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Wall Street Journal

 

What the Experts Are Saying Now

August 25, 2009

By Kay S. Hymowitz

The most recent research in child development. Among the findings: 4-year-olds lie once an hour.

For more than a century American parents—ever more distanced from grandmothers and ­suspicious of tradition—have looked to social ­science to explain their children to them. Thus they have gobbled up books and articles by experts who ­periodically deliver the latest truths about ­child-rearing. Back in 1945, when Dr. Spock published his “Baby and Child Care,” readers’ devotion to expert opinion was so intense that he began his book with the reassuring words: “Trust yourself.” Not that he ­believed it. The book was jammed with advice.

Now, in “NurtureShock,” Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman survey the newest new findings about child development. Little in the book is all that shocking, but given our enthusiasm for turning tentative child ­research into settled policy, the studies that the ­authors discuss are of more than passing interest.

A striking example is the latest research on ­self-esteem. As Mr. Bronson and Ms. Merryman remind us, the psychologist Nathaniel Brandon published a path-breaking paper in 1969 called “The Psychology of Self-Esteem” in which he argued that feelings of self-worth were a key to success in life. The theory became a big hit in the nation’s schools; in the mid-1980s, the California Legislature even ­established a self-esteem task force. By now, there are 15,000 scholarly articles on the subject.

And what do they show? That high self-esteem doesn’t improve grades, reduce ­anti-social behavior, deter alcohol drinking or do much of anything good for kids. In fact, telling kids how smart they are can be ­counterproductive. Many children who are convinced that they are little geniuses tend not to put much effort into their work. Others are troubled by the latent anxiety of adults who feel it necessary to praise them constantly.

The benefits of teaching tolerance and promoting ­diversity look equally unimpressive in the current ­research. According to “NurtureShock,” a lot of well-meaning adult nostrums—“we’re all friends,” “we’re all equal”—pass right over the heads of young children. Attempts to increase racial sensitivity in older students can even lead to unintended consequences. One ­researcher found that “more diversity translates into more divisions between students.” Another warns that too much discussion of past discrimination can make minority children over-reactive to perceived future slights. As for trying to increase emotional intelligence, the education fad of the 1990s, it doesn’t seem to ­promote “pro-social values” either. It turns out that bullies use their considerable EQ, as it is called, to ­control their peers.

Education policy makers will find more cause for embarrassment in “NurtureShock.” Drop-out programs don’t work. Neither do anti-drug programs. The most popular of them, D.A.R.E (Drug Abuse Resistance ­Education), developed in 1983 by the Los Angeles ­Police Department, has become a more familiar sight in ­American schools than algebra class. By 2000, 80% of American school districts were using D.A.R.E. materials in some form. Now, after extensive study, comes the news: The program has no long-term, and only mild short-term, effects. Oh, and those tests that school ­districts use to determine giftedness in young ­children? They’re just about useless. According to Mr. Bronson and Ms. Merryman, early IQ tests predict later ­achievement less than half the time. Between ages 3 and 10, about two-thirds of children will experience a rise or drop of 15 points or more.

You might assume from these examples that the ­authors want to make a point about our national ­gullibility in the face of faddish science. Unfortunately, they deconstruct yesterday’s wisdom at the same time that they embrace today’s—even when research is on the order of “do-we-really-need-a-$50,000-study-to-tell-us-this?” or of dubious practical value. Kids lie, they ­inform us. In fact, 4-year-olds lie once every hour. Still, Mr. Bronson and Ms. Merryman are impressed by ­research showing that “lying is an advanced skill,” ­supposedly demonstrating both social and cognitive ­sophistication.

As for teenagers, well, they lie too. Parents shouldn’t worry about them, though; they fib not ­because they want to get away with stuff they shouldn’t be doing but because they don’t want to ­upset mom and dad. ­Depending on your point of view, you might not be ­surprised to learn that permissive parents don’t get more truth-telling from their teens than stricter ­parents. In any event, teens like conflict because, it is now claimed, they see it as enhancing their ­relationships with their parents.

Given how often last year’s science has become ­today’s boondoggle, Mr. Bronson and Ms. Merryman’s analysis would have benefited from a dose of ­skepticism. Yes, social science has become more ­rigorously empirical in recent decades. A lot of the findings described in “NurtureShock” might even be true. But that doesn’t mean that we have the remotest idea how to translate such findings into constructive parental behavior or effective public programs.

In a famous 1994 study described by the authors, ­researchers discovered that babies of professional ­parents were exposed to almost three times the ­number of words as the babies of welfare parents. ­Parents took to buying $699 “verbal pedometers,” a gadget that counts the number of words their baby is hearing per hour. Now experts are modifying the ­earlier findings. Turns out that it’s not so much the number of words kids hear that matters but the responsiveness of adults to a child’s words and explorations. Shocked? I doubt it.

Original Source: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203706604574371422231600220.html

 

 
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