Book Review: Nurture Shock

I used to say really important books come around at the rate of one per year. The rest of the year could be spent searching for the wildly engaging, the madly entertaining, the eye-opening, the original, but once you found that “important” book, you might as well not search for another until the old calendar is exchanged.

This isn’t meant to demean the quality of reading material being produced today, far from it. I can find a wonderful tome a week without even digging into my pile very far. Important books aren’t those that make us happy, often the opposite is true. Important books are the ones that we shake at non-readers, pleading (even though we know it’s fruitless) that they must read this book. “It’s important.”

One publishing company is challenging that idea. They’re called TwelveBooks and their goal is to produce that many works a year, concentrating on quality rather than quantity. Know what? They’re nailing it. I can’t remember the last time I mentioned a publisher before a book in a review. What TwelveBooks is doing is building a brand, a reputation. For me, it started with Dave Cullen’s COLUMBINE, an Earth-shattering look at the most famous of school shootings and its root causes. Now they are cementing their reputation, and validating their business plan, with NURTURE SHOCK by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman.

NURTURE SHOCK is, quite simply, a book that every human being should read. Why? Because it’s about us. How we develop. Why we behave in certain ways. I say every human being, rather than every breeder, because you don’t need to be a parent to influence children, or to have expectations of teens, or to be able to converse with your reproducing friends. One thing we all have in common is that we were children. One of the great results of reading NURTURE SHOCK is a deeper understanding of our own development.

So what makes the book so important? Bronson and Merryman use ten chapters to explore the latest findings in child development. Culling from the fields of psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary theory, linguistics, and more, they reveal the groundbreaking work that is left out of the headlines largely because the results are not what we want or expect to hear. This breakdown in how science is spread, relying on the tastes and whims of untrained journalists to pick and choose, creates the need for books like NURTURE SHOCK. Again, you need to read it, even if you won’t like it.

A sampling of the results discussed: Childhood obesity might be the result of not enough sleep. Moving the argument to another room might be the worst thing parents can do. Babyspeak DVD’s may stunt your child’s verbal development (since those eight wasted hours per week weren’t spent doing something productive). How about this one: children lie more often to permissive parents than they do to parents that set rules and guidelines.

What NURTURE SHOCK highlights for me is a glaring truth: parents generally don’t know the first thing about raising kids. This ignorance is combined with the hubris generated by their mastery of having produced them. As a non-breeder, I often get shoved out of child development discussions on no other basis than the fact that my wife takes regular pills. Somehow, my reading of child psychology is trumped by my friends having read the Kama Sutra. I suppose these dogs that roam my neighborhood know more about puppy-rearing than Cesar Millan? I don’t think so.

The only problem I have with NURTURE SHOCK is its lack of a guiding evolutionary philosophy. The reason child development is nearly identical across all cultures is because we’re the same animal. Developmental theory is best understood by talking about the environment in which these traits evolved and the stimuli they expect as they grow.

Leaving out genetic and evolutionary factors created a gap in the chapter on aggression, as the authors spoke of popularity and acceptance without mentioning “alpha male” or “pack hierarchy.” The chapter on lying could have used a touch of evolutionary game theory and a mention of the manipulation of pecking order and what this means for reproductive success (and the spread of those traits). Talking about the lag in pre-frontal lobe development and not mentioning the need for young males to accept risk in order to win position, seemed like a glaring omission.

Without understanding the underlying causes for the behaviors discussed in NURTURE SHOCK, I feel we settle for half-measures. Whether Bronson and Merryman left the evolution out to simplify the book, to guard against critical rejection, or out of ignorance doesn’t matter. The reality is that parents are hardly ready for the baby step they do provide, much less the intellectual leap I’d like to see them attempt. I’m left strongly commending the authors for shuffling us forward at all and hoping enough readers will be motivated enough to dig just a little deeper.

9 out of 10

Purchase Nurture Shock at Amazon

9 responses to “Book Review: Nurture Shock”

  1. Great review. I’m working my way through the book quickly, and just amazed. Stunning information, and a really easy read. (Very compelling voice.)

    Thanks for mentioning my book, too. And I feel the same about Twelve Books. They seem to have stumbled on just the right model for publishing. They were able to do so much for my book by having just one all month and marshaling all their resources behind it.

    (I also got a great edit. I talk to lots of my writer friends who say their editor basically said, “Great job,” and sent it on to copy-editing. Twelve has a great editor in Jonathan Karp, and he really dug into my book and helped me make it better. Great editors make much better books.)

  2. I agree with your editing comments. After getting the full treatment, I’ve become sensitive to rough spots in other books.

    I daresay, it’s made me a better (if somewhat crankier) reviewer.

  3. Penny A. Wright Avatar

    Thanks for the review of Nurture Shock. It is a book I look forward to reading and like you, I commend authors who are “shuffling us forward at all.” I’d like to speak to your wish that the authors had looked more at “pack hierarchy.” I confess that in my work as a family therapist, it is appealing to have animal studies that appear to help us make sense of human behavior. Our notions of “pack behavior” and “alpha males” are now so popular that they are rarely questioned, and I am as guilty as anyone at assuming these common ideas were scientifically grounded. Surely we have all seen countless films of primate groups and lion prides that seem to confirm the notion of the “alpha male.” Turns out it’s more complicated than that, at least for canines, and more interesting. According to Ken McCourt, an expert on wolves, the popular idea of an “alpha male” even in wolf packs is grossly oversimplified. Attempting to translate wolf behavior to the behavior of domestic dogs who never have to hunt for food leads to many confusions and, attractive though it might be (the mind loves symmetry) attempting to apply these ideas to humans is more questionable still. For a chance to shake up popular assumptions and perhaps raise even more questions, you can hear Ken McCourt’s discussion on podcast at http://www.blogtalk regardingrover/ 2009/11/03/ Regarding- Rover–.. .

  4. Penny A. Wright Avatar

    After my post the message says “your comment is awaiting moderation” what does this mean???

  5. I’m just not sure canine behavior should trump our research into primates. It would be like looking at jellyfish to explain our behavior.

    I do understand that pack hierarchy is rarely as simple as we pretend it to be, but it exists. It’s in our DNA. And dogs aren’t sexually dimorphic enough for much of their social behavior to apply to us.

    I’m off to check out the podcast. Thanks for the comments and link!

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  7. Penny, my site requires that I approve all non-spam posts. I get a ton of Russians trying to sell my readers prescription drugs the don’t need in a language they can’t read. The only alternative is to turn on a little program that makes you do some math for each post, but as I only get a handful of comments a day, I just approve them myself.

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