Why our instincts about children can be so off the mark-Woodmam

My wife has great taste in art, with one exception. In the guest bedroom of our house hangs an acrylic still life—a pot of red geraniums beside an ocher-toned watering can, with a brown picket fence in the background. It’s ugly, but that’s not its worst sin. My real problem is that it’s from a paint-by-numbers kit.

Every time I look at it, I want to sneak it out of the house and dump it in the corner trash can.

My wife won’t let me, though, because it was painted way back in 1961 by her great-grandmother. I am all for hanging on to things for sentimental reasons, and our house is full of her family’s artifacts, but I just don’t think this painting contains or conveys any genuine sentiment. There was probably a hint of it the day her great-grandmother bought the paint-by-numbers kit at the crafts store—a glimmer of a more creative, inspired life—but the finished product, in my opinion, kind of insults that hope. Rather than commemorating her memory, it diminishes it.

Painting by numbers skyrocketed to success in the early 1950s. It was hugely popular—the iPod of its time. It was marketed on the premise that homemakers were going to have a vast surplus of free time thanks to dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines. In three years, the Palmer Paint Company sold over twelve million kits. As popular as the phenomenon was, it was also always surrounded by controversy. Critics were torn between the democratic ideal of letting everyone express themselves and the robotic, conformist way that expression was actually being manifested.

The other day, I was trying to remember how I felt about the science of child development before Ashley Merryman and I began this book, several years ago—when all of a sudden that painting of potted geraniums popped into my head. I had to go home and stare at that ugly painting for an evening before I could figure out why. Which I ultimately realized was this:

The mix of feelings engendered by paint-by-numbers is similar to the mix of feelings engendered by books about the science of children. This is because the science has always carried with it the connotation that parenting should be “by the book.” If the science says X, you’re supposed to do X, just like paint-by-numbers instructed hobbyists to use Cornsilk and Burnt Umber for the handle of the watering can.

So if a few years ago, someone had told me, “You really ought to read this book about the new science of kids,” I would have politely thanked him and then completely ignored his recommendation.

Like most parents, my wife and I bought a few baby books when our son was born. After the first year, we put them away, until three years later, when our daughter was born and the books once again graced our shelves. Until our daughter turned one—after that, we no longer had any interest in the books.

Most of our friends felt the same way. We agreed that we didn’t parent “by the book,” nor did we want to. We parented on instinct. We were madly in love with our children, and we were careful observers of their needs and development. That seemed enough.

At that same time, Ashley and I had been co-writing columns for Time Magazine. Living in Los Angeles, Ashley had spent years running a small tutoring program for inner-city children. She has been something like a fairy godmother to about 40 kids, a constant presence in their lives from kindergarten through high school. Guided by her instincts, Ashley has had no shortage of ideas about how to steer the kids in her program. She has never lacked inspiration. All she felt she needed was more tutors and some school supplies.

In that sense, neither Ashley nor I were aware of what we were missing. We did not say to ourselves, “Wow, I really need to brush up on the science of child development, because I’m messing up.” Instead, we were going fairly merrily along, until we sort of stumbled into writing this book.

We had been researching the science of motivation in grown-ups, and one day we wondered where kids get their self-confidence from. We began to investigate this new angle. (The story we ultimately wrote ran on the cover of New York Magazine in February of 2007, and it’s expanded here as Chapter 1 of this book.) What we learned surprised us and was simultaneously disorienting. Prior to that story, our instincts led us to believe, quite firmly, that it was important to tell young children they were smart, in order to buoy their confidence. However, we uncovered a body of science that argued, extremely convincingly, that this habit of telling kids they’re smart was backfiring. It was in fact undermining children’s confidence.

We changed our behavior after researching that story, but we were left with a lingering question: how could our instincts have been so off-base?

According to lore, the maternal instinct is innate. Women are assured it doesn’t matter if they spent their twenties avoiding babies, or if they don’t consider themselves very maternal. The moment after birth, when the baby’s first handed to his mother, maternal instincts magically kick in, right along with the hormones. As a mother, you will know what to do, and you will continue to know for the next eighteen years. This fountain of knowledge is supposed to come as part of a matched set of ovaries and a desire to wear expensive high heels.

Thanks to this mythos, we use the word “instinct” to convey the collective wisdom gleaned intuitively from our experiences raising kids. But this is an overgeneralization of the term. Really, the actual instinct—the biological drive that kicks in—is the fierce impulse to nurture and protect one’s child. Neuroscientists have even located the exact neural network in the brain where this impulse fires. Expecting parents can rely on this impulse kicking in—but as for how best to nurture, they have to figure it out.

In other words, our “instincts” can be so off-base because they are not actually instincts.

Today, with three years of investigation behind us, Ashley and I now see that what we imagined were our “instincts” were instead just intelligent, informed reactions. Things we had figured out. Along the way, we also discovered that those reactions were polluted by a hodgepodge of wishful thinking, moralistic biases, contagious fads, personal history, and old (disproven) psychology—all at the expense of common sense.

“Nurture shock,” as the term is generally used, refers to the panic—common among new parents—that the mythical fountain of knowledge is not magically kicking in at all.

This book will deliver a similar shock—it will use the fascinating new science of children to reveal just how many of our bedrock assumptions about kids can no longer be counted on.

The central premise of this book is that many of modern society’s strategies for nurturing children are in fact backfiring—because key twists in the science have been overlooked.

The resulting errant assumptions about child development have distorted parenting habits, school programs, and social policies. They affect how we think about kids, and thus how we interpret child behavior and communicate with the young. The intent of this book is not to be alarmist, but to teach us to think differently—more deeply and clearly—about children. Small corrections in our thinking today could alter the character of society long-term, one future-citizen at a time.

The topics covered in this book are wide-ranging, devoted to equal parts brain fiber and moral fiber. They relate to children of every age from tots to teens. It could not be further from a paint-by-numbers approach. Specifically, we have chapters devoted to confidence, sleep, lying, racial attitudes, intelligence, sibling conflict, teen rebellion, self-control, aggression, gratitude, and the acquisition of language. The prose throughout is our mutual collaboration.

Along the way, we will push you to rethink many sacred cows—too many to fully list here, but some highlights include the following: self-esteem, Noam Chomsky, Driver’s Ed, the idea that children are naturally blind to racial constructs, emotional intelligence, warning kids not to tattle, educational cartoons, the early identification of the gifted, the notion that television is making kids fat, and the presumption that it’s necessarily a good sign if a child can say “no” to peer pressure.

We chose these topics because the research surprised us—it directly challenged the conventional point of view on how kids grow up.

However, once we parsed through the science and reviewed the evidence, the new thinking about children felt self-evident and logical, even obvious. It did not feel like we had to raise children “by the book.” It felt entirely natural, a restoration of common sense. The old assumptions we once had seemed to be nothing but a projection of wishful thinking. Once we overcame the initial shock, we found ourselves plugged into children in a whole new way.

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