by Po Bronson, Ashley Merryman

Troy Shu
Troy Shu
Updated at: March 12, 2024

What are the big ideas? 1. The Inverse Power of Praise: While praising children is essential for their development, excessive praise can have negative effects such

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What are the big ideas?

  1. The Inverse Power of Praise: While praising children is essential for their development, excessive praise can have negative effects such as decreased motivation and increased competitiveness and aggression. The book advocates specific, sincere, effort-focused praise to help children develop persistence and a growth mindset, focusing on processes rather than outcomes.
  2. The Lost Hour: Sleep is crucial for adolescents' overall well-being, but many start their school day before 8:30 a.m., interfering with their ability to get enough rest. The book highlights the importance of later school starts to improve academic performance, reduce depression, and even decrease car accidents.
  3. Why Kids Lie: Honesty is a complex concept children learn through socialization and observation of adults. The book suggests praising and rewarding truthfulness while providing immunity from punishment when kids do tell the truth, even if it involves confessing to wrongdoings.
  4. The Sibling Effect: Sibling rivalry may be less about parental love and more about sharing toys or possessions. The book emphasizes the importance of helping children learn the skills of shared play and valuing their siblings' presence.
  5. Plays Well With Others: Bistrategic children use both prosocial and antisocial behaviors to get what they want, making them attractive to their peers due to their independence and older appearance. The book highlights the importance of reducing inconsistent discipline from progressive fathers and minimizing exposure to television for children's increased aggression in group settings.




  • Cary Grant was a regular at the Magic Castle, often posing as the doorman to avoid attention from reporters and gossip columns.
  • Grant was deeply interested in child development and spent hours talking about it with Joan Lawton, who was pursuing a certificate in the field.
  • The context of Grant's appearance as a doorman threw guests off, making them assume he was an illusion or a magician rather than the real Cary Grant.
  • In the realm of science, scientific breakthroughs are often presented as entertainment and given only brief attention before being discarded for the next new finding.
  • Important ideas in child development have been developing gradually over the past decade, with many scholars contributing to the research.
  • As a society, we may have overlooked these important ideas because they haven't received the media attention typically associated with major scientific breakthroughs.



  • Our instincts about children can be off-base and misleading
  • The science of child development is often misunderstood and misapplied
  • Parenting based on "instinct" alone may be insufficient
  • Modern strategies for nurturing children are not always effective
  • Key twists in the science of child development have been overlooked, leading to errant assumptions and distorted parenting habits
  • Rethinking sacred cows about children can lead to a deeper and clearer understanding of their development
  • Topics covered in the book include confidence, sleep, lying, racial attitudes, intelligence, sibling conflict, teen rebellion, self-control, aggression, gratitude, and language acquisition.

1: The Inverse Power of Praise


  • Praising children excessively can have negative effects, such as decreased motivation and increased competitiveness and aggression.
  • Effective praise should be specific and sincere, focusing on effort rather than ability.
  • Overpraised children may become risk-averse and lack perceived autonomy.
  • Persistence, the ability to respond to failure by exerting more effort, is a valuable trait that can be developed through intermittent reinforcement.
  • Praising children for their processes (e.g., concentration, effort, problem-solving) rather than their outcomes can help them develop strategies for handling challenges and increase their motivation and persistence.
  • Focused praise on specific skills or tasks can help children see the value in their efforts and improve their performance, while overly general praise ("You're great—I'm proud of you") can be meaningless and undermine their intrinsic motivation.
  • Praising children for their intelligence or ability can limit their growth mindset and hinder their willingness to take on challenges and learn from mistakes.
  • Persistent efforts to praise children in a focused, specific, sincere, and effort-focused way can help them develop the skills and mindset needed to succeed in school and life, while reducing the negative effects of excessive praise.


“Thomas (his middle name) is a fifth-grader at the highly competitive P.S. 334, the Anderson School on West 84th in New York City. Slim as they get, Thomas recently had his long sandy-blond hair cut short to look like the new James Bond (he took a photo of Daniel Craig to the barber). Unlike Bond, he prefers a uniform of cargo pants and a T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of one of his heroes: Frank Zappa. Thomas hangs out with five friends from the Anderson School. They are “the smart kids.” Thomas is one of them, and he likes belonging. Since Thomas could walk, he has constantly heard that he’s smart. Not just from his parents but from any adult who has come in contact with this precocious child. When he applied to Anderson for kindergarten, his intelligence was statistically confirmed. The school is reserved for the top 1 percent of all applicants, and an IQ test is required. Thomas didn’t just score in the top 1 percent. He scored in the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent. But as Thomas has progressed through school, this self-awareness that he’s smart hasn’t always translated into fearless confidence when attacking his schoolwork. In fact, Thomas’s father noticed just the opposite. “Thomas didn’t want to try things he wouldn’t be successful at,” his father says. “Some things came very quickly to him, but when they didn’t, he gave up almost immediately, concluding, ‘I’m not good at this.’ ” With no more than a glance, Thomas was dividing the world into two—things he was naturally good at and things he wasn’t. For instance, in the early grades, Thomas wasn’t very good at spelling, so he simply demurred from spelling out loud. When Thomas took his first look at fractions, he balked. The biggest hurdle came in third grade. He was supposed to learn cursive penmanship, but he wouldn’t even try for weeks. By then, his teacher was demanding homework be completed in cursive. Rather than play catch-up on his penmanship, Thomas refused outright. Thomas’s father tried to reason with him. “Look, just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you don’t have to put out some effort.” (Eventually, Thomas mastered cursive, but not without a lot of cajoling from his father.) Why does this child, who is measurably at the very top of the charts, lack confidence about his ability to tackle routine school challenges? Thomas is not alone. For a few decades, it’s been noted that a large percentage of all gifted students (those who score in the top 10 percent on aptitude tests) severely underestimate their own abilities. Those afflicted with this lack of perceived competence adopt lower standards for success and expect less of themselves. They underrate the importance of effort, and they overrate how much help they need from a parent.”

“Emphasizing effort gives a child a variable that they can control,” she explains. “They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence takes it out of the child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure.”

“child deprived of the opportunity to discuss mistakes can’t learn from them.”

“person who grows up getting too frequent rewards will not have persistence, because they’ll quit when the rewards disappear.”

2: The Lost Hour


  • The science shows that adolescents need more sleep than adults, but many start their school day before 8:30 a.m., which interferes with their ability to get enough rest.
  • Lack of sleep can lead to depression, impaired cognitive function, and obesity in children.
  • A later school start time has been shown to improve academic performance, reduce depression, and even decrease car accidents.
  • Objections to later school starts include cost, inconvenience for teachers and coaches, and the belief that there is no educational reason for early starts.
  • Some schools, like those in Lexington, Kentucky, have successfully implemented later start times despite these challenges.
  • Sleep loss can contribute to obesity by disrupting hormones that regulate appetite and metabolism.
  • Research suggests a causal relationship between sleep loss and obesity in children, but it is often overlooked in discussions of childhood obesity.


“Might our culture-wide perception of what it means to be a teenager be unwittingly skewed by the fact they don’t get enough sleep?”

“She found that obese kids watch no more television than kids who aren’t obese. All the thin kids watch massive amounts of television, too. There was no statistical correlation between obesity and media use, period.”

“All the studies point in the same direction: on average, children who sleep less are fatter than children who sleep more. This isn’t just here, in America—scholars all around the world are considering it, because children everywhere are both getting fatter and getting less sleep.”

3: Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race


  • Children start forming racial identity during adolescence as part of their quest for self-identity.
  • Belonging to a group is important for teens, and they tend to form subgroups in high school.
  • Minority children may benefit from preparation-for-bias conversations, but it can be detrimental if frequent.
  • Ethnic pride messages can boost minority children's self-confidence.
  • White children do not receive similar messages of ethnic pride and instead feel a sense of security as part of the dominant group.
  • The need to belong is powerful for teens and can affect their academic performance and social acceptance.
  • Differences in skin tone within racial groups can impact children's self-confidence and social standing within their communities.
  • Interracial marriage or adoption, and exposure to diverse environments, may prompt conversations about race.
  • The story of a black Santa sparked a dialogue among first graders about the possibility of a black Santa, leading them to question racial stereotypes and biases.


“And the rule still holds true: more diversity translates into more division between students.”

“Children are not passive absorbers of knowledge; rather, they are active constructors of concepts”

“Merry Christmas to all, and y'all sleep tight.”

4: Why Kids Lie


  • Children lie for various reasons: to avoid negative consequences, to make others feel good (white lies), or to get back in good standing after displeasing someone.
  • Honesty is a complex concept that children learn through socialization and observation of their parents' actions.
  • Parents can encourage honesty by consistently praising and rewarding truthfulness while providing immunity from punishment when kids do tell the truth, even if it involves confessing to wrongdoings.
  • Children learn lying from observing adults, particularly through white lies told to make others feel good or avoid conflict.
  • Parents often inadvertently encourage children to lie by labeling them as tattlers and encouraging them to work out problems on their own rather than intervening.
  • Honesty is a valuable trait that parents should prioritize teaching, even though it can be challenging for children to understand and practice consistently.
  • Encouraging honesty requires consistent communication, modeling, and positive reinforcement from parents.


“Parents often fail to address early childhood lying, since the lying is almost innocent—their child’s too young to know what lies are, or that lying’s wrong. When their child gets older and learns those distinctions, the parents believe, the lying will stop. This is dead wrong, according to Dr. Talwar.”

“And while it might seem to a parent that tattling is incessant, to a child that’s not the case—because for every one time a child seeks a parent for help, there were fourteen other instances when he was wronged and did not run to the parent for aid.”

5: The Search for Intelligent Life in Kindergarten


  • IQ tests are least reliable for young children, with correlations between early IQ scores and later academic achievement at best around 40%.
  • Emotional intelligence is not a replacement for cognitive ability but rather the other way around; higher cognitive ability increases emotional functioning.
  • Social skills have little predictive power in determining academic success, as children's personalities correlate differently with academic achievement depending on age.
  • The brain mechanisms responsible for intellectual development, such as the thickness of the cerebral cortex and the organization of neural networks, are not fully operational at young ages.
  • Intellectual development is not a smooth process; it involves sharp spikes in growth and setbacks that need to be overcome.
  • The system of identifying gifted children early may not accurately capture natural talent and could exclude late bloomers who might develop superior cognitive abilities later.
  • Uneven development, which is common in gifted children, is often overlooked or penalized by current gifted programs, while the focus should be on nurturing their unique talents and approaches to learning.

6: The Sibling Effect


  • Sibling rivalry may be less about parental love and more about sharing toys or possessions.
  • The quality of an older child's relationship with his best friend is a strong predictor of how well they will get along with their younger sibling.
  • Shared fantasy play, where children commit to one another and negotiate scenarios for mutual enjoyment, is an important skill for developing good sibling relationships.
  • Parents are highly motivated by love to meet their child's needs, while friends provide opportunities to learn social skills and develop a real connection.
  • Improving sibling relationships involves helping children learn the skills of shared play and valuing the presence of their siblings.


“siblings between the ages of three and seven clash 3.5 times per hour, on average. Some of those are brief clashes, others longer, but it adds up to ten minutes of every hour spent arguing.”

7: The Science of Teen Rebellion


  • The scientific understanding of parent-teen conflict has shifted over the decades, from viewing it as necessary for adolescent development to harmful and destructive.
  • Recent studies suggest that productive conflict, where both parties feel heard and compromises are made, can have positive effects on teenagers' psychological well-being and relationship with their parents.
  • The perception of conflict as destructive may be influenced by parents' expectations and experiences, rather than the actual quality of the interaction.
  • The importance of collaboration in resolving conflicts has been highlighted in research, with parents who negotiate being more informed and less likely to be lied to.
  • Flexibility and consistency in rule-setting are key factors in reducing lying and maintaining a healthy parent-teen relationship.
  • Pop psychology narratives often present adolescence as a tumultuous time, but social science research shows that the majority of teens have positive relationships with their parents.
  • Both narratives—the traumatic adolescence and the successful adolescence—persist and can shape how teenagers view their own experiences and relationships.


“Darling found that permissive parents don’t actually learn more about their child’s lives. “Kids who go wild and get in trouble mostly have parents who don’t set rules or standards. Their parents are loving and accepting no matter what the kids do. But the kids take the lack of rules as a sign their parents don’t actually care—that their parent doesn’t really want this job of being the parent.”

“The more controlling the parent,” Caldwell explained, “the more likely a child is to experience boredom.”

8: Can Self-Control Be Taught?


  • The Tools of the Mind curriculum was developed to help young children develop executive functions, particularly attention and cognitive control.
  • Executive functions are important skills for academic success, as they enable a child to sustain focus, regulate impulses, and manage distractions.
  • The rostral lateral prefrontal cortex (RLPFC) is a region of the brain responsible for maintaining concentration and setting goals. Tools curriculum activities, such as children choosing their own work and setting weekly goals, may help strengthen this area of the brain.
  • Motivation is crucial for cognitive control development, and it can be enhanced by allowing children to choose activities they are interested in.
  • The feedback loop between the prefrontal cortex and other areas of the brain enables proactive regulation of rules and goal-setting. Tools curriculum activities may help develop this feedback loop by encouraging children to reflect on their work and learn from mistakes.
  • Cognitive control can be fatigued, and high IQ individuals may suffer more from this fatigue. Self-control interventions, such as those found in the Tools of the Mind curriculum, have been shown to improve academic achievement and motivation.

9: Plays Well With Others


  • Bistrategic children use both prosocial and antisocial behaviors to get what they want, making them attractive to their peers due to their independence and older appearance.
  • Children who watch less television have fewer opportunities for social interaction and are more likely to display relationally aggressive behavior when in a group setting.
  • Parental conflict resolution behind closed doors can prevent children from learning healthy ways of managing disputes.
  • Modern parenting practices, such as playdates and after-school activities, may contribute to increased aggression among children due to the need for peer status and social ranking.
  • Inconsistent discipline from progressive fathers can lead to higher levels of aggression in children compared to children with more traditional or disengaged fathers.


“educational television had a dramatic effect on relational aggression. The more the kids watched, the crueler they’d be to their classmates. This correlation was 2.5 times higher than the correlation between violent media and physical aggression.”

“In one study, Cummings found that children’s emotional well-being and security are more affected by the relationship between the parents than by the direct relationship between the parent and child.”

“Children key off their parents’ reaction more than the argument or physical discipline itself.”

“When we changed the channel from violent television to tamer fare, kids just ended up learning the advanced skills of clique formation, friendship withdrawal, and the art of the insult.”

“In taking our marital arguments upstairs to avoid exposing the children to strife, we accidentally deprived them of chances to witness how two people who care about each other can work out their differences in a calm and reasoned way.”

10: Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn’t


  • Language acquisition is a complex process that involves various factors including genetics, environment, and individual differences.
  • The critical period hypothesis suggests that there is a specific window of opportunity for language learning, but recent research has shown that language development continues throughout life.
  • Infants are born with certain predispositions that facilitate language acquisition, such as the ability to discriminate sounds and the tendency to attend to speech over other sounds.
  • Parent-child interaction plays a crucial role in language development, including using infant-directed speech, labeling objects, and responding to babbling.
  • Techniques such as motionese and variation sets have been shown to be effective in teaching new words to infants.
  • Recent research has challenged the notion of an innate Universal Grammar, suggesting that language acquisition may be explained by environmental and cognitive factors.
  • Early language development can provide a head start but is not a guarantee of future academic success.
  • Language development is highly stable once children reach elementary school age, but prior to that age, it shows variability and instability.
  • International adoptees have shown that they can catch up to their American-born peers in language development within three years, regardless of when they were adopted.


“(Even for adults, seeing someone’s lips as he speaks is the equivalent of a 20-decibel increase in volume.)”

“This variable, how a parent responds to a child’s vocalizations—right in the moment—seems to be the most powerful mechanism pulling a child from babble to fluent speech.”

“According to an extensive study comparing identical twins to fraternal twins, headed by University of New Mexico’s Dr. Philip Dale, only 25% of language acquisition is due to genetic factors.”



  • Gratitude exercises did not have a significant impact on middle school students' gratitude levels or overall well-being compared to control groups in studies conducted by Jeffrey Froh.
  • The findings contradicted earlier research on college students by Emmons, but the results were not widely reported accurately in media outlets.
  • The discrepancy between the studies could be due to developmental differences between middle school and college students, cognitive capabilities, or the way gratitude is expressed and understood at different ages.
  • Froh later designed a study with elementary, middle, and high school students where they wrote thank-you letters to specific people instead of listing five blessings each day. The results showed that some children benefited from the exercise, while others did not.
  • The children who benefited were those who usually had lower levels of positive emotions (hope, excitement), as gratitude exercises might have made them feel more dependent upon adults or felt powerless.
  • Fallacy of Similar Effect: assuming things work the same way in children as they do in adults can lead to misconceptions and misunderstandings about child development.
  • Fallacy of Good/Bad Dichotomy: assuming positive traits such as honesty, empathy, fairness, etc. will necessarily protect children from negative behaviors and emotions is an oversimplification. Children's mental states and experiences are more complex than just good or bad.


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