Stories by Po Bronson

  • creativity-test-tease

    Forget Brainstorming

    Brainstorming in a group became popular in 1953 with the publication of a business book, "Applied Imagination." But it’s been proven not to work since 1958, when Yale researchers found that the technique actually reduced a team’s creative output: the same number of people generate more and better ideas separately than together.
  • creativity-test-tease

    The Creativity Crisis

    Back in 1958, Ted Schwarzrock was an 8-year-old third grader when he became one of the “Torrance kids,” a group of nearly 400 Minneapolis children who completed a series of creativity tasks newly designed by professor E. Paul Torrance. Schwarzrock still vividly remembers the moment when a psychologist handed him a fire truck and asked, “How could you improve this toy to make it better and more fun to play with?”
  • Best of NurtureShock / Research Blogging Awards Nominee

    If you are new to our work, there is a list of some of our favorite posts on this page (in the lower right column), and we can't resist sharing some others that we'd love you to take a look at – posts you might have missed along the way.
  • Can You Never Tell a Child She’s Smart?

    Ultimately, we want kids to believe they can get good at skills and talents if they practice and try hard. We want them to be persistent in the face of early difficulty. The work by psychologist Carol Dweck and others suggests that this adaptive mindset is dramatically a function of the praise kids hear. If you’ve heard this research, you know the new rules: praise the process, not the person. Avoiding suggesting that success is due to innate qualities. Instead, steer the child’s attention to strategies they can do again to repeat their success.A question I often get is “Does this mean I can never tell my kid she’s smart?” We’re not perfect, we’re enthusiastic, and the old “you’re so smart!” just flies off the tongue. Where's the line? Is there a margin for error here?In everyday life, kids hear a wide mix of praise types from parents, teachers, and other children. Even a kid who gets praised correctly by his parents (“you studied really hard, so you did well on the test”) will...
  • This is Your Brain on a Test

      This is a picture of a Quick-Cap, which measures electrical activity on the surface of the scalp. While it looks like something out of a futuristic movie about thought control, it’s actually quite comfortable and unobtrusive. While it’s not nearly as precise as a fMRI, electroencephalography (EEG) is much easier to use and drastically cheaper; the cap does a decent job of registering which regions of the brain are firing moment to moment. Carol Dweck and Jennifer Mangels had Columbia undergraduates wear the cap while taking a computerized trivia test. The students worked through over 200 questions, covering topics from geography, religion, world and US history, math and science, literature, and art history. These questions were chosen because they’d ring a bell of familiarity – students felt like they should know the answer, but often weren’t quite able to recall it. Example: In what country is Kathmandu? The computer adjusted the level of difficulty just slightly, so that most...
  • The Downside of Always Telling Kids to Work Harder

    It’s now a famous construct: when we praise children for being smart, we are indirectly teaching them that success is due to their innate intelligence. They become fixated on “looking smart,” and when they run into difficulty, they privately conclude that they’re simply not smart enough. They don’t have what it takes after all.The solution, according to Carol Dweck, is to praise them for their hard work. Focusing on effort gives children a variable they can control, dialing it up when necessary. No country was more off-track on praise than the U.S. However, once people heard Dweck’s argument, it was widely accepted. American lore has always celebrated the capacity to transform one’s life through hard work. Dweck’s argument aligned perfectly─anyone and everyone can apply themselves and work harder if they choose to do so.But is this reality? Does everyone really have the same capacity to work hard?In truth, some people seem to work harder than others─no matter the assignment, project...
  • Does Praise Really Motivate Kids?

    We were excited about the response we've received for my post on Friday – Is the Brain Like a Muscle, Really?  – so we decided to dedicate a week to the science of praise and motivation – what works, and what doesn't.  To kick things off, we thought we'd include this video from the annual PopTech gathering in Maine – a speech by Ashley about the effects of praise (and sleep) on kids' cognitive and psychological development. Ashley Merryman: On Parenting from PopTech on Vimeo.
  • Is the Brain Like a Muscle, Really?

    Back in 2007, Ashley and I reported on the science of praise for New York magazine, highlighting in particular the body of work by Dr. Carol Dweck. Dweck had done studies for over a decade – and we covered them all – including a brand new semester-long intervention that had been conducted with Lisa Blackwell at Life Sciences Secondary School in East Harlem. Life Sciences is a health-science magnet school with high aspirations but 700 students whose main attributes are being predominantly minority and low achieving. The scholars split the kids into two groups for an eight-session workshop. The control group was taught study skills, and the others got study skills and a special module on how intelligence is not innate. These students took turns reading aloud an essay on how the brain grows new neurons when challenged. They saw slides of the brain and acted out skits. After the module was concluded, Blackwell tracked her students’ grades to see if it had any effect.It didn’t take long....
  • Do Your Kids Know How to Fight?

    My kids get stressed out from social conflict. Each has a distinctly different style of coping. Our son’s a retreater. “We’re not friends anymore,” my son says about one of his best friends, whenever his feelings get hurt. Even with me, when he’s upset, he runs from the house and down the block for awhile.Our daughter’s a threatener. When she’s mad or embarrassed, she threatens. She’s not looking for a solution; she’s hoping we’ll back down if she makes her threat big enough.One of the most important set of skills kids need as they mature is the ability to work out conflict without destroying relationships. When arguments happen, some kids simply want to win – they’ll attempt to dominate. Other kids are quick to cave, doing anything to make their friend happy just to save the relationship. Ideally, kids will learn eventually to neither dominate nor cave; they’ll learn to stand up for themselves and yet not put the relationship at risk. An amazing long-term study by Dr. Joe Allen...
  • The Rocky Science of Good Marriages

    Last weekend, Elizabeth Weil’s New York Times Magazine story detailed her marriage to Dan Duane, and told of their many year-long adventures with self-improvement gurus in hopes of making their marriage better. During one phase of this venture, the couple attempt to become better communicators. Inevitably, she mentions one of the most famous marriage scientists of all, Dr. John Gottman. “John Gottman, in his Love Lab in Seattle, claims that he can analyze a conversation between spouses and predict with 94 percent accuracy whether that couple will divorce over the course of six years.”Weil and Duane don’t visit the Love Lab – they go to a marriage-education class in Marin, instead. So the story quickly moves on, but not without Weil dropping this little caveat: “But many academics say that Gottman’s powers of prophecy are overblown, that he can’t truly predict if a couple will split.”I don’t know if Weil is fully-versed in this science or not; she doesn’t go into it during her...
  • Do Disney Princesses Make Young Girls Obsessed With Thinness?

    My 5-year-old daughter is excited to see The Princess and the Frog, Disney’s new movie being released nationwide next weekend. Here’s how I’d rank her reasons for being excited:    * There’s popcorn at theaters, in huge quantities;    * The movie’s about a princess;     * The princess is African-American; and    * The movie is set in New Orleans, where my wife’s family is from.I know many parents won’t overtly discuss  No. 3 with their daughters, figuring the movie’s focus on an African American heroine will convey its multicultural message implicitly. However, readers of our book and this blog know that our family will discuss it quite openly, as we’ve been talking explicitly about race with our daughter since she was 3. I’ve been trying to construe the movie as something to celebrate, but I admit it sometimes comes out jaded–America took 200 years to elect a black president, and it felt like it took Disney almost as long to create a black princess.In fact, because our daughter is...
  • What Are 'Good Risks' for Maturing Children?

    Yesterday, my 8.5-year-old son gave me a hug and told me I was the best dad in the whole world. We were just out for a walk with the family – I hadn’t bribed him at all. He was just feeling love. But an hour earlier, he’d hated my guts. Apparently, I hadn’t “saved” his progress through a game he’d been playing on my iTouch. His bedtime the night before had forced him to pause the game halfway through, and he had (at that point) a perfect score. Not realizing this, I’d closed the app and hooked it up to the charger. In the morning, after not enough sleep, too little breakfast, and some reading of the sports section in the newspaper, he wanted to return to his game. When he discovered his progress hadn’t been saved, he blamed it on me, and was furious. He ran to his room. I heard bumping or knocking. After a few minutes, I went to check on him. He was bonking his forehead against the wall, lightly, but repeatedly. I begged him to not hurt himself and stop. I tried to give him a hug;...
  • A Follow Up on Gratitude & Teens

    On Tuesday, we wrote  about Jeff Froh's research on kids and gratitude – how it was hard for kids to feel grateful to people when they were still trying to develop their sense of independence. It may be that gratitude and independence are just diametrically opposed. ...
  • Follow-us on Facebook & Twitter –

    Just a quick reminder for those on the go, traveling for the holidays, the brave souls who are going to Black Friday sales*, etc. You can also keep track of NurtureShock info by becoming our fan on Facebook (www.facebook.com/nurtureshock) or by following us on Twitter (http://twitter.com/nurtureshock). (Oh, and if you're at the mall, our book NurtureShock makes a lovely Christmas, Chanuhkah, Arbor Day, Baby Shower gift :-)
  • Why Counting Blessings Is So Hard for Teenagers

    As Thanksgiving preparations shifted into high gear, media outlets large and small have been opining on the importance of gratitude, but, more specifically, they've often targeted their sights on the most ungrateful creature of all: the adolescent. ...
  • How Not to Helicopter

    I’ve never bought macrobiotic cupcakes or hypoallergenic socks. Nor have I hired a tutor for pencil-holding deficiency, or put covers on the stove knobs, or used a leash on a toddler to be safe in a busy airport. At the grocery store, my kids are often in other aisles, but they’ve never felt lost. When they were babies, we weren’t scared to leave them with babysitters. Their preschool didn’t teach Mandarin, nor even worry about teaching them to read. Nor have I ever questioned a teacher about one of my children’s grades. ...
  • At What Age Do You No Longer Have to Check your Children’s Homework?

    Every Tuesday, my 3rd grader has a spelling test for twenty new vocabulary words. Driving him to school, I usually check in – “do you need any review for your test today?” There’s time on the drive to have him spell them out, if necessary. The relevant question is, can I trust his answer? In NurtureShock, we wrote: “Kids who are doing well in school know it; when they write down their answer, they know whether or not their answer is correct. They have a subtle sense, a recognition of whether they’ve gotten in right. Children who are struggling are genuinely unsure; they might get the right answer, but lack such awareness.”While that’s broadly true, let’s get into this in a little more detail. This field is considered the science of metacognition. It’s important because on a day to day basis, kids can be vastly more efficient in their studying if they focus on what they need to learn, and don’t waste time repeatedly practicing things they already know. The better they are at this...
  • Is Fantasy Too Uncool for Middle Childhood?

    One of the dimensions of children I’m fascinated with is the role of fantasy, and how it finds outlets during the middle phases of childhood. During early childhood, fantasy is expressed actively, through role-playing in pretend scenarios. The entire body is involved, and kids share authorship in the scenario and how it unfolds. It’s immersive and social, and often the more fantastical the better. However, this kind of shared pretend fantasy play is so closely linked with early childhood that it quickly becomes uncool during the elementary years. It’s recognized as something little kids do. While older kids might still want to play that way, and hunger for it, they become embarrassed to do so in front of their friends. The rule of the schoolyard is that being older is cooler. Wanting to be older, or at least wanting to be seen by peers as growing up, kids have to carve out secret outlets for their fantasy needs, where they still feel safe being a kid. Often they only feel this way...
  • What If Colleges Had Lower Standards for Boys to Achieve Gender Balance?

    Earlier this week, NPR’s Claudio Sanchez reported that the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is taking a year to investigate college admissions, to find out if admissions departments are discriminating in favor of boys to achieve gender balance. This investigation will start with a subpoena for admissions records from a dozen (unnamed) public and private universities. They’re unlikely to find any overt discriminatory policies; the question is, will they be able to find a pattern that is itself evidence of discrimination against female applicants. It’s quite clear that in the current educational system, girls are outpacing boys when it comes to higher education. Boys are now only 46% of the total college enrollment, and it gets worse the higher the level of attainment – female students now earn 60% of the bachelor’s degrees. (Interestingly, this gender split is not there yet for Hispanics, where the boys in college still outnumber the girls. The imbalance is worst among Blacks, and it...
  • Why Teens Care So Much About Clothes

    “We place kids in schools together with hundreds, sometimes thousands, of other kids typically from similar economic and cultural backgrounds. We group them all within a year or so of one another in age. We equip them with similar gadgets, expose them to the same TV shows, lessons, and sports. We ask them all to take almost the exact same courses and do the exact same work and be graded relative to one another. We give them only a handful of ways in which they can meaningfully demonstrate their competencies. And then we’re surprised they have some difficulty establishing a sense of their own individuality.”The above quote comes from Joe Allen’s compelling new book, Escaping the Endless Adolescence, and regular readers of our blog will recognize that the passage was also the basis for one of our most popular recent columns, on why teens are growing up so slowly today. Teens' lives are so fundamentally similar─both similar to each others’, even very similar to much younger...
  • Don’t Blame it on the Hormones

    As I’ve been touring the country, whenever I discuss the science of adolescent behavior, audiences have often asked why I never mention the role of hormones.Ahh … hormones. In a typically-developing child, it starts with the adrenal glands, which begin increasing the secretion of androgens. These become the source material from which other steroids are constructed. The hypothalamus then takes charge, triggering a hormonal game of dominos. Pulsing shots of gonadrophin-releasing  hormone from the hypothalamus signal the pituitary to release its many hormones, which in turn activate the testes and ovaries to release the sex hormones, testosterone and estradiol. The level of testosterone in a boy’s body shoots up 5,000 percent. Children’s body odor becomes noticeable, as is their growth spurt; their bones get harder, muscles get bigger, pubic hair begins to grow, and skin gets greasier. Then, actual puberty begins.Back in 1904, G. Stanley Hall couldn’t be that specific. But the...
  • Why Teenagers Are Growing Up So Slowly Today

    Here’s a Twilight Zone-type premise for you. What if surgeons never got to work on humans, they were instead just endlessly in training, cutting up cadavers? What if the same went for all adults – we only got to practice at simulated versions of our jobs? Lawyers only got to argue mock cases, for years and years. Plumbers only got to fix fake leaks in classrooms. Teachers only got to teach to videocameras, endlessly rehearsing for some far off future. Book writers like me never saw our work put out to the public – our novels sat in drawers. Scientists never got to do original experiments; they only got to recreate scientific experiments of yesteryear. And so on. Rather quickly, all meaning would vanish from our work. Even if we enjoyed the activity of our job, intrinsically, it would rapidly lose depth and relevance. It’d lose purpose. We’d become bored, lethargic, and disengaged.In other words, we’d turn into teenagers. This is the metaphorical vision of adolescent life Dr. Joe...
  • Can Happiness and Parenting Coexist?

    A new analysis from the UK, just published in the Journal of Happiness Studies, concludes that kids make married couples happier. The first child only barely improves happiness, but the second child takes married parents to a new level of bliss. A third child makes them even happier. The curious thing is why this seemingly obvious finding is considered newsworthy. In what possible way is it pushing the frontiers of science?Well, it actually contradicts all the happiness research that’s come before. And that prior happiness research got a lot of mileage, and media attention, for saying that having kids makes people less happy. The three most-repeated attention-getters in the happiness field are:1. Lottery winners quickly return to the same level of happiness they had before they won the lottery.2. Paraplegics are just as happy as everyone else.3. Having kids makes you less happy, not more.The argument was that our sense of happiness is a perceptual illusion. We believe kids make us...
  • Is the Candy Witch Coming to Your House?

    When I was a kid, I wondered why the legend of The Great Pumpkin never caught on. Halloween was my favorite holiday, even though you didn’t get the day off. It seemed like Halloween ought to have its own mystical being, like Christmas had Santa Claus and Easter had the Easter Bunny. I suppose Halloween had ghosts – but ghosts lacked specificity. So when I first watched “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown,” I figured the whole neighborhood would start buzzing about The Great Pumpkin, debating whether he was real. I figured we’d all be secretly on the lookout on Halloween night for The Great Pumpkin to rise into the sky, even as we pretended not to believe in him. Maybe we’d stay up all night, hoping to spot him, the same way we wanted to catch a glimpse of Santa coming down the chimney.As a neighborhood, I’d generally say we were prone to be believers, or at least we enjoyed considering their believability. We were afraid of vampires, mummies, werewolves and aliens, and often...
  • Are Disney’s Current Claims for Baby Einstein Any Better?

    We got a lot of letters yesterday like this one, from a mother in Texas:I am the mother of identical twin girls who are almost 11.  When they were infants, I would sit them in their bouncy seats and let them watch the 3 Baby Einstein VHS videos I bought online from Julie Aigner all those years ago (Baby Einstein, Baby Bach and Baby Mozart). My daughters were absolutely mesmerized by these videos.  It was the only break I got in my day to actually get something done when they were so small and demanding.  I did not have them watch as I thought it would make THEM smarter.  I had then watch as it made ME a better and less stressed out mother.  Those silly videos saved my sanity.  They watched them everyday!I do not feel that they caused any harm to my children.  Both are in the Duke TIP program, are in the Talented & Gifted program at school since Kindergarten, get straight "A's," and are Commended on all Texas TAKS tests they ever took.  Was this nature or nurture...
  • Baby Einstein is Dead! Long Live Baby Einstein!

    There was a lot of hoopla about Baby Einstein over the weekend. To understand it, you need a brief backstory – and then some deeper backstory, too.A month and a half ago, Disney announced in a press release that it was going to begin issuing refunds for its Baby Einstein videos: buyers of the DVDs can return them to Disney for $15.99 or exchange them for other products. However, nobody noticed – not until this past Friday, when the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood (CCCF) issued its own press release. In that statement, the CCCF claimed that the refund offer was a victory for the organization, borne out of its ongoing campaign against Baby Einstein and the makers of other baby DVDs. Within hours, the New York Times suggested that CCCF had won a major concession, and Disney's refund offer "appear[s] to be a tacit admission that they did not increase infant intellect," an assessment soon repeated by the Wall Street Journal  and in other publications.Today, an angry...
  • Why Private Schools are Missing the Best Kids

    Hypothetically, let’s say you ran a fancy private elementary school. Like other private schools in the region, you’re competing to put out the brightest kids. And one of the ways you engineer this is through your admissions process – you try to select the kids who will get the most out of what your school has to offer. Kids who can handle the intellectual challenge, and who don’t disrupt the class. So, if you’re like other private schools, you bring the five-year-old applicants in for some intellectual assessment, and you also set up some games and playrooms for them so that you can watch them for an hour or two – to monitor their behavior. You’re looking for kids who get upset, withdraw, can’t wait for their turn, dominate other kids, can’t sit still, don’t pay attention to the instructions, et cetera. Then you admit the kids who looked best.This seems innocuous. It’s common practice.However, according to an ongoing study in Germany, what you might have done is just reject some of...
  • In Defense of Children Behaving Badly

    It’s widely accepted in our society today that young kids’ behavior is a window into their future. When they can’t sit still in preschool, or they whack a friend, or they disobey─we recognize these as signs of portent. We all grasp that kids grow out of it, but it’s often hard to keep that in mind in the moment. Our vigilance has been piqued by the ADHD phenomenon, which is both good and bad. It’s good in the sense we want to spot hyperactivity early, in order to help kids who need it. It’s bad in the sense that we judge ordinary childhood misbehaving pretty harshly, through the lens of diagnoses. Amidst these trade-offs, there’s common ground─a baseline that educators and parents agree on: children with better behavior at the start of kindergarten are more ready to learn. Behavior and attention go hand in hand. Better behavior leads to improved attention, which in turn leads to soaking up more knowledge. This behavioral-advantage, it’s understood, continues for several years....

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