Po Bronson Brings Nurtureshock to Throckmorton

January 18th, 2011

As part of the theater’s ongoing A-List Series, Po Bronson will discuss his thought-provoking book on the science of parenting.

By Atissa Manshouri | January 18, 2011

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For the past 15 years, bestselling author Po Bronson has chronicled the ups, the downs and the ensuing existential explorations of an entire generation in bestselling nonfiction books like The Nudist on the Late Shift and What Should I Do With My Life, and in his award-winning magazine articles.

But it’s his most recent book, Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children, and the fascinating questions that it raises, that has generated the kind of national discourse that most authors can only dream about.

To coincide with its paperback release, Bronson will appear Wednesday night at 142 Throckmorton at 7:30 p.m. as part of the A-List Series, which presents conversations with Authors, Artists, Athletes, Adventurers, Academics and Anarchists. Bronson’s longtime friend, local writer Jane Ganahl, will moderate the discussion.

“A parenting book for people who don’t read parenting books,” as Bronson describes it, Nurtureshock debunks many of the assumptions held dear by today’s parents, supported by a wide range of scientific as well as anecdotal data.

Do you believe that heaping praise on your youngsters will help them build self-esteem? Do you ever blow your top in frustration because your teenager won’t get out of bed in the morning? Do you avoid labeling people by their skin color in an effort to raise color-blind kids?

If you said yes to any of these questions, you may be surprised by the contents of Nurtureshock.

Bronson and co-author Ashley Merriman divide their book into 10 chapters that take on hot-button topics including race, praise, sleep, lying, sibling behaviors, self-control and IQ testing. In many cases, the science they present directly challenges the kind of hands-on, involved parenting that has become prevalent in our society.

Take, for instance, the always-stressful topic of sleep. Those of us with toddlers know that a good night’s sleep or an afternoon nap can make or break your whole day. But what about teenagers? How many parents have complained about teenagers sleeping in late, being groggy in the morning and showing up to school in their pajamas?

Today’s elementary and high school students get one less hour sleep on average than they did 30 years ago. That “lost hour” may be responsible for inattentiveness, declining grades and poor attendance, not to mention a whole lot of family frustration, according to Nurtureshock.

So why not just shift school start time to an hour later each morning (as some school districts have begun to do across the country)? Bronson uncovered a host of logistical, operational and political obstacles that make this kind of change a bureaucratic nightmare for even the most engaged school officials.

The book’s chapter on race is also an eye-opener. In a telephone interview, Bronson says, “Our taboo about race in this country is shocking, and we’re passing that on [to our children].”

Parents in the Bay Area in particular may assume that because they see themselves as color-blind and/or have gone to great lengths to place their kids in schools with a diverse student body, there’s no need explicitly to address race and racism with their children. In fact, most parents go out of their way to avoid ever mentioning skin color, leaving children to blurt out potentially embarrassing statements when they see children of another race.

“If you leave kids to their own devices, they’ll naturally self-segregate… It’s crucial that parents and teachers talk about race. Being in a diverse environment is not enough,” Bronson says.

Nurtureshock was published in 2009 and enjoyed a long run on the New York Times bestseller list, generating countless discussions among parents, educators and scientists – so much so that Bronson and Merryman have continued writing on the topic regularly for Newsweek magazine and have amassed another book’s worth of material on the subject.

At first glance, the topic of child-rearing may not seem to be such a natural fit for an author whose previous work tapped into the zeitgeist of the Internet generation. Bronson says he was “always interested in larger theories, in how people become who they are,” so Nurtureshock is in fact a natural extension of those earlier books, and even more so when you consider the fact that many of the young trailblazers of the late nineties are now entering parenthood for the first time themselves.

As a prominent voice on the science of raising kids, what is Bronson’s take on the current controversy generated by Amy Chua’s memoir of “Chinese parenting,” Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother? He’s read the book and finds the author’s “lack of introspection on the page remarkable,” though he readily acknowledges that cultural norms and differences are vastly important. (You can catch up on the whole story here and here.)

A parent himself to two young children, Bronson’s tone is empathetic towards the millions of parents around the country who are simply trying their best to raise good kids. So with all the questions that his book brings up about our current assumptions and parenting “instincts,” what are we (as a country) doing right?

“One of the things we’re doing right,” he says, “is nurturing kids’ creativity and independence. For what it’s worth, we are far better at developing independent reasoning, independent thought and autonomy. [These values] are not treasured in other countries the way they are here.”

Another value that Americans treasure is risk-taking, or “the power to go for it,” the subject of Bronson’s next book. If the thought-provoking contents of Nurtureshock are anything to judge by, Bronson will no doubt have some surprising things to say on the subject.

The 411: Po Bronson appears Wednesday night at 142 Throckmorton Theatre at 7:30 p.m. as part of the A-List Series. Tickets ($15 general/$12 students and seniors) are available online or at the box office. Click here for more information.