Nurture Shock: How Praise, Protection And PBS Are Ruining Our Kids

Essentially, the take-away is that parents today are treating their kids as if they are mini-adults, when, in fact, they require vastly different tools and parameters to grow up.
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With the rise of stay at home dads, Einstein babies and hyper competition, being a kid today is radically different than it was a generation ago. As a parent, I have to say that I find the controlled environments and high expectations surrounding how to raise our children to be so different from when I was a kid that it is hard to keep up.

This blog is the first in a two-part series exploring the recent trends in "Over-Parenting." Today, I will focus on some of the circumstances involving younger children, and next week I will turn to teens.

While there are many improvements for life as a kid today - like car seats and really cool playground equipment - a lot of things are downright stressful and disappointing. Here is a top ten list of things I personally can't stand as a modern American parent:
  1. Playdates.
  2. Endless "after school activities" that eliminate dinner altogether
  3. Uggs, Beatles Guitar Hero and cell phones for 9 year-olds
  4. The lack of freedom for kids to ride bikes all over town for fun
  5. No paper routes or lawn mowing or weed pulling for extra cash
  6. No more "Come Home When the Streetlights Are On" neighborhood standards
  7. Fighting constantly to "downshift" our family routine.
  8. Having to serve macaroni & cheese or pizza at every kid gathering
  9. Texting instead of using the spoken word to communicate
  10. Eight% of kids walking to school today vs. over 75% when I was a kid.

What has HAPPENED to us as parents? We bought into the notion that the world is a very scary place, when it is safer than ever. Toddlers are strapped down with every safety device known to man just to get out and learn to rollerskate or ride a bike, and all of their recreational time is carefully planned and monitored from the moment they can crawl.

We have succumbed to the consumer haze, and sold our souls to China. The seductive acceleration of our time over-saturates kids with choices, over-books their time with activities, and pushes them to stress before they should ever know the word.

I recently read a groundbreaking book for parents: NutureShock- New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. I was underlining like mad, dog earring pages left and right, and calling my husband every five seconds to read a passage. It's a must-read. Essentially, the take-away is that parents today are treating their kids as if they are mini-adults, when, in fact, they require vastly different tools and parameters to grow up.

Similar to Malcom Gladwell, Bronson and Merryman are journalists who know how to wrangle out some of the most groundbreaking research on children that has been conducted in years, and put it all together in a series of topics that will knock your socks off - like why kids lie, how praising kids paralyzes their growth, and how our focus on "prosocial" TV shows is contributing to relational aggression and bullying.

Let's face it, adults like to be praised. It raises our motivation, and is a key tool in any business environment. However, when children are constantly praised and told they are "smart," it reduces their confidence and motivation. Kids who are touted as smart are often afraid to tackle a challenge because they perceive they should be able to get it instantly. They stop trying.

Rather, children are best served by being praised for their efforts. 'Trying hard,' or 'doing your best' encourages their sense of autonomy and ability, rather than a vague notion of being smart. Think it's easy? Parents have the hardest time remodeling this one, but kids respond almost instantly.

One of the most controversial and potent chapters in the book revolves around "nice" TV, and its potential contribution to the rise in bullying. Interestingly enough, it appears kids are not watching any more TV than a generation ago, but the new trend in programming is towards "prososcial" shows often seen on PBS like Clifford and Caillou or even Sponge Bob. They are supposed to teach our kids how to be 'nice.'

But, it isn't working. We have forgotten that kids do not function like adults, who can learn a resolution or moral of a story at the end. The conflict is what they ingest. Dr. Jamie Ostrov and Dr. Douglas Gentile spent two years studying preschool kids from well off Minnesota families and monitored the types of television programming they watched; from the more violent Power Rangers to the educational PBS shows like Arthur.

They were shocked to discover the increase in any sort of physical aggression was no different between the two, and even more astounded to find that the educational television had a dramatic effect on "relational aggression," which shows up in comments like, "you're not my friend," or "we're not going to play with you anymore."

How can this be? I can see all the new parents bemoaning it now; PBS essentially saves the sanity of any adult who is raising a toddler- don't take that away! Yet, check this out: Ithaca conducted a follow up study to review 470 half-hour television programs commonly watched by children, and recorded every time a character insulted someone or put someone down.

Ninety-six percent of all children's programming includes verbal insults, and of the 2,628 put-downs identified, only 50 circumstances featured some sort of reprimand or correction -- and not once in an educational show. "Fully 84 percent of the time there was only laughter or no response at all," found Dr. Cynthia Scheibe.

"The more kids watched, the crueler they'd be to their classmates," Ostorov reported from the Minnesota study. "The correlation was 2.5 times higher than the correlation between violent media and physical aggression. They were increasingly bossy, controlling, and manipulative, and it was stronger than the connection between violent media and physical aggression."

As a mother, I fully understand the power of guilt, and feeing guilty or responsible for every imperfection in our kids, or every misstep we may take as a parent. This book is not meant to make all of us feel guilty that we are wrecking our children's lives, but rather presents solid and even uplifting revelations into the unique make up of what kids need. Bottom line, kids need some conflict, they need to fight with their siblings, they lie, and they might even benefit from seeing their parents fight when they can also witness the resolution.

Some of the traditional concepts of more free time, being bored, setting consistent rules and not fretting over a game of cowboys and Indians may not be so bad after all.

Let's start a dialogue here this week and next. What say you, parents of younger children? Are you stressed out and wondering what happened to parenting life? What do you think of some of the current parenting trends- both positive and negative? Leave a comment below, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

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