Let’s DEWEY This! – Nurtureshock


Even though I don’t plan on having kids, I’m fascinated by parenting methodology, strangely enough. Maybe that’s because I’m fascinated by the brain, and child psychology is kind of the basis of ALL psychology, since children… you know… grow up.

That’s why I was drawn to this month’s nonfiction, “Nurtureshock,” which digs into parenting techniques that are actually counter-productive to the way humans operate. This book was so packed with interesting info that I couldn’t not make this post crazy long, but hopefully you find it interesting too!


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Social scientists have found that praising children for the ease or innateness of their abilities (“You’re a natural artist!” / “Wow, you made that goal on the first try!”) rather than the effort they put into improving, backlashes against them in a profound way. They come to see their skills or lack thereof as hard-wired and unchangeable.

Dr. Carol Dweck performed an experiment in which she gave two groups of kids a simple puzzle. When group A finished the puzzle with flying colors, she said, “You must be smart at this,” and when group B finished she said, “You must have worked really hard.” (Page 14) After this round, she offered each group the choice of a harder puzzle or another easy one. The kids who were complimented on their effort happily took the harder puzzle. But the ones told they were smart? Most took the easy way out. In a third round, both groups were given an arduous puzzle, destined to make them fail. Those praised for effort “got very involved, willing to try every solution to the puzzles. … Not so for those praised for smarts. They assumed their failure was evidence they weren’t really smart at all.” (Page 15)

Here’s why encouraging effort is so much more productive: It “gives a child a variable that they can control… Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.” (Page 15)

(Btw, Dweck wrote an illuminating book about this phenomenon called “Mindset.” I recommend it!)



Kids gravitate towards sameness, as demonstrated in an experiment conducted by Dr. Rebecca Bigler: a classroom was divided into students with red shirts and blue shirts, which they wore for three weeks. The teachers never separated them by shirt color again, and never referred to them as Blues or Reds, wanting to see what attitudes arose on their own. The kids didn’t segregate themselves either, but when asked which group was better, nicer, smarter, etc, the kids said their own group. (Page 52-53) Why? Bigler states that “kids are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they’re going to form these preferences on their own. Children categorize everything from food to toys to people at a young age.” (Page 53)

Some parents believe the best way to raise diversity-inclusive kids is to never bring up race at all. But what happens is children see this visual difference and aren’t given the language to contemplate it. Some kids will resort to phrases such as “skin like ours”  when trying to describe someone. And since kids are always searching for belonging, this likeness can unintentionally develop into an “ours versus theirs” mentality. (Page 56)

All of this means that diverse schools aren’t necessarily less racist, and in fact many are more so. Does that mean racism is inevitable? No! It just means we need to have frequent, open, and specific talks about race right from the beginning. Groupism might be a tendency, but it need not rule us.



In an experiment performed by Dr. Victoria Telwar and her assistant, Cindy Arruda, first-grader Nick was asked to guess what toy was in a box based on the sound it made. Arruda tricked him by hiding a musical gadget under a soccer ball. She played the tune, then left the room and ordered Nick not to peek in the box. It took only seconds for Nick to peek, and when Arruda returned, he proudly shouted, “Soccer ball!” When Arruda asked how he knew, he realized he couldn’t have known from the incongruous music and proceeded to tell weirder and weirder lies. First he said, “The music had sounded like a ball,” then “the ball sounded black and white,” and then, “the music sounded like the soccer balls he played with at school: they squeaked.” (Page 79)

It’s believed that kids lie most often to get out of punishment, but really they lie to not disappoint their parents. So if Mom says, “I won’t punish you, I’ll just be sad,” they will still lie. Kids think it’s good news that will please Mom, not the truth. They will probably still fib even if Mom says, “I don’t care if you lied or not.” But if Mom says something rewarding such as, “I will be proud of you if you tell the truth,” they are more likely to spill. (Page 85-86)



Educational, feel-good shows for kids often show characters in conflict, with the goal of teaching moral lessons. Yet Dr. Jamie Ostrav found that after watching such shows, kids are often more antagonistic with peers. Why? Because in those shows, conflicts endure through the course of the episode, resolved only quickly at the end. A small child’s brain cannot connect the hug-and-make-up at the end to problems that happened earlier. (Page 180)

Risk aversion is more instinctual in adults than teens. In a test conducted by Dr. Abigail Baird, participants decided if a scenario was a good or bad idea while monitors showed what lit up in their brains. Scenarios such as “swallow a light bulb” garnered obvious answers. Adults visualized the scenario while areas signaling distress in their brains lit up automatically; they felt an instant physical aversion. Teens voiced the same answers as adults, but they took longer, and their scans showed that they were weighing the decision rationally, without distress. This may explain why teens make choices that rattle their parents’ nerves, because they haven’t yet developed that good/bad intuition. (Page 146)

Not all bullies come from destructive homes. Parents’ messages about kindness are not always strong enough to win against the alluring social status that comes from bullying. “Children already know that parents think these behaviors are wrong – they’ve heard it since they were tots. But they return to these behaviors because of how their peers react – rewarding the aggressor with awe, respect, and influence.” (Page 190-191) So why do kids look up to bullies? Aggression “is interpreted by other kids as a willingness to defy grown-ups, which makes the aggressive child seem independent and older – highly coveted traits.” (Page 191)

Perhaps the way to keep kids from being bullies is not only to teach them to be kind, but to VALUE kindness. And not to define kindness as a rule to follow, but a quality to have pride in.


Tell me, if you have kids, is there something you’ve tried to teach that backfired unexpectedly? Or can you recall your own parents trying to instill something in you that didn’t work at all?

~ Noel


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