Sunday, November 3, 2013

Two Good "Nurture" Books for Skeptical Parents (Or Any Parents, Really)

Like many American parents of my generation, since having kids, one of my main pastimes is reading about the latest in understanding childhood development. This isn't a casual interest. It is a serious undertaking with the goal of developing optimum parenting strategies. Or at least it was.

 The American middle class is shrinking. Good jobs for people without college degrees have largely been shipped overseas, but the rising cost of higher education has way outpaced wage increases. Rising health care expenses have cost many people their homes and retirement savings. Many of my peers are choosing to have less kids or no kids because they don't want to be forced to choose between saving for their children's education and saving for their own retirement.

In short, American parents of my generation are all too aware that we do not live in the economy of our parents. We fear that if current economic trends continue, things will be even worse for our kids. So we're desperately searching for anything that might give our kids an edge.

Like most parents in my demographic, I was reading to my first child before she was even a year old. When she turned three I started her on Suzuki Piano, a pre-ballet class, a phonics program, a Spanish language program, and began doing age-appropriate math exercises on an almost daily basis. One might think I felt like a super-parent, but that was not the case. As a former teacher at a small, independent school, I was aware of progressive theories in early childhood education that insist that workbooks and flashcards are no-nos. I had also been reading about current theories in early childhood education for a college course I was teaching, and these supported the idea that "play is the work of children". As a result I became increasingly anxious that all the piano, ballet, language, and math might eat up too much of the much more valuable play time. I sought a middle ground out of uncertainty.

In January my local secular humanist group's book club read the book The Nurture Assumption: Why Children Turn Out The Way They Do by Judith Rich Harris. Just recently I finished reading NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. These books are similar to each other in that they both challenge common assumptions about how to best raise children to be intelligent, moral, confident and capable individuals. Both books are written for the layman, specifically targeted at parents. Both rely on scientific research to support their claims, though they are written by outsiders; Bronson and Merryman are journalists, and Judith Rich Harris had dropped out of graduate school and was writing college textbooks on developmental psychology when she began to form unique conclusions based on comparing the research of others.

What I like best about both of these books is that even though they assert their own conclusions about several aspects of childhood development and the ability of parents to influence children's development, parents would have a difficult time developing any formulaic strategies in response. This is partially because the analysis presented is complex and nuanced. It is also because both books, especially The Nurture Assumption, emphasize the important influence of factors other than parenting.

Scientific studies require narrowing a focus down tight and conducting experiments in very specific context. Therefore it is usually only after many related studies are compared and analyzed over a significant period of time that we can start to see a complete enough picture that allows us to develop effective strategies for achieving specific goals in the real world.

Unfortunately, too often the results of specific studies are reported and people immediately react based on assumptions that go beyond the scope of those studies. For instance, parents read reports about how babies who hear more words develop more extensive vocabularies more quickly, so then those parents begin babbling on in a contrived manner endlessly to their infants and toddlers before they (or the researchers who did the studies) understand the more complex mechanisms behind those results. In NutureShock, the authors explain how the popular series of Baby Einstein videos were developed based on research in childhood development. But because the maker of the videos made false assumptions about what the research meant, the result was a product which achieved the opposite of its intended results. (Babies who watch the videos end up having smaller vocabularies.)

As a parent seeking optimum strategies for giving my kids an edge in an uncertain economy, these books have left me feeling a bit dis-empowered. NurtureShock convinced me that I couldn't trust common wisdom or even my own intuition. And The Nurture Assumption left me thinking that I have basically no control over the values and personalities that my children develop. Yet I feel I'm better for having read them.

Being a skeptic who was raised religious, I've been down a similar path before. I'm at peace with the idea of no cosmic justice or afterlife. In fact, I've now come to a point where I find my secular worldview preferable, not only because I think it is true, but because I find honor in having the courage to face an imperfect universe, and humble awe in viewing life as a precious, fleeting, gratitude-inspiring anomaly. I can, too, come to peace with the idea that my parenting style is but one (perhaps even minuscule) factor, in a complex wave of elements that will influence who my kids become. More than just come to peace with it, I can see how much that takes the pressure off and allows me to more fully enjoy parenting.

My oldest child is now four. She still does Spanish, math, ballet, phonics, and Suzuki piano on a regulated basis (although combined these all take up a relatively small percentage of her time, and stimulating free play time does dominate her waking hours.) I no longer feel so torn and anxious over whether I'm doing the best job I can or not. After a year, these supplemental activities have become an integrated part of her and my lives. They have become simply what we do in our home. It feels right because we both often take pleasure in them, and there is a ordinary give and take going on between mother and daughter.

Once upon a time I made a plan. I had developed a formula because I felt that was necessary. But it's not a formula anymore. Now I'm just being the parent that I am. I see that the approaches I take and choices I make for this child will be somewhat different for her younger sister, because they are different people. If there is an optimum parenting style for raising them, I can't know what it is, so why worry about it?

Life is uncertain. Making choices is complicated. Of course I'm going to keep trying to give my kids an edge in the world in the best ways I know. But most of the time I'll simply enjoy watching them grow up.