Episode 51: Interview with New York Times Bestselling Author Ashley Merryman, Part 1


Description: (01:23) Host Brad Kearns talks with New York Times bestselling author Ashley Merryman (author of Nurture Shock and Top Dog). Ashley offers an assortment of interesting insights that challenge our conventional notions of parenting and competitive success. She will be presenting at the next PrimalCon in Oxnard next September.

Ashley relates the disparate challenges of focusing on writing and research versus the ambitious efforts to lecture to live audiences. Unlike many keynote speakers, Ashley makes the effort to create a customized presentation based on the nature and interests of her audience.

(05:21) Brad asks her about her book, Nuture Shock, in which she talks about parents with mistaken good intentions for good ideas. Brad was blown away by the concept of inverse power of praise. Ashley studied Carol Dweck’s work (the Stanford professor and author of Mindset who studied the effects of praise on kids). Her studies discovered a couple major tenets of effective parenting. The first is to be honest with feedback. You can say anything as long as it’s warm and supportive. The second is to praise the effort not the character. Telling a child repeatedly that “you’re smart, you’re a great athlete, you’re pretty” can actually compromise their success, and make their self-esteem more fragile because they become attached to this praise and become unwilling to take risks and tackle new challenges. Effort can also become stigmatized (“I’m so talented I don’t have to work hard”).

(07:19) The effects on girls of the phrase “You are so pretty” is something that needs more study, according to Ashley. It definitely sends the message that pretty is important. It is important to be warm and supportive. But praise what one does rather than who one is.

To develop deep and lasting self-esteem, focus should be on skill building instead of focusing on innate greatness. Skill building is empowering, and you can break it into chunks where one can get a sense of progress and satisfaction at each stage to keep engaged.

(08: 59) Ashley is worried about someone never sending these praiseful messages. What effect does that have on the child? Her advice? Don’t go overboard in implementing the message to deemphasize general praise by focusing on effort—be measured and reasonable!

(09:53) Today, with the “every kid gets a trophy” approach in youth sports (and in other areas of life) we are trying to manipulate kids to succeed in an inauthentic manner. Developing these insights is what led Ashley to create Top Dog: to convey the realities of healthy competition and the best ways to prevail.

(10:35) Are kids learning that effort is stigmatized? To say you worked hard or you practiced well is better than saying that you are a good athlete.

The idea of “I can do it” is very empowering. You can also break the skill up into smaller increments so you feel like you are making progress.

(13:50) Ashley discusses the term “gifted.” She does not like the term. She says it literally means something came as a present. It implies your success has nothing to do with you or your effort.

(16:00) Brad asks about the book Top Dog and how it came about. It sounds like it is definitely related to the research Ashley uncovered while writing “Nurture Shock.

Ashley talks about one study that really surprised her. Research by Stephen Garcia and Avishalom Tor indicated that the more students who take SAT tests at the same time and at the same place, the lower everyone’s scores.

The “Top Dog” book is really all about competition. So much praise is like a false trophy. The book tries to answer: When do you compete? When should you lose? When should you win? How do you perform under pressure?

(18:17) The SAT riddle is explained. No matter what parameters were looked at, the results came out the same. The people who thought they were competing against just a few people worked faster than those who thought they were competing against many. They worked slower even though they knew the answers. Competition is a personal thing. You lose yourself in the crowd.

(21:10) Grouping of the students at the Air Force Academy was studied. Researchers who studied dorm mates found that the higher achieving roommate would cause their roommates GPA to rise. When researchers tried to manipulate the pairings of the roommates, the experiment backfired.

Part 2 of Ashley’s Interview, which gets into the details of the Top Dog book, will be published as a separate podcast next week!

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One thought on “Episode 51: Interview with New York Times Bestselling Author Ashley Merryman, Part 1

  1. NSU

    I was never told I was pretty growing up, and I never felt like it meant my parents thought I wasn’t, just that being pretty isn’t important. NOT playing up my looks means I am taken more seriously in my professional (male-dominated finance) environment, and it has been a tremendous benefit that I do not fall back on “feminine wiles”. My mom is a physician, another male dominated field.
    I now have a little boy and correct my husband when he refers to “pretty mommy”.

    just my 2c!


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