Book Talk: Nurture Shock

I had a serious perfectionism complex when I was young. I knew I was imperfect, but felt that I was expected to be perfect. Being smart meant knowing the answers (always.) Being a good “little mama/big sister” meant being reliable and in control (always.) Being Mormon meant following all the commandments (always.) For the most part I fit all of those titles and more, and I was the good, reliable, hardworking girl people thought I was. But if I slipped, and didn’t get a good grade? I specifically remember a “dictation” on which I received a 10/20 that I hid from my parents hoping they wouldn’t find out or see the burning embarassement that my celtic skin so blatantly shone. What would happen if I didn’t do well? Would all the trust be gone? Would I be seen as something less than good? Would this change everything?  Also, since everyone seemed to rely on me and my abilities, would the world crumble if I did?  That’s a lot of pressure on a young person.

It wasn’t until adulthood that I began to realize that being smart meant “learning,” not already knowing the answers, that being smart meant asking questions.  I was nearly twenty before I felt secure in admitting what I didn’t know and seeking to know more.  It’s been since then that I’ve really begun to appreciate the beauty of the journey that began when I finally allowed myself to take down the walls of perfectionism and truly work to become better.

It wasn’t until I finished reading “Nurture Shock” this weekend that I realized that when it came to parenting I was subconsciously back in my old way of thinking.  Intellectually I knew that there is no written manual for my children and there is no formula, no matter how complicated, that will guarantee my children will emerge from childhood unscathed and ready to contribute to society, but subconsciously I was still pandering to the idea that there was a way I could make it happen.  That I could be the perfect mother and raise perfect children.

The first chapter of the book deals with the problem of praise, and I was able to identify just how crippling the type of praise I had received as a child had been to me, and that I was instinctively doing the same thing to my own children (and students!)  Subsequent chapters dealt with a variety of topics loosely related to childhood in a fashion that reminded me of “Freakonomics” or “Outliers.”  Some of them supported my previous studies on the topic, some of them challenged what I had always thought (the race chapter in particular — but of course I was doing it all wrong.  I wouldn’t just not talk about morality and expect my children to figure it out, but why do white parents not talk about race in hopes that our children will grow up colourblind?)

When I finished the book I felt a mix of enlightenment and letdown.  But why was I let down?  I had enjoyed the book and loved catching up on all the recent developments in brain science that have happened since I stepped out of the business and into my own little cave.  Was I upset because I finally realized that there is no magic formula, no matter how complicated, to guarantee success in childrearing?

Suddenly it came to me.  I have thoroughly loved my journey to self-discovery.  I have enjoyed maturing, growing pains notwithstanding.  I feel such confidence in knowing I’m not the same person I was fifteen years ago.  Somehow I had hoped to save my children from their own growing pains on their own paths to enlightenment.  The conclusion of the book could not have been more clear.  Adults see children through two cracked lenses: children are not just like us but shorter, and their growth is not linear, but in stops and spurts (and sometimes a little retrograde thrown in for fun.)  It isn’t my job to make them just like short adults, it’s my job to hold their hands as they travel their own journeys.

And with that I return to the beginning of the book, to reread it before returning it to my friend.  I know I missed a million little gems when reading it with my broken glasses.  There is so much more to be learned with this new enlightenment, and finally I am prepared to accept the bad with the good.

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