Interview with Ashley Merryman

Co-author of Nurtureshock

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman have been making a lot of waves in the past two years since they published their book Nurtureshock, which delves into some of the recent social science around child rearing. Ours is an age of anxiety when it comes to children—how best to feed them, what to teach them, what, if anything, we can do to prevent them from feeling unloved or unfulfilled when they grow up. Nurtureshock provides its readers with some helpful information based on study after study. What effect does praising our children have on them? (Not always the positive one we think.) Should we address skin color when talking to our kids about diversity? (Yes!) Why are more kids struggling with obesity and attention-deficit disorder? (They’re not getting enough sleep.)

Parents of any generation can glean insightful information from Nurtureshock about child psychology, but so can educators, coaches, and psychologists who interact with children and teenagers on a daily basis. Understanding the neuroscience behind children’s behavior can be an empowering way to make good decisions for their welfare, at the same time as we remember the Light and capacity for good in each of them. When we’re open and reflective, children teach us just as much about the world and human nature as we teach them.

Ashley Merryman talked to me about her experience writing on these issues as well as her reactions to some of the data she found.

From a sociological standpoint, what would you say characterizes some of the child rearing practices we’ve been seeing in recent years?

The informal standard Po and I had for writing this book was the frustrating messages out there about child psychology. Everyone has an idea about how to raise children, and some people have no compunction. How do you know who’s right—who to listen to and what to say? That’s perhaps where some of our culture’s anxiety comes from, and we have no metrics on whether or not to believe what we hear. What we did in Nurtureshock did not include bullet-points or boilerplate advice. Instead, we said, “Here is what scientists are finding.” A parent can ask herself, “How does this apply or not to my family?” And the next time someone gives her advice, she can relate the information to this context. We worked really hard not to be inflammatory. We just presented the science.

Since parents do tend to be more anxious about making mistakes nowadays, what is the message that you think is most helpful? 

I was moderating a panel at Yale with Walter Gilliam and Charles Lamb—huge and amazing researchers—and I said, “There are a lot of nervous parents out there and they feel like they don’t know what they’re doing. They look at developmental charts and are thinking, my kid needs to do this. When should parents actually worry?” The response across the board was when the child is suffering, not the parent.

There are always individual differences with children. Scientists have met thousands of children, and I watched as a parent would walk up and say “That’s not what happens with my kid.” A scientist never says the parent is wrong. Usually he or she responds with, “Really? Tell me about it.” They’re looking for individual differences; what it is about a particular situation that makes the research not apply. They don’t want to dismiss parents’ experiences, but they do want to understand the underlying mechanisms at work.

Were you surprised by some of the scientists’ findings about children? 

I read research that I was angry I didn’t know. Po is a parent and I’ve been tutoring kids in LA—if I had known the research about praise (that it doesn’t always help kids), I would have stopped praising kids for the fact that they breathed. This wasn’t an idea that was just in the back of my head; it was a stated thing. If you asked me before I read the research, I would have said, my kids have family members in jail and I’m going to make up for it by praising them.

Some of the research was hard to hear. The research about race, for instance (“See Baby Discriminate”) is not what I wanted and expected to hear. Half of the time, it made me cry. I totally believed that racism was taught, that you could lead by example, that you didn’t have to teach kids about racial differences being illusory, but I was wrong. It makes sense to me now, and I’m comfortable saying you should just tell kids what you want them to think. But when I was first looking at this, I thought, “Are you kidding?”

Did any of the studies you found defy stereotypical notions of sex and gender roles, or did they show distinct differences between boys and girls?

There are some gender differences in parenting, but there is not much research on the subject. The focus for ten years has been about attachment parenting, warmth and security and nurturing. A few researchers have said that is what moms do, and dads’ jobs are to tickle and challenge. Both parents play with kids all the time, but while dads are playing more, moms are playing as well as feeding and nurturing, Some researchers are concerned that there is too much of a focus on parents being nurturing, and that we have to teach kids to explore more.

Your research shows something surprising about the effect that spanking has on children—that in some cases, it’s not as bad as we’ve been taught to think. In general, what have researchers found out about the effects of discipline? 

First, no researcher recommends spanking. What research was indicating was that the effect on a child of a parent who only spanks once because she’s so upset (i.e., a child ran into the street) is actually worse than the parent who says, “If you break another vase I’m going to spank you,” and then does it. It’s worse when a parent has lost control than when he or he is calm and predictable.

Scientists don’t recommend either, though. Whatever punishment you give has the same deleterious effect when you lose control. Even yelling “Go to your room” represents such a shift in a parent’s emotional level, it may have a similar effect on a child. The bad news is that there is no form of discipline that researchers have found has no negative effect. This is not helpful for parents who have humans to raise, and researchers understand that.

Your chapter, “Plays Well with Others,” talks about conflict, particularly with some of the educational television shows parents think are better than violent ones. But what the research shows is that those educational shows don’t handle conflict all that well.

What’s interesting about conflict resolution is the study that shows how important it is for kids to see people, especially their parents, working out conflicts with love and kindness. Pretending conflicts never happen, or ignoring them, is not good for children. In general, educational programs show conflict without much resolution. The same goes with our chapter about teen rebellion—a healthy argument that sometimes ends in a fair compromise is actually good for a parent-teen relationship.

“Plays Well with Others” also shows us that aggressive kids are highly attuned to social skills. Their popularity requires savviness and social intelligence. Breaking the rules shows independence, which attracts the admiration of peers. So how do we teach kids to be kind to one another—or do we chalk up their aggressive behaviors to their natural development?

It’s not that I think we shouldn’t teach kids to be kind, but it’s helpful to recognize when you’re telling your son, “Go play with that other child because he doesn’t have any friends,” your son may have his social reputation to be concerned with at the same time. Also to remember that for middle schoolers and older kids, being nice is a parent’s rule. They want to prove that they’re grown up and make their own rules.

When it comes to bullying—75 percent of bullying is some kind of discrimination: racial, religious, or sexual orientation. Most real bullying has a discriminatory component.

It’s wrong for kids to be mean, but kids are kids and will make mistakes. I think we need to understand that kids do make mistakes. Zero tolerance programs don’t work at all; it doesn’t give kids a chance to correct their behavior. They actually make the problem worse. A victim of a bully won’t report it because the kid could get kicked out of school; he won’t say anything until it’s severe.

How can we encourage the socially savvy kids to use their powers for good?

My dream is for the principal to walk up to popular girls and tell them to get every kid in eighth grade to be part of extracurricular club. Tell them it’s their job to sign everyone up—give them a visible role, count on them to be the leaders. To be a leader, you must be inclusive and talk to everyone. You no longer get status by excluding people. It’s more interesting and challenging to help kids find prosocial ways of being more influential so that they can feel like they’re empowering themselves.

Another thing parents can do is tell their kids what’s important to them. In studies where scientists asked kids and mothers what were important moral things the parents believed in, there was no correlation between kids’ morals and parents’ morals. But there was a strong correlation with the kids’ morals and the perceived morals of parents. Parents must state their morals—for instance, say, “It’s important to be nice and we are going to take soup to sick people.” This way, they’re not just modeling but expressly telling their kids what they value. This has a very strong correlation of working.

In your chapter,“The Lost Hour,” you share the findings about sleep, which was fascinating to me because you explain the consequences when kids don’t get enough (obesity, ADHD). So many parents let their kids go to bed late in order to spend more time with them. But you also talk about the problem of schools starting too early. Teenagers’ brains work in such a way that their body clocks keep them up later at night, so they wake up tired and ill-prepared to learn. What can parents of teenagers do when they see that even though their kids are sleep-deprived, the schools won’t start any later? 

Most of the pushback to starting school later is the sports problem, that the kids need time to fit in athletics at the end of the day. But when you hear that response, you wonder, “Do you want children who are sleep-deprived to be walking around with bats?”

Private schools tend to change their start times more quickly and don’t have to worry as much about districts’ bus schedules. There was a study out of Brown University where they looked at a residential private school that decided
to shorten the school day as an experiment—start later but not end later. What they found was that students
learned so much more material in the first period because they were awake. They didn’t sleep through or ditch class. They actually learned more material in a shorter school day.

Parents who are reading this and know they can’t change their school’s start time have to look for signs of sleep-deprivation in their child. Many parents think seven to eight hours is enough sleep for kids, but that’s only okay for adults. Kids don’t want to tell you they’re falling asleep in class. Parents can watch to see if they are falling asleep in front of the TV, in the car, yawning at times when they should be awake.

There are individual differences in children, but generally, 4 or 5 year olds need 10 hours. A high schooler needs 9 hours, but too many are getting only 8 hours. Sleep deprivation is cumulative; if you need 8 hours and get only 7 for 5 nights in a row, by end of the week, you’ve deprived yourself of an entire night’s sleep. For kids it’s even more important because when they learn, they start to process in sleep.

What’s something working parents can do, though, when they feel like they don’t have enough time with their kids to begin with? 

When two parents are working and come home at 8, they don’t want to put their child to bed right away when they haven’t seen him all day. With these competing issues, we can’t make everything better, but there are some Band-Aids. If a high school student comes home at, say, 8 or 9, it is not the best time to say, “How was that final?” or “Did you make up with your friend?” It’s better not to get them wound up before bed. It’s better to have difficult conversations in the morning when they’re awake and more engaged.

What is it like to co-author a book?

Po and I are on the phone every day; we talk about what we’re reading, exchange studies, talk about research, both interview people, and both write. Once we’re writing, there isn’t a comma or a colon we don’t go over. It’s a true collaboration. The key in collaborating with someone is really respecting that person and not trying to show the other person up, or saying. “I’m the senior person on this and therefore shouldn’t listen.”

I’ve seen some partnerships which have struggled for one upmanship. Po and I challenge each other to be better; because of that, if there’s a certain point we’re not seeing eye to eye on, we know we can figure it out because  we respect each other and acknowledge that the other is trying to make it better.

Jana Llewellyn

Ashley Merryman is a writer and attorney who previously served in the Clinton administration in various positions, including as a speechwriter/researcher to then Vice President Al Gore. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, Time, New York, the Washington Post, and many other publications. She and Po Bronson have won nine national awards for their reporting in Nurtureshock, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science's Award for Journalism, an "Audie," two Clarion Awards, the Mensa Press Award, and the award for outstanding journalism from the Council on Contemporary Families. Bronson and Merryman's latest book is called Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. Jana Llewellyn writes both fiction and nonfiction and is former associate editor of Friends Journal.

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