'Childhood' turned on its head

26th February 2010 at 00:00
A book that claims to explode myths about growing up became a cause celebre in the US last year. Now the debate is hitting the UK, writes Henry Hepburn

Some children are being read a festive story. It's Christmas Eve. Everyone is in bed. There's a noise on the roof. The page turns to reveal Santa - who is black.

US researchers have shown that children's mindsets about race change for the better when confronted with ethnic differences and encouraged to talk about them. In a multicultural milieu where talking about race is studiously avoided - contrary to received wisdom - young people retreat into their own racial groups.

It is just one of the eye-catching conclusions in NurtureShock, a book about childhood, by US science journalists Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, which stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for two months.

The authors have no clear agenda, other than a zeal for debunking received wisdom. They discard all preconceptions and rely on mountains of empirical data, as the hardback edition's 63 pages of sources and references testify.

The book was released in the UK this month, but stirred up debate at last November's School Leaders Scotland annual conference, when Carol Craig, director of the Glasgow-based Centre for Confidence and Well-being, directed delegates to a chapter on bullying.

Bullies are not necessarily insecure children from deprived backgrounds, the evidence suggests, but often well-adjusted and popular young people who bully to assert their status among peers. Zero-tolerance approaches to bullying are shown to backfire, as children's teasing and name-calling are often down to poor judgment rather than malice, and are developmentally normal, claims NurtureShock.

The book also argues that an extra hour's sleep would make a radical difference to children, that it is pointless to test them for giftedness in their first few years at school, and that arguing with adults is a sign of respect.

It reaches two big conclusions: fallacies about childhood are created by assuming wrongly that evidence about adults' behaviour can be applied to children; and there is a false dichotomy between good and bad behaviour - dishonesty, for example, can be a sign of intelligence and social awareness.

- NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, Ebury Press, pound;12.99.

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