5 Ways to Improve My Parenting


I just finished an absolutely fabulous book called NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children.  This NY Times bestseller came out in 2009, so I’m a little behind the times.  Maybe you’ve already read it?  I picked up the book last week and — despite my sister visiting and my two small children — I could hardly put it down.

The book is an entertaining, highly readable review of multiple studies about child development that have not yet trickled down into common knowledge.  I love nerdy non-fiction like this, especially when it’s related to parenting.  (See my two other book reviews about books that have transformed my parenting: Simplicity Parenting and Bringing Up Bebe.)

After reading NurtureShock, I poured over the book for awhile and came up with five things that inspired me the most.  Then I sorted out five goals to help me turn that inspiration into action.  Here are my goals… maybe they’ll inspire you too!

1. I will praise my children for their efforts rather than their achievements.

Studies show that praising children for their achievements and intelligence (“Great job!  You’re SO smart!”) makes them work for the praise and thus become afraid of failing and showing they’re not “smart.”  Put another way, boosting self-esteem has not produced positive results. Inversely, praising children for their effort rewards them for the process instead of the result (“You concentrated on your homework today without getting distracted.  I’m proud of you for working so hard.”).   Thus they are motivated to work harder along the way rather than to be afraid of losing the praise if they fail.

For me, it’s a big mental shift to praise the effort rather than the result.  I’ve been trying, though, and one area is toilet training. Lena has been toilet trained for months but is learning to get herself to the toilet without damp underwear due to some dilly-dallying along the way.  I’ve been making an effort to praise her for going to the toilet quickly and to praise her for trying even when she doesn’t think she needs to go.

2. I will prioritize their sleep their entire childhoods.

Depriving children of the sleep they need has been shown to lead to ADHD, obesity, loss of emotional well-being, and lower IQ.  We work hard now to let Lena and Gil sleep as long as they need to and as much as research says we should, but what about when they are in elementary school and there are sports activities that push back dinnertime, homework, and bedtime?  What about when they are in high school and need more sleep than they did in middle school (surprise suprise!)?

After reading the compelling research in this book, I want to always be hyper vigilant of my children’s sleep needs, not just now as a sleep-deprived young mother.

3. I will talk about race with my children.

Studies show that many parents — white parents especially — think their children don’t notice difference in skin color.  Therefore they choose to take the path of least resistance and basically pretend that race, differences in skin color, and differences in culture don’t exist.  However, studies reviewed in this book show that children do notice differences and pick up on their parents’ response to them. “[Child development researchers] argue that children see racial differences as much as they see the difference between pink and blue–but we tell kids that “pink” means for girls and “blue” is for boys.  “White” and “black” are mysteries we leave them to figure out on their own.”  Conversations about race are often only initiated after a child makes an embarrassing public statement; research shows, however, that the most positive outcomes occur when parents and children talk openly about the differences as their children grow.

After reading this book, I want to read books with my children about skin color, civil rights, and world cultures.  I will aspire to talk frankly and thoughtfully about race.

4. I will nurture self-control and self-directed play in my children.

“[T]he predictive values of self-discipline in many cases are better than those of IQ scores.  In simpler words, being disciplined is more important than being smart.”  The authors used an example of a highly effective preschool and kindergarten program (Tools of the Mind) that encourages children to structure their playtime and uniquely cooperate in their reading, playing, and learning.  This program has had an amazing effect on classrooms by producing calm, well-behaved, self-directed students who score phenomenally better on standardized tests.

The discussion in this chapter reminded me a lot of all the reading I’ve been doing about Montessori education (a couple of blog posts about that coming soon!) and inspired me more than ever to encourage structure, routine, self-discipline in my home for my children.  I’m also inspired to learn more about several complicated educational ideas (like symbolic thought and executive function).

5. I will respond to my children’s speech… even when it’s just babble.

This chapter started with a fascinating discussion of two things we once thought were helpful: baby-targeted media (like Baby Einstein DVDs) that are supposed to boost language comprehension and talking non-stop so that your child hears as many words as possible.  Studies have shown that these methods are sometimes more harmful than helpful.  Instead, new studies have shown that infants’ vocabulary expands most quickly when parents respond either with a caress or with words to child-initiated speech.  An example: when a one-year-old is asking for a spoon, rather than just ignoring the child or continuing an unrelated stream of chatter, a child will most quickly pick up on language when the parent might respond, “Yes, Charlotte, that’s a spoon.”  Even just touching or kissing the child to affirm their attempts at language has also been shown to make remarkable differences in children’s language development.

After reading this, I am more aware of periods in Lena and Gil’s days when they are more vocally interactive.  They are looking for a response from me, whether it’s cooing and smiling back, hugging or kissing them as we babble together, or answering Lena’s new refrain of, “What’s that, Mama?”  I also want to follow their lead, watching what they are interested in and what they are asking about.  I want to be attentive to them and encouraging of their efforts at language.


There’s so much more in this book: why teenagers rebel, why kids lie, why siblings fight, and “why modern involved parenting has failed to produce a generation of angels.”  Have you read this book or heard of some of these studies?  Do any of these changes ring true with you, or have you tried them in your own home?

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22 Responses to 5 Ways to Improve My Parenting

  1. harmony June 3, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

    hi becca! we haven’t met, but i am married to one of elliott’s college friends (david), and started reading your blog when elliott posted a link to it on facebook. anyway, it’s really sweet and i enjoy reading it. :) i just read nurture shock last month and was/am as obsessed as you. i pretty much came up with the same takeaway points, especially one and three. three, especially, is so counter-intuitive to me, but so important. we have a children’s book about marian anderson that we love, but were waiting to read to the kids because we were worried about introducing the concepts of segregation, racism, etc., at too early an age. after reading nurture shock, we changed our minds! we’ve become much more explicit and descriptive in the way we talk and encourage the kids to talk about race and difference, and i think it’s a good thing. anyway, thanks for posting! :)

    • Becca June 25, 2013 at 3:12 am #

      I’m sorry I didn’t respond to this comment earlier; we left for the States and I got so behind! I wanted you to know that Elliott saw your post on Facebook about this book and reminded me about it, and then I looked at the library for it later that week, and then I read it the week after that. So you were really the instigator of all of this!

      I love your perspective and am so glad that the book has helped you with discussing race. I am going through the mental shift now and looking for opportunities for discussion with Lena. We’ll see how it goes!

  2. Carrie June 3, 2013 at 8:39 pm #

    I’ve never read it, but I am intrigued now! I am going to add it to my book list.

    I think the race one is going to be especially important for us since our little boy will grow up with two cultures and in-between two countries (at least on visits).

    • Becca June 25, 2013 at 2:57 am #

      Yes, so true… but it will probably also make it so much easier to explain or understand, don’t you think? It’s such a blessing to your son to have that background and life!

  3. Sarah Stuntz June 3, 2013 at 8:55 pm #

    Friend! I spend my WHOLE DAY thinking about developing executive functioning (and have some good notes/books from a class I took on it 3 summers ago) if you ever want to chat. I love this kind of stuff. :)

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts — they’re good ones!

    • Becca June 25, 2013 at 2:57 am #

      I am still mightily confused by it, so this executive functioning coffee date sounds like something we’ll have to do!

  4. Tiffany June 3, 2013 at 10:49 pm #

    Fascinating! This one will definitely have to go on my TBR list.

    • Becca June 25, 2013 at 2:56 am #

      Do you have Goodreads? That always helps me stay organized with what I want to read. This book was one of the ones on my to-read list!

  5. Liz Mays June 3, 2013 at 11:28 pm #

    Thanks for sharing about this book. With a 2 year old and a 7 month old it sounds like one that I need to read!

    • Becca June 25, 2013 at 2:55 am #

      I highly recommend it! Wish I’d read it earlier myself, Liz!

  6. Meg June 4, 2013 at 1:51 am #

    Super interesting, Becca! Of course, for one my age, it’s cause for much reflection. But, way to go on making this noble effort! (Do adults respond to having their efforts rather than their achievements affirmed too? No doubt!)

    • Becca June 25, 2013 at 2:55 am #

      I’m sure! Like efforts in Settlers, for instance? :-)

      Oh no wait, you don’t need any encouragement to beat me in that one again…

  7. Joy @ Caspara June 4, 2013 at 7:16 am #

    Interesting! I never read this, but it sounds like something I would agree with. Re: #5… One thing I have noticed as I’ve added babies to my brood is that the big sisters always talked it their baby siblings like they would just understand, and in turn, they would respond to their babbling like it was actual words. I remember thinking my first two had a special language all their own.
    Great review!

    • Becca June 25, 2013 at 2:54 am #

      I can’t wait for that! I already LOVE seeing Lena and Gil communicate. Today I heard her excitedly telling him, “Yook, Gil! Me haff yogurt rainins!” (She loooves yogurt-covered raisins.) He kicked happily next to her, delighted — for the time being — that she was happy and not at all jealous. It just melted my heart.

  8. Rincy June 4, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

    I would love to read this book! I always think of this quote as I grow older in terms of what type of parent I hope to be : ” The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice. ”

    And honestly, it is so true. To this day it is my parents comments I hear when I’m having a good/bad day.

    Hope you’ve been well sweet lady! xx

    • Becca June 25, 2013 at 2:50 am #

      So true, Rincy, about my parents being my inner voice. I am amazed every day how I see my mom especially come out in my parenting. Now if only I had more of her saintly patience…!

  9. Eden June 4, 2013 at 5:00 pm #

    Very interesting review and take-aways!

  10. Rachel June 4, 2013 at 6:25 pm #

    I’m adding this to my ever-growing list of books to read!

    Re #2: This is one of my top 5 favorite things about homeschooling. I’m not putting our exhausted child on a bus at 7am and getting him back even more exhausted at 3pm. My kids get to sleep until they wake up, and then we get into the schooling groove when they are more alert, rather than forcing them to conform to a pre-set schedule. (Don’t get me wrong – we HAVE a schedule… I can’t live without one!) One of my kids wakes up pretty much raring to go, and the other needs a good hour before he(!) can put more than two syllables together.

    My other favorite thing is that I can use their sleep schedule as an excuse to get out of a LOT of commitments I don’t want to make. ;) I did it considerably more when they were younger, but can still get away with it a little.

    • Becca June 25, 2013 at 2:49 am #

      I honestly worry that if I do homeschool, I’ll have a hard time saying “no” to activities and commitments. I admire how you’re paring back… and using your kids genuine needs (now I know more about how genuine they are!) to set your schedule. Thanks, as always, for the encouragement, Rachel.

  11. Rebecca June 5, 2013 at 4:31 pm #

    I am doing a Blog Giveaway if you are interested :)


  12. Genesis June 14, 2013 at 9:42 pm #

    I need to read this book. I actually do implement all of these in my house at the moment, but gathered them from various sources. Sleep is SO important. Everyone thinks we’re weird for putting all our kids to bed at 7, even the 7 and 6 year old, but it really does help a lot with attitude the next day. Especially since they are early risers.

    As for race, we have that built into our family since my husband is Guatemalan and I’m Canadian. The boys definitely notice the difference and identify us as brown and white while they are “a little bit brown and a little bit white, but more brown.”


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