Friday, July 9, 2010

You are what you read?

Back when I was just a wee thing, and my mom was expecting my sister (2 years, 8 months my junior), my parents talked to me about the upcoming, potentially devastating, impact of acquiring a sibling. “I may be jealous” I said (apparently). “Why?” my parents asked. “I read it in a book” was my reply. I was not so precocious as to be reading at that age—but I’m sure someone read me a book about what it was like to have a new baby in the house. It’s a great and simple example of life imitating fiction. We all tend to imitate the stories that read, hear, or watch.

Several of the studies in NurtureShock suggest this in a dramatic way. In “The Sibling Effect,” one bright young boy comments to his mom “..[It’s] just not cool to like a little sister”—something little Ethan seems to have learned from some books. In fact, one researcher on sibling relationships who had given people books and videos to help kids get along, reported parental complaints almost immediately. While the stories given to the families ended on a good note, the bulk of the tales involved a lot of negative interactions. The researcher (Kramer) noted, “From these books, the kids were learning novel ways to be mean to their younger siblings they’d never considered.”

It’s just the tip of the iceberg; the chapter “Plays Well with Others,” (which addresses social interactions and violence among children today) noted another surprising effect: kids who watched shows like Arthur and other educational programming (PBS-type), the more relationally aggressive they were—more aggressive than the group watching Star Wars and Power Rangers in their free time. “What?” you say. Here’s why: “Data from a team at Ithaca College confirms… there is a stunning amount of relational and verbal aggression in kids’ television.” Kids model some of the relational situations they see--which include a lot of negative interaction and socially aggressive behavior.

But there’s a bright side, too! The most interesting example to my mind of the life-imitating-fiction phenomenon was in the chapter “Why Kids Lie.” Most of the chapter addresses the frequency, early onset, and extent of kids’ lying. There aren’t a lot of encouraging signs, though it’s clear that honesty is a valuable lesson to teach, above and beyond simply “not lying.” Getting kids not to lie is often very, very difficult. One thing researchers tried was reading kids stories before asking them questions they thought they would want to lie about. There were two stories: The Boy Who Cried Wolf and George Washington and the Cherry Tree. Contrary to all expectations, the kids who heard the Washington story lied a lot less than the kids who heard the Boy Who Cried Wolf tale. Why?

I’m not going to tell for now…you can just figure it out on your own. I’m running my own little reading experiment!