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Jason Adair: The subtitle of your book is “New Thinking About Children.” What research did you find to be different from the old thinking, and what was most valuable?
Po Bronson: The newest thing that is the most empowering, and I think coolest, is about how infants acquire language and what parents do naturally to radically boost how their kids acquire language.
JA: How does that work?
PB: Some things that parents naturally do are more powerful than any flash cards, and even if baby DVDs did work, it would be way more powerful that that.
JA: Wait, baby DVDs don’t work?
JA: I knew it.
PB: I’ll tell you the biggest reason why... They have all these pictures going on, and then the language comes through a voiceover. [Babies] can’t make sense of that. The first thing kids have to learn is when words begin and end, because we kind of slur words together, and to do it they need to watch your lips. They can actually watch other television and learn things from it, but baby DVDs in particular can destroy their language development, very modestly, but they do have a negative impact on it.
JA: Hold on. I’ve been a vocal advocate for stopping baby talk, but you’re saying it’s a good thing?
PB: Yes. Keeps up their vocabulary… The natural way parents talk to their infants includes things like “parentese,” where you use stretched and exaggerated vocal contours. And parents are wondering, “I want to naturally do this, but why am I doing this? Should I be doing this?” And it’s actually really good for kids to hear.
JA: Why should I believe your book isn’t another flavor-of-the-month parenting book that takes advantage of nervous parents?
PB: Parents hear a lot of stuff out of the sciences that’s the equivalent of “one day coffee’s good for you, the next it’s bad.” What people need to know about the work in our book is that it’s science that has at least a ten-year track record. It’s been relatively unknown for other reasons, but not for the lack or really well established science.
JA: When I read the first two pages of the first chapter, describing “Thomas” and about how he would instantly give up when faced with new challenges that he couldn’t be successful at, I felt like you were describing my seven-year-old son. Is it too late for him?
PB: Thomas was in fifth grade, so he was a little older. My son is 8, and I can tell you—this is dad-to-dad advice, not scientific advice—the motivation personality of kids is forming, and the stuff that your son is going through in school is radically harder cognitively than anything that has come along prior to that. It might be the hardest thing they’ll ever have to accomplish... As things begin to line up in his brain, I swear something will happen in the course of five or six months, and you’ll see a remarkable difference. It’s not too late.
JA: I’m gonna hold you to that.
PB: Do it. I’m not casually speculating. Every kid is different in regards to when it happens, and we go over that in the chapter on intelligence.
JA: After reading the first chapter, “The Inverse Power of Praise,” I told my wife that I felt guilty of being an overpraiser. She said I rarely praise anyone. Does that make me a better or worse parent than the average overpraiser?
PB: Should we take what your wife said as factually accurate and yours as self-reporting bias?
JA: That’s probably a safe bet.
PB: In that sense we are all playing the odds when we use this science. We have to get informed and do what’s best, knowing that every kid can be a little different. The odds maker would say, “If you aren’t praising your son all the time, then his persistence circuit will be wiring up.”
JA: I’ll take that as a win for me.
PB: You won’t know that until he comes through these huge first cognitive years with his motivational personality.
JA: Do you fear all the praise you’re getting for this book will cripple your writing abilities?
PB: [laughs] Here’s a funny thing—praise for grownups is very effective. We like to be praised, and that’s how we got it wrong. If you praise and adult worker, it increases their intrinsic motivation; therefore, the science would say Ashley and I, being praised for this book, would feel really good about it, and that would make us feel more intrinsically in love with writing. But when you praise a child too much, you make them too conscious of being watched, and you make them extrinsically focused and looking for external reward.
JA: I’ve been using your recipe for praising on adults, focusing on efforts more than results and being very specific, and it seems to have a better effect.
PB: By grownups you mean your wife?
JA: [laughing] Yes.
PB: When you give specific praise, people feel like you are actually paying attention. When you give broad global praise, it starts to feel like a disingenuous compliment.
JA: In that case, I liked your book—because it challenged me to questions assumptions I had about childhood development. And it inspired me to put some of those ideas into practice.
PB: Thank you very much.
© 2009 Jason Adair
A Placer County resident, freelance writer and dad of two, Jason Adair frequently contributes to Sacramento Parent magazine. His wife assures him that he is in no danger of overpraising anyone.
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