obedient. The truth is, parents have two choices when their kids act out. They can appeal to reason, or they can demand strict obedience. Modern parents, for the most part, appeal to reason. Over time, this is good for the kids - they become independent thinkers, they learn to reason back and forth with adults, and they can stick up for themselves. But in the short term, when they're five or six years old, they're not very rational yet, and they act out more. They throw more tantrums, they can be disruptive, et cetera. Demanding strict obedience at all times ends it - but at a long term cost.

And with teenagers, we so often focus only on external rebellion. It's certainly the most visible. But teens whose need for autonomy is suppressed often have internalizing problems, such as depression.

Depression is actually becoming a huge problem in China. The work of Dr. Keng-Ling Lay in Taiwan has discovered one of the reasons why. She studies children and teenagers who've been told all their life that the secret to success is hard work - and yet, despite trying their best, never become A-students, or gifted musicians, or top athletes. They believe their inability to work hard enough is innate. They see no path to success, and feel like failures. It's sorta obvious, but this is the downside of kids living in any environment where success is defined in such limited ways. Dr. Lay says that parents are changing rapidly in Taiwan, but teachers are not. (Maybe this was why NurtureShock was a bestseller in Taiwan, too.)

Anyway, I've rambled enough. Here's a link to the most-frequently-tweeted column that Ashley and I wrote last year: Why Teens Are Growing Up So Slowly Today.

thanks again,


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Waiting for Po

by Anne Castle-Deckert. Crossposted on Exploring With Teacher Annie

Children deserve parents who think. They don’t need parents who are perfect, or who have all the answers. (What a burden that would be! Please don’t saddle your kids with perfect parents- what a nightmare.) But I think families really thrive when parents put some thought into carefully considering at least some of their day-to-day parenting choices, rather than letting chance or whims dictate the family’s direction. And it seems even more important that parents are willing to challenge their own thinking from time to time, and look at things from an entirely new point of view. In parenting, mental effort counts for a lot.

These were my thoughts a few minutes ago, while driving home from tonight’s fascinating talk at my preschool by Po Bronson, the author of the best-selling book, Nurture Shock.

Wow--Po Bronson speaking at Explorer Preschool! What an event this was for a little school like ours. We have been waiting breathlessly for Po’s visit since last summer when our Parent Ed. Chair-mom, Katie, somehow used her magical powers to persuade him to speak at our school. And let me tell you: it was worth the wait. Po was amazing. Even with our break-time cookies calling to us from the other room, and babysitters turning into pumpkins, no one wanted his talk to end.

Some comments I heard from parents, and from the mentor teachers and college instructors that were also in attendance:

How can he know so much, remember so much, and recall all that information so easily?

He’s able to explain complicated concepts in a way that’s easy to understand. This is not the case with most people who are as brilliant as he is!

How can he know so much, remember so much, and have all that information on the tip of his tongue?

I feel good about my parenting after hearing him, even though I now think I need to make a couple of changes. Some experts just make me feel like a crappy parent, and I don’t need that--I feel bad enough already about all my mistakes.

He’s one of us! He’s just a dad, and he understands what it’s like to be a parent like me.

I can’t wait to read some of his other books and articles!

He was so much fun to listen to—I lost track of time.

Everything he said made me love our preschool even more.

It’s hard to change your mind about things that you’ve always thought were right, but when Po explains why another viewpoint is better, it makes a lot of sense to me.

I’m going to ask my spouse to read this. And I think I’ll buy a copy for my nanny too.

This is giving me a lot to think about.

I really hope he continues writing about child development topics.

He really cares about this stuff, and it shows.

We can’t all have a Po-chip implanted in our brains, ready to call up and analyze the research data to make sure that our every decision is right. In fact, I’ll bet that even Po finds that chip a little hard to access at times. (Maybe we should discuss this with his wife….!) But most of us can think about what he talked about tonight, read or re-read Nurture Shock, and maybe discuss it with friends at our Aprll Book Club evening. That’s perfectly good enough. Just a little thoughtful effort can help us all be better parents and teachers.