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Simon Hayter

Just when you thought you knew how to raise a smart kid with good social skills and decent self-esteem, along comes NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children.

Although it's far from a how-to manual, the book has devastating implications for moms and dads of all parenting persuasions. In it, U.S. journalists Ashley Merryman and Po Bronson boil down a decade of psychology, neurobiology and social-science research - and conclude that some of our most cherished ideas about child-rearing are based on outdated theories and flawed experiments.

Who could have guessed that today's involved dads would raise more aggressive kids? Or that traditional strategies to encourage truth-telling would make kids better liars?

Mr. Bronson and Ms. Merryman tell us where our instincts about parenting went wrong.

Why does telling a kid he's smart set him up to fail?

Po Bronson: It teaches children the broader idea that you've either got it or you don't. As soon as they hit difficulty, these kids say, "Wow, I thought I had it, but I clearly don't." This creates real moments of identity crisis for them and they become risk-averse to challenges. In college, they have trouble choosing majors because they don't want to make mistakes. Later in life, they have trouble choosing careers.

And when they think it's about how smart you are, they stigmatize effort. To show effort means revealing that you can't cut it on your natural gifts.

Ashley Merryman: We want to give kids an understanding that their fate is in their hands - that if they put effort into it, they can succeed. Telling someone that their acuity in school is literally a gift is the opposite of showing what is under their control. Even if you are gifted, that's not a productive way to go.

Should parents praise effort and persistence instead?

PB: It's not about robotically saying, "You worked really hard, you worked really hard."

AM: The question is, does your praise include something that your kid could use as strategy for the next time? If I tell my tutoring students, "That's a nice essay," it doesn't help them because they don't know what was good about it. But if I say, "I liked the characters at the beginning because you took some time to describe how they looked and how they laughed," then they think, "Oh, I should describe characters - that's a good way to repeat the process."

Why are children of today's involved dads more likely to act out at school?

PB: Progressive dads are terrific in so many parenting measures. But they do tend to have a higher level of marital conflict and that's because they and their spouse are both caregivers, so they often disagree and that leads to conflict. That alone is one reason that's driving these kids to act out more at school. Also, the research shows that progressive dads tend to do a lot of experimenting with different kinds of disciplines they think are going to work.

AM: One day it's "no dessert," the next day it's "go to bed early" and the next day it's "oh, I can't even deal with this," so it's no punishment at all. That inconsistency gives really mixed messages to the kids. Traditional dads were more consistent in their punishment, or they left it to the moms to do.

How do parents unwittingly encourage kids to lie?

AM: A lot of the time, you as a parent already know that your kid has done something wrong. When you say "Did you ditch school?" you're setting him up to say, "No, I didn't." And then you get angry that he lied and ditched.

PM: Setting them up is one way. Another is parents telling white lies in front of their kids, who aren't able to distinguish between lies and white lies until they're at least 7 or 8. The third way is kids hearing constantly "don't tattle, don't tell." But at some point, when a child's friend might be doing something dangerous, the parents say, "Why didn't you tell me? You lied to me by not telling me." There's a real tradeoff here, because we do want kids to try to work things out on their own before they come to a grownup and complain. But the science says that largely they do [already]

How does educational television make kids bossy?

AM: Shows like Arthur and Sesame Street are modelling conflict in a very realistic way. There is a happy resolution at the end - people make up, they hug, they negotiate - but most of the program is about those conflict skills. And a three-year-old may not even be watching TV by the time the moral happens.

PB: It's not all bad. They are learning a lot of pro-social behaviour from those resolutions, but they're also learning a lot of bossy manipulative behaviour from the drama, so they're learning both.

Why don't Baby Einstein DVDs help kids learn to talk?

PB: Babies are lip-readers; they have to learn when sounds begin and end. Baby DVDs, not just Baby Einstein, largely use disembodied voiceovers. There is language being spoken with no faces, no lips. And it might as well be gibberish.

How can structured play time help kids develop self-control?

PB: People think that you teach self-control by telling kids a million times, "Keep you hands in your lap, don't touch those things." But there's no evidence that is the right way to go about it. What kids are doing when they're playing is their attention systems are fully operating and they have dopamine on the brain because they're having fun - this makes their brains juiced up, turbo-charged.

AM: For the parents who are saying, "My kid just has no self-control," ask that kid to play hide-and-seek and try to find him. When he's got himself curled up in a tiny ball in the closet, he's not focusing on being still, being quiet, paying attention or being a good boy - he's focusing on "don't let them find me." If he starts giggling, he'll get caught. That awareness that other people are paying attention to him and that what he does has consequences is part of developing self-control.

How do you know these ideas won't end up being dismissed as yet another parenting trend?

PB: We felt it was important to cover things that had at least a 10-year track record of science that had been reproduced by multiple scholars in multiple countries. We're listing several hundred sources for each chapter. We're not using just a single study to debunk what we used to know.