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Book Review: NurtureShock by Bronson and Merryman

Book Review:

nurtureshockNurtureShock: New Thinking about Children

Po Bronson & Ashley Merryman 2009

New York Magazine journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman team up to add commentary and more information to their articles in this new book published by Twelve, a division of the Hachette Book Group.

The last page of the book has this blurb about Twelve:

“TWELVE was established in August 2005 with the objective of publishing no more than one book per month. We strive to publish the singular book, by authors who have a unique perspective and compelling authority.”

They lost me at “compelling authority.”

Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman are journalists, not scientists. This book isn’t a synthesis of research; it’s an opinion piece with a conservative bent (indeed, Ashley Merryman’s back-flap bio boasts that she “lives in Los Angeles, where she runs a church-based tutoring program for inner-city children.”)

I’m not advocating gatekeeping; there’s definitely a place for independent research and grass-roots efforts. Child Psychology isn’t one of those places. NutureShock is just another parenting book in a long line of books written by reporters for profit. The authors have a reputation for reporting on overlooked studies with rare results, as they boast in their chapter notes that their New York Magazine articles were popular. Compiling and expounding on past work seems to be the best way to write a book these days; this doesn’t mean that the articles, as a book, make a cohesive or worthy statement.

Basically, I found the book to be the amateur, armchair science that is fun to read in small bites while on the train. Read it for entertainment purposes, but don’t implement the few approaches outlined at home; they aren’t tested enough, and the results have yet to be repeated to gain respect in academia.

The book does, unwittingly, bring up some good points about statistics, studies, and systemic judgments based on those studies. Statistics and study results are nothing to respect when presented alone. The best way to make decisions about anything is to weigh multiple instances of evidence, to never rely on one event. The authors do their best to rip up school district decisions on testing, anti-obesity and anti-bullying programs, by claiming these decisions were not based on scientific results but just made using traditional thought and instinct. While some programs in districts may be made more based on hope than science, the majority of IQ testing and other educational programs are based on years of study and a large meta-analysis of results of hundreds of studies. To suggest otherwise, as the authors do, is hasty, irresponsible, and insulting to educational scholars, teachers, and parents.

The authors proceed to cite a study here, a successful preschool program there, to illustrate their point that decisions about children should be based on evidence. I agree. But A LOT of evidence. Not an anecdotal story or two (which the authors provide), nor 1 or 2 labs that keep getting the same results for their handful of articles. The authors bemoan the lack of long-term studies in almost every chapter, yet fail to mention the very sophisticated and accurate methods of behavioral statistics answers this issue.  They sing praises of a preschool program called Tools of the Mind, but conveniently forget to list the challenges associated with the program.  This book is a thinly disguised attempt to steer the conversation toward a conservative agenda in education.

The writing is ok. Their lack of academic tone in parts is jarring. For example, on page 190, the authors use colloquial language where they shouldn’t have:

“… a separate word to distinguish the kind of popular teen who diminishes others –in Dutch, for instance, the idiomatic expression popie-jopie refers to teens who are bitchy, slutty, cocky, loud and arrogant.”

An academic article would have used words like “promiscuous,” “disagreeable,” and “condescending,” especially since the Dutch don’t use the English colloquial words that are listed. I also question the choice of listing the derogatory words for females first, or at all.

At times the authors conduct their own “studies,” but we should disregard these results. We have no idea what the sampling was, what the control group was given (if there even was a control group), or how the study was designed at all.  Until their results can be repeated many times, then one-off studies should merely bring up ideas for further study.

The only good that comes out NutureShock is the reminder to hold studies, especially those recounted by non-scientist media, in suspicion. If you are planning to pick up this book, read it for entertainment purposes only.  It may make you think a bit differently in some aspects of child-rearing, like how your teen may see arguing as the opposite of lying, or how we whites actively avoid talking about race. The authors should have stayed with reflecting trends in traditional parenting, and avoided passing themselves off as authorities.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Andrew 20 September 2009, 6:12 pm

    Sounds like it could be an interesting book, but it’s hard to get a handle on what the salient arguments are from your notes above. Certainly, a critique of policies based on IQ testing wouldn’t be novel. I’m not a parent, so this is not a genre I’ve read much in, but I doubt I’d be much interested in delving into primary research myself. Journalists who are able to digest that research–which, if it’s like any other body of academic research, is riven with significant dissents–are instrumental, whether they do it for profit or not.

  • PurpleCar 20 September 2009, 7:48 pm

    Andrew: It’s an interesting book, but it purports to be more significant than it is. The authors shouldn’t have portrayed themselves as experts. Instead, they should have remained unbiased journalists (as much as possible). You’re correct that I don’t go into dissecting their theories, mostly because I find that their theories have no reliable data to back them. Reliable data may come about at some point, but more studies need to be done before the authors can claim what they do.

    These authors aren’t digesting and synthesizing research for the public. They are picking and choosing rare studies to illustrate their own belief systems. I would have appreciated genuine reporting, of course! But they give only a very narrow view of the field. I find that irresponsible.

    I should’ve known that the book was going to be a silly money-maker, just judging from the marketing infomercial the authors posted on Amazon. Real substance doesn’t need a hokey “BUY ME! BUY ME!” commercial.

    Thanks for weighing in, and I love your site! West Philly rocks. We were just at the community fair/jazz fest at 40th & Market yesterday.


  • Po Bronson 20 September 2009, 8:22 pm


    The book has 70 pages of printed sources, and another 7,000 words of footnotes. To say there’s no reliable date – well, look it up, it’s right there plainly for all to see. To say it’s picking and choosing rare studies is factually incorrect. In each chapter it’s a couple hundred sources, and in each chapter, the science covered has at least a ten year track record, reproduced from multiple labs around the world with leading scholars. If you attended the scientific conferences where these ideas are presented and discussed, you would discover that most social scientists and education researchers are well familiar with the material, and have been for some time – they don’t even find it controversial. Can you please find one scholar who suggests the material in NurtureShock is incorrect? We invite you to come with us, and attend AAAS or SRA with us this winter.

    Then you suggest we have a conservative agenda, evidenced by Ashley running a church based tutoring program. Have you done any research on us? Ashley’s program, for inner city youth, has no conservative agenda at all. Her agenda is to help them with their homework. Ashley is so far from a conservative it’s laughable! She worked in the Clinton administration, and for Vice President Gore. Haven’t you seen Rush Limbaugh attacking us last week for being liberals?

    It sounds like you didn’t look at the sources or do any research on us before making your claims. Did you do any basic reporting, such as talk to scholars in the fields we cover, or talk to scholars who’ve worked with us? Did you look at any of the data we cite?

    You suggest we’re masquerading as experts. Not at all – we’re journalists who are covering this beat. Our journalism for this has won four national science-writing awards, but zero science awards – our expertise is in the journalism part. The only polling we did was of people’s conventional opinions about kids – no science at all about kids.

    Christine, you’ve done nice work on your blog. I don’t know why you make these claims about us. Yes, there’s a ton of great science being done about child development. What is wrong with filling readers in on that research?

    thanks for listening,

    Po Bronson

  • PurpleCar 20 September 2009, 9:34 pm

    Hi Po. I love a man who has Google alerts on his name! Well done! It’s a rare trait in a journalist, I find. You all are catching up though and it’s nice to see.

    I take issue not with your 7000 footnotes. In fact, like other books I’ve read, the resource section alone may be worth the cost of the book if one is interested in the subject. I take issue with your tone. I peer review for journals, I have an advanced degree in Ed., and I read profusely; I’m quite familiar with the difference between your mainstream book and academic research. I’m also familiar with the research in the field, and I read every single page of your notes and your footnotes. What you have written is a highly entertaining, mainstream book, not a balanced synthesis or meta-analysis of the data.

    You chose to site the new studies that attempt to debunk the traditional thoughts and practices of the educational systems. Many of the studies you use to back up your claims have yet to be repeated. And as the book laments once, the longitudinal data just aren’t there. That’s not to say that longitudinal data don’t exist in Education; they do. Although your many references are impressive, I didn’t find the book to be written by authors who have a keen sense of meta-analysis and behavioral statistics methods. Your tone indicates that you have this background knowledge. Do you have advanced degrees? (I’m seriously asking this.) As a researcher and educator, I find the media manipulation of academic journal articles appalling and dangerous. You mention the media in this way, but I found your book to do the same. You synthesized only the research that proved your point and backed up your opinions.

    The purpose of your book is to get mainstream people thinking in different ways about how we raise kids and to get educators/policy makers to think more about programs before implementing them. It is commentary, not unbiased reporting. With your Tools of the Mind section especially, you neglected to outline the challenges school districts face when implementing the program. I expected to see a balanced review, but it didn’t come. Initial scores from a smattering of studies about the program and anecdotal evidence (e.g. foodfight in the cafeteria) aren’t enough to sway hardcore educators. You need to give a more realistic picture. Another anecdotal piece that took away your credibility was Ashley’s experience with her niece. What does that prove? Why add it? It’s not even a third-party human interest anecdote, it is one from the author of the book! How hokey is that? You can write only the aspects of the story that slants the piece your way. That bit was like another nail in the coffin for me. If you were writing a serious, academic book, you wouldn’t have added the anecdotes that you did, or any at all for that matter.

    I didn’t do research on you or Ashley. I’m not familiar with your work in the New York Magazine and I didn’t read any of it. Forming an opinion about you as people would be disingenuous; I judged the book on my impressions of it and it alone. I’m sure we’d all get along quite well in person, but that’s not my purpose here. I’m thrilled to hear that Ashley worked for Clinton and Gore, two people whom I respect greatly, but your book doesn’t give the impression that you’re derailed for being bleeding-heart liberals.

    You purposely added the study in the catholic school, listed the catholic paper Ashley wrote for, and added that bio line for marketing reasons. You are trying to reach a wide market and you or your publisher thought it would be a great idea to mention the catholic things in at least 3 places, including the text. The Roman Catholic church has a long and sordid history when it comes to funding studies (I went to Catholic school from 1-12th grades, I grew up in a strict catholic family. Believe me, I’m familiar). The ghostwriting in medical journals is petty crime compared to the manipulation of data the Vatican has been shown to do. By marketing this aspect of Ashley’s life, you take away credibility as researchers. That may be unfair and prejudiced, but that’s the cold reality of science research.

    I could Google search you guys until the internet breaks, but the bits and bytes will never add up to a full picture. I have to form opinions on what’s in front of me. You have to be prepared that people will judge that as they will. I personally think the back flap is a marketing mistake, as is your video on Amazon, but what do I know? I’m not a publisher. I don’t fault you for wanting to market your book, but some marketing will piss off someone somewhere. Unfortunately, I’m not the only one who will judge the book that way. Many people will pick up and read that back flap and then put the book back down. It doesn’t matter, though. From what you are saying about your work and reputation and awards, this little review on this little blog won’t mean anything. Your book will still hit the best-seller’s list.

    You say you’re not masquerading as experts, but I’ve read the whole book, including the pages and pages of footnotes. Please tell me where in the book you deny that you are experts, because I missed it. The tone of the book is more like expertise and less like reporting. I can understand how you fell into this trap, but it’s still my job to mention it. It comes across as agenda because of the anecdotal fluff, the unbalanced portrayal, and the mention of religion (even in the slightest sense). I just wish you did fill readers in on the research. I wish you concentrated on one or two aspects and gave a full picture instead of jumping around to parenting, to Disengaged Dads (which you didn’t really address), to pre-school, to gratitude research, to positive psychology and so on. You could have had a series of very compelling books if you decided to hone in on two or three related areas and gave a full picture, truly synthesizing and reporting on the majority of accepted and respected research. Instead, you did what bloggers do: pile up a bunch of unrelated articles and stick them in a book. It doesn’t much matter that you list a bunch of footnotes, Po. A list does not a synthesis make.

    Thanks for coming over to comment! That was exciting for me. I’m sorry I was disappointed in your work. Maybe next time you can pick one aspect and really dig deep (and hire a peer-reviewer as well as an editor). You’re an elite and hugely successful writer with whom very few can compete; I wish you the best!


  • Wendy 21 September 2009, 4:56 pm

    I found this blog while searching “NurtureShock” on Twitter. I’m a bit surprised that Po Bronson even bothered commenting. As a parent of teen/tween girls, I really enjoyed the book and want to find out more about the research studies mentioned that apply to myself and other parents. I never once thought either author was an “expert” any more than I thought Neil Strauss is an “expert” survivalist/emergency responder in his book “Emergency”, which I read prior to “NurtureShock”.
    Po Bronson was able to address you without being snarky. It’s a shame you couldn’t return the courtesy.


  • PurpleCar 21 September 2009, 5:12 pm

    Thanks for commenting, Wendy.

    I was courteous to Mr. Bronson. Disagreement doesn’t automatically mean rudeness.

    Rude is found in undertones. I had none. I was straightforward with my criticism. I wouldn’t have printed the more direct criticism if Mr. Bronson didn’t call for it specifically with his comment. For an example in rude undertone, your last line has a condescending one (“It’s a shame” part). You can disagree with my opinion of the book, but I would have given your criticism more weight in total if you didn’t descend into that pot shot.

    I’m happy that you didn’t assume that the authors were experts. They should have made that more clear in the beginning of the book, as is the tradition with books like this. They seemed to conveniently left that disclaimer out. Don’t tell me they simply overlooked it; they are seasoned writers with expert publishers and they know better.

    I enjoyed the book too, but that’s not my point. My point was that the research the authors cite is new, the authors aren’t experts, and they don’t give proper warnings about those pitfalls.

    These are fair and legitimate criticisms of the book.

    I, too, was surprised Mr. Bronson commented. Why bother with a blog post that is on page 8 of the Google search? And to comment so quickly after my post! Baffling.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment. Good luck with your teen daughters! I hear it can be quite a challenge. Maybe implementing the author’s theory that teens see arguing as the opposite of lying will help you appreciate the notorious tiffs of teen girls. A very good and well-respected book in the field, which you may have read already, is How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber. I’ve read this book many times and it has solid advice. She also has a teen version (which I haven’t yet read): How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk. Instead of one or two studies with food for thought, like NurtureShock, Ms. Faber’s book gives exercises and instruction on technique, as well as theory. If you liked the “let’s-go-against-traditional-thinking” ideas of NurtureShock, you’ll probably find those books enlightening too.


  • DrCliftonchadwick 19 November 2009, 7:34 am

    In a web page,http://www.publicschoolinsights.org/visionaries/AshleyMerryman, Merryman says:

    But what is the advantage of this early identification? All the science says if you are doing any real assessment before third grade, you are only finding socioeconomic advantage and not actual intelligence or giftedness at all.

    It’s just that once you keep getting into more rarefied environments, then those kids benefit. If gifted program kids get to go to museums, it’s not surprising then they know more about art. So in some ways that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    In terms of what you were saying about socioeconomics and race…Neurologically, there just really isn’t any support for that.

    We do see country patterns, where there are sort of national comparative IQs. And westernized more affluent countries that have more education have a national IQ that is higher than another country that would be more developing. But your IQ rises about, I think, eight points for every eight months you are in school. So if you educated that population we would expect that their IQs would go up.

    So I don’t really see any real neuroscience supporting any racial or socioeconomic differences. It’s just that as the kid develops, what kind of enrichment they are getting, what kind of environment are they in? And does that have an effect? Absolutely.

    This comment is rather irresponsible. As Murray explains ((Real Education) there are socio-econmic differences in IQ, IQ is stable, it is easily identified at six to eight years of age, is is quite predictive of outcome. The comment about neuroscience has far less to do with IQ than with the current state of neuroscience. The only thing that makes any sense (from the web page, I have not read the book, which has not arrived in the Middle East) is the comment that “So it turns out that achievement builds self-esteem, but building self-esteem does not increase achievement—it’s a one-way street, not a two-way.” But that is old hat,. quite clearly demonstrated by Bandura about 30 years ago.

    • PurpleCar 19 November 2009, 9:14 am

      Thanks for your comment, Dr. Chadwick!

      Remind me to which comment you are referring about socioeconomics and race? There is no neurological “cause” for that, surely. To say so would be racism. Socioeconomics and academic performance are most certainly correlated, but as you and I know, correlation does not equal causation.

      I’m in a bit of a morning rush right now, but I really appreciate what you wrote here and will comment further later. Thanks!



  • MariaLupron 31 December 2009, 2:20 am

    Nurture Shock should be read with great caution. Parents should not rely solely on the authors points in the book. I hold a Masters in Educational Psychology and found this book to have many flaws in providing sound empirical research findings. It seemed like the authors have gathered a whole bunch of poor published studies to support their opinions. When I read a book like this, I seek out reliable sources that come from highly known Journals. Of the journal articles cited in the book, I found them to be weak in supporting their claims. In Chapter 2, the authors have used an unpublished/graduate students’ dissertation regarding children’s racial atitudes to support their opinions ( not convincing). The authors have also formulated a biased theory they call “The Diverse Environmental Theory”. The author has used his own son’s experience (over generalizing) to formulate a theory of their own but seems more like a hypothesis that is in need for much more review and empirical research to support their claims. Although I’ve enjoyed reading the book, I find this book to be a dangerous read, especially for a parent who has no background knowledge on child development, to be able to make clear distinctions on sound valid research in the field. The tone of the book makes it seem like the authors are experts in the field of child development but are NOT. It’s funny how no where in the book have they talked about their credentials. Nice try!!

    • PurpleCar 31 December 2009, 9:50 am

      ROCK ON, Sister. Totally valid points.

      I think the authors were trying to hook on to Malcolm Gladwell’s coattails, trying to grab some of his market. But Gladwell makes no mistake in pretending to be an expert in anything. He is a journalist and he makes that clear. This book is, as you put it so well, a dangerous read. Gladwell tells interesting stories that are food for thought. NurtureShock tries to report results of supported studies, but the data just aren’t there to back up their claims. And the anecdotal stories are deceiving and, as you say, over-generalizations. It was a very annoying read for me.

      Thanks for contributing some sense into the mix. Thankfully I haven’t seen the book get much press, perhaps we can safely assume that others have had the ability to see through its crap too.



  • Omar 20 January 2011, 8:38 pm

    Sorry, I’m late, Christine. But your tone of the review just says you’re so jealous. Your tone doesn’t show you’re a professional reviewer. Clearly. And not only you can tell people’s tone by just “reading their writing.” Excellent! How does my tone sound?

    • PurpleCar 20 January 2011, 10:02 pm

      That’s not jealous, it’s pissed. I care about this subject.
      You’re right that I should have written it more professionally. I wrote this a
      while ago when I was just “blogging” and not “writing.” I won’t apologize for
      this. My hobbies and career focus have changed since then; you’ll notice my tone
      has changed lately. My opinion of this book has not changed, however. It’s
      dreck. The authors were lazy editorializers. Most of the comments on Goodreads,
      and in email, etc, say people agree with my assessment.

      Thanks for commenting though.


  • Zedicus 29 March 2011, 9:57 pm

    You made the accusation that they were servicing a conservative agenda without doing any research. Your review has zero credibility as a result. You attempt to cover for this in your response to Mr. Bronson’s comment, but you only make excuses. You assumed that they were experts (despite any rational person noting they aren’t doctors) and you assumed they have a conservative agenda (based on nothing but a few religious references in the book). The author’s never claimed to be experts, and as far as I know, they aren’t required to, since they don’t have ‘dr.’ in front of their names. I agree with you that the tone has an eery tone of ‘expertise’ much of the time, but the lengthy anecdotes should have given it away. And I don’t see where you drew the extremely flawed ‘conservative agenda’ opinion from. The authors never claim that religious education is best, or that educational funding should be cut, or propped-up private schools as better than public ones.

    In your response to Wendy’s comment, you said you weren’t impolite in your rebuttal. However, you started the response with ‘I love a man who has Google alerts on his name! Well done!’ This is classic snark, and you were either in denial or outright dishonest in saying your tone was polite. He could just as easily have heard about your review from a friend or coworker. Yet another wild assumption on your part. Either that or you were intentionally being rude. Lose/lose for you.

    That said, I will agree with you entirely that the book is heavily anecdotal and woefully short. There are many times in the book where the writing and evidence do not meet the creteria of what an educated reader wants or expects in a book about science. But this is because it is a mainstream book written by journalists (if written a bit too didactically). It has to be interesting and not too factually dense to appeal to a wide audience. If what’s in the book is interesting to the reader, they can then choose to look into things further using the vast number of sources listed. If the purpose of the book is to challenge basic assumptions and provide some scientific data to support the challenge, then it is a success, in my opinion.

    A year ago you were attempting to defend a review that suffers from serious flaws (false assumptions, poor tone). You admit to this in your comment to Omar a few months ago. I honestly agree that this book deserves serious criticism, and you are one of the few sources that seems willing to offer it. I believe you would do many people a favor if you rewrote this review with your criticism more pointed, refined and less vitriolic, and the ‘conservative agenda’ claim removed.

  • Zedicus 29 March 2011, 10:04 pm

    Also, I will cede that it would be best if a quick ‘We aren’t experts’ were somewhere in the book, preferably near the beginning.