Friday, February 19, 2016

Review: Scientific Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive

Invariably, whenever I read or review a book on parenting, the comparison is to John Medina's Brain Rules for Baby, and the comparison highlights how bad parenting literature usually is. Scientific Secrets for Raising Kids Who Thrive is the only exception to this I've encountered for years, and I think it's a must-audit.

Professor Vishton is a faculty member at the College of William and Mary, and not only is he a great lecturer, his presentation is outstanding. The scientific approach part of the title is not a joke: for every assertion he makes, not only does he tell you the results, he provides the details behind the experiments, the methods scientists used to distinguish correlation from causation, and detailed analysis of "why" the assertion is true.

All this would be worthless if the results weren't actionable or interesting, but they are. Here's a sampling of various issues I've not encountered in other parenting resources:

  • The Montessori method has actually been shown to be more effective at teaching math, language, and executive function (and hence social skills) than traditional methods. The approach can be scaled up to older kids and not just pre-school. The control in this case was a school in a school district in Milwaukee where kids had to win a lottery to enter the school. This random selection process allowed researchers to isolate the study to the teaching method.
  • The primary factor identifying success in Math is whether kids understand fractions by age 10. This is a strong result, indicating that if your child doesn't understand fractions by then you need to take aggressive remedial approaches.
  • On a related point Math is one of the few skills where an early advantage sustains itself: in other words, a child who's advanced in math at kindergarten keeps that advantage over time, whereas a child who walks or runs early doesn't necessarily sustain that advantage over time.
  • The more parents help with a child's homework, the less successful the child does in tests in school. A parent's role should be limited to providing a space to study, keeping distractions to a minimum, and letting the child figure things out by himself.
  • Learning is extremely contextual, so much so that providing different study areas actually helps. One reason why homework is useful is that they encourage students to study in a different location than the school.
  • 3 sessions of 20 minutes of study is more effective than 1 60 minute session. If you can't do 3 separate periods of 20 minutes, rotate subjects at 20 minute intervals.
  • Unstructured play time is important, and is correlated with increased creativity and social skills. The benefit of this is lost if the parent even provides a suggestion as to what to do, so it's important to let the child direct this play time, even at the cost of letting him be bored for a time.
  • If you want kids to be pro-social, it's important to avoid using incentives to encourage pro-social behavior. Using extrinsic incentives undermines the child's natural instinct to be helpful for its own sake, and ends up backfiring.
Unlike any other parenting book (even Medina's), Vishton covers the effects of a second language, why it was originally thought that bilingualism was a bad thing, and why the recent shift in understanding. He also addresses Amy Chua's Tiger Parenting approach, and explains why the authoritative approach is better than the authoritarian approach, and the costs of the Tiger parenting approach on the child. (This lecture, along with the above notes on unstructured play time, helped me understand why I encountered so many high achieving students who had trouble making simple decisions, but in keeping with this review, that's just my personal observation/anecdote, and hence unscientific)

Needless to say, this audio book from The Great Courses wins my highly recommended rating. If you can't be bothered with any other parenting resource, listen to this audio book (there's also a video version, but it's unnecessary, though nice to have for the section on Montessori math). I say this despite being an avid reader and therefore prejudiced against acquiring information via any other method. This one is just too good to pass up.
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