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Getting 'An Education' (And More) From Nick Hornby

Author and screenwriter Nick Hornby joins Fresh Air host Terry Gross to discuss his new novel, Juliet, Naked, and his screenplay for the new movie An Education.

33:55

Other segments from the episode on September 30, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, September 30, 2009: Interview with Nick Hornby; Interview with Philip Bronson.

Transcript

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Getting 'An Education' (And More) From Nick Hornby

TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross. My guest, Nick Hornby, is best known for
his novel “High Fidelity,” about a guy who owns a record store and is obsessed
with pop music. “High Fidelity,” and Hornby’s books “Fever Pitch” and “About A
Boy,” were adapted into films. Hornby returns to the world of music obsession
in his new novel, “Juliet, Naked.”

The novel starts with a British couple, Duncan and Annie, making a pilgrimage
to America that includes a stop in Minneapolis at perhaps the most important
toilet in musical history: the toilet where singer, songwriter and guitarist
Tucker Crowe apparently had a life-changing experience in the middle of a set.
When he walked out of that men’s room, he gave up recording and performing.
That was in 1986.

Duncan has since become an expert on Crowe’s music and runs a Web site devoted
to every known detail of Crowe’s life and work. There’s big news in Duncan’s
world with Crowe releases a collection of the demos from his most-famous album.
Annie posts a negative review on Duncan site. Crowe responds to it, Annie and
Crowe meet, and a weird triangle is formed.

Nick Hornby, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I really enjoyed your novel. In fact,
I’d like you to start with a reading from it. And this is from early on, when
Annie is describing how the Internet has changed her boyfriend Duncan’s
relationship with Tucker Crowe, the songwriter and singer than Duncan is
obsessing about. Here’s her description of how the Internet has changed
everything for Duncan.

Mr. NICK HORNBY (Author, “Juliet, Naked”): The Internet came along and changed
everything. When, a little later than everyone else, Duncan discovered how it
all worked, he set up a Web site called Can Anybody Hear Me, the title from an
obscure EP recorded after the wounding failure of Crowe’s first album.

Until then, the nearest fellow fan had lived in Manchester, 60 or 70 miles
away, and Tucker met up with him once or twice a year. Now, the nearest fans
lived in Duncan’s laptop, and there were hundreds of them from all around the
world, and Duncan spoke to them all the time.

There seemed to be a surprising amount to talk about. The Web site had a latest
news section, which never failed to amuse Annie, Tucker no longer being a man
who did an awful lot - as far as we know, Duncan always said. There’s always
something that passed for news among the faithful, a Crowe night on an Internet
radio station, a new article, a new album from a former band member, an
interview with an engineer. The bulk of the content, though, consisted of
essays analyzing lyrics or discussing influences or conjecturing, apparently
inexhaustibly, about the silence.

It wasn’t as if Duncan didn’t have other interests. He had a specialist’s
knowledge of 1970s American independent cinema and the novels of Nathanael
West, and he was developing a nice, new line in HBO television series. He
thought he might be ready to teach “The Wire” in the not-too-distant future.

But these were all flirtations, by comparison. Tucker Crowe was his life
partner. If Crowe were to die, to die in real life, as it were, rather than
creatively, Duncan would lead the mourning. He’d already written the obituary.
Every now and again, he’d worry out loud about whether he should show it to a
reputable newspaper now or wait until it was needed.

GROSS: That’s Nick Hornby, reading from his new novel, “Juliet, Naked.” Why did
you want to focus a novel around an artist who stopped recording and someone
who’s devoting much of his life to analyzing that musician’s body of work and
figuring out what elements are autobiographical, you know, having a Web site
devoted to this artist? And then also the girlfriend of the guy who’s obsessive
about the singer-songwriter? And the book rotates between the points of view of
each of these three characters. Why did you want to focus around the artist who
could no longer make art and the people who are obsessing on him?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I think this book started with an article I read in a
magazine three or four years ago about Sly Stone, in fact, who at the time was
a recluse. And the journalist had managed to fix up an interview with him, and
eventually, he turned up for it. And there was such a sort of narrative thrill
in that, somebody appearing after a long absence and a fan’s excitement meeting
this person, that I - something about it stuck in my mind, and a lot of the
other ideas in the book accumulated around that.

There was also something about those guys’ relationships with, you know, the
Dylans and the Springsteens, the people who lecture on those people, and that
idea of Annie meeting Tucker and possibly there being some kind of flirtation
involved, I like the idea of what Duncan would think about that. I mean, half
of those Dylan guys, if Dylan met their wives on the road, those guys would
want their wives to sleep with Bob Dylan rather than not, if you see what I
mean…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It would make them more valuable.

Mr. HORNBY: More valuable, and also the information you would get after…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Oh, true.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: So there was something about that that appealed to me, too. But I
wanted to write about art and writing, I suppose, and how music is received and
talked about and how when an artist has made something and how it’s not theirs
anymore, all of these kinds of things, that this seemed like a good peg for it
all.

GROSS: Are these characters all different sides of you?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Because you’re both an artist and a fan.

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I’d say that’s where the book comes from, that I’m an artist
and a fan. And that’s not the same, I think, as saying that the characters are
me. I think that the moment you get characters to do things in fiction, the
moment they start to live lives, then it takes them away from you. But clearly,
I suppose, the ideas in the book are from me, even if there’s no biographical
detail that’s taken from my life in there.

GROSS: You describe the relationship between Annie and Duncan in the book, the
couple - and just to clarify, the guy in the couple is the guy who’s obsessed
with the singer-songwriter.

Mr. HORNBY: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And so you say they were stuck in a perpetual post-graduate world where
gigs and books and films mattered more to them than they did to other people of
their age. Do you see anything wrong with that?

Mr. HORNBY: No, I absolutely don’t. And…

GROSS: Good. I wasn’t sure if that was a complaint or not, but I thought,
what’s wrong with that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: It’s absolutely not a complaint. I mean, it’s really a complaint
about everybody else. I think we all know that as we get older, we - it’s more
of a struggle to keep in touch with those things, and the things that usually
stop us from keeping in touch is children, and Duncan and Annie don’t have any.

GROSS: Children play a very interesting role in the book. You know, the couple
in the book doesn’t have children, and she’s at the point where she’s decided
she really wants children and wondering if it’s become too late for her. And at
the same time, the musician, Tucker Crowe, he has children by women he barely
remembers. He’s having a grandchild through a daughter he’s never met, but he’s
now raising a six-year-old who’s the center of his life. And so for all the
people in the novel, having a child or not having a child is nothing the way it
once was. Like, there’s a whole new calculus now.

Mr. HORNBY: Yes. Well first of all, families are a lot more complicated, I
think, for more or less everybody.

GROSS: Absolutely.

Mr. HORNBY: And Tucker’s an exaggerated version of that. He has – he had five
children by four mums and dysfunctional relationships with all of them except
his youngest. Meanwhile, Annie, yes, constantly fantasizes about having a child
and feels that she’s left it too late. She’s been in the wrong relationship for
too long.

Partly, I wanted to dramatize that thing that probably all parents know, which
is you are not human if you don’t spend a moment in your life fantasizing about
having no children, and people without children, of course, spend parts of each
day fantasizing about life with children. And there are these two parallel
universes, and each looks equally attractive to the other.

GROSS: Has having a son changed your relationship to music and books and
movies? You probably have less time, but how has it changed your relationship
to that?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I have three sons.

GROSS: You have three sons. I’m sorry.

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah. That’s okay. Now I’ve got my 16-year-old, and I have to
little ones, a six and a five-year-old. The little ones in particular, yes,
have changed my relationship with things. We are now devoted watchers of a
program called “X Factor,” which I don’t know if you have here, but it’s
basically the same as “American Idol.” And I completely see the point of this
program now in a way that I didn’t a year or two ago.

And it’s interesting things like that. They pick up on music. They listen to a
lot of music. I watch movies with them. We go and see all the animated movies.
In some ways, I’m less in touch with the things that used to mean a lot to me
and more in touch with things that didn’t, but it’s still – I still have very
much a relationship with contemporary popular culture through them.

GROSS: So give us an example, I guess maybe you just did, of stuff that you’ve
watching or listening to that would not have meant anything if you didn’t have
children.

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I was going to say as we speak, but not quite, but certainly
the last two weeks have been completely dominated by a band called The Plain
White T’s, who my little boys discovered through a program called “iCarly,”
which I also didn’t know about before. And we’ve had to buy Plain White T’s
albums because they made an appearance in the “iCarly” show. And it’s not music
that means an awful lot to me, but it’s pretty unobjectionable, and it’s not a
million miles away from things that I like. So, you know, it’s a common ground
that we have.

GROSS: Do you ever despair that your children like things that you think aren’t
good?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: Actually, they do - they like pretty good things most of the time.
But no, I don’t despair about that at all. I would despair if they didn’t like
things. And I think as I’ve got older, I’ve come to realize that the most
important thing is that we have emotional connections to music or movies or
books, and it doesn’t matter what those things are.

GROSS: May I ask? I know one of your sons is autistic. How old is he?

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah, he’s 16.

GROSS: So has he developed an ear or an eye for music or film or books, the
kinds of things that you’re so passionate about?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, no, not books. He doesn’t read. Movies, he quite enjoys when
we take him to see a movie. He won’t often stick it out all the way through.
He’s very honest in a way that adults and, indeed, other kids aren’t. He’ll
reach a point and just stand up and walk, and you have to follow behind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: He can’t be persuaded to watch the rest of the movie if he’s
decided he’s had enough. Music is an important part of his life. He just asks
for music. And it’s difficult to tell - he’s quite severely autistic, so it’s
quite difficult to tell what he’s responding to, and he doesn’t ask for
anything by name, but he needs it on journeys(ph), and he has his own iPod and
things like that.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Nick Hornby. He’s probably most
famous for his book “High Fidelity,” which was adapted into a film. And he has
a new novel, which is called “Juliet, Naked,” and he also wrote the screenplay,
which is an adaptation of a memoir called “An Education.” That’s opening very
soon. Let’s take a short break here, and then we’ll talk some more. This is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you’re just joining us, my guest is Nick Hornby, who’s famous for his
novel, “High Fidelity.” He wrote the screenplay for a movie that’s about to
open called “An Education,” and he also has a new novel, which is called
“Juliet Naked.” And it’s about a singer-songwriter who hasn’t recorded or
performed since 1986. And it’s also about the guy who runs the Web site that
obsesses on the singer-songwriter’s work and absence, and the Web site guy’s
girlfriend who isn’t obsessed with this singer-songwriter until she reviews his
work, he responds to it, and then they end up emailing and actually meeting. So
it’s an unusual triangle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: It’s not good for a one-line pitch, this book, I’m beginning to
realize.

GROSS: No, no, do you want to give it a shot?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: No, you did better than I could.

GROSS: Now Annie dislikes the way that her boyfriend, Duncan, listens to music
because he writes about it. He considers himself, you know, like a pop-culture
scholar, and she thinks that he uses his scholarship sometimes to bully her.

She says: Listening to music was something that she did, frequently with great
enjoyment, and Duncan somehow managed to spoil it, partly by making her feel
that she was not good at it. Talk about that line, that somebody is making you
feel like you’re not good at listening to music.

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I agree with you when you use the word scholar about Duncan,
I kind of conceived him as a scholar. If his obsession had been with, you know,
Marlowe or Gerard Manley Hopkins, he would have been gainfully employed in a
university somewhere. But because it’s somebody that very few people have heard
of, then of course he has to do another job.

But I think scholars can be particular bullies, in fact, and they are quite
often the people who are telling you that you are reading something the wrong
way, listening to something the wrong way. Of all people who are not so keen of
a plurality of response, I would say it’s the world expert in something.

GROSS: Do you feel like you’ve been guilty of that yourself, ever?

Mr. HORNBY: I think anybody who cares deeply about music or movies or books
goes through a period where they can become intensely irritated by a lukewarm
response or even a negative response to something. And it’s been a long process
for me, I think, the idea that people respond in their own way to things, and
partly that’s come through writing.

GROSS: And maybe through having children.

Mr. HORNBY: Maybe through having children as well, yes. I mean, the children
have been good in that way, that you can see that something brings them joy and
pleasure, and it might not be what you choose, but why on earth be snooty about
it and try and lead them away from the thing they’re enjoying to something that
they would enjoy less - which seems to me the job of a critic quite a lot of
the time.

GROSS: In your new novel, “Juliet Naked,” you write a little about sexual
relationships or about people wanting or not wanting sex. It’s not explicit in
any way, but I guess the point I’m getting to is that one of the characters in
this - the singer-songwriter who hasn’t recorded or performed in many years -
he’s in his late ‘50s and sex for him is different. He’s older. He’s had a
medical problem. I don’t want to go into too much, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But anyway, so you’ve had to deal with what a sexual relationship would
mean for him at his stage in life, which is really different than the younger
characters that you’re famous for creating. And so I’m not sure what my
question is exactly, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: How’s my sex life now I’m getting old.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: No, no, no, that’s not the question.

Mr. HORNBY: Okay, good.

GROSS: But the question is – yes – but the question is more about, like,
writing characters – writing about a character’s sexual life and sexual desires
or lack of desire - who is older.

Mr. HORNBY: Well, it would be very hard for me to write “High Fidelity” now, I
think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: I’m proud of the book, but it was a younger man’s book. And I think
turning 50 was quite a big thing for me. I think it was the first time I
actually did realize that I was going to get old and die.

GROSS: Did that change your life, that sense that you are going to get old and
die?

Mr. HORNBY: Not as much as it should have done, I don’t think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: But you know when you turn 20 or 30 or 40, you go around making all
the same jokes about oh, my God, I can’t believe I’m so old. And - but when
you’re 50, you don’t say it anymore because you just are old. So it’s not so
funny anymore. And there is a lot about mortality and regret, I think, in this
book, and Tucker’s six-year-old son has a real problem with the idea of
mortality. And that was lifted out of my own six-year-old and a stage he went
through - which was pretty interesting and quite distressing, actually.

GROSS: A fear that you would die because you’re older than the other parents,
that you would die before he was grown up.

Mr. HORNBY: I don’t think he was too worried about that, even. I was 45, I
guess, when he was born. So it wasn’t like I broke the world record or
anything. No, it was more him dying, everybody dying. It was just clocking that
it was going to happen. And what I found hilarious in retrospect, was how
quickly I resorted to orthodox religion as consolation, even though I am
atheistic in my own beliefs. And up until that point, I had always told him
that, you know, there wouldn’t be much talk about Jesus in our house because we
didn’t really believe in it. And then the moment he said, and you’re going to
die, and mum’s going to die, and I’m going to die, and everybody’s going to
die. I said yeah, but it’s okay because you’ll see us all in heaven.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: How do you feel about that, about telling him stuff that you don’t
believe in? Is it more like telling him about Santa Clause, or are you going to
start actually telling him more about and starting to believe it, too?

Mr. HORNBY: I think as one gets older, one realizes the value of pragmatism
with children. And obviously I’m telling him something I don’t believe, but
very soon, he will be able to work out that belief for himself. And I think you
cannot go around confronting children with the brutal truth at every stage in
their lives.

At the moment, my six-year-old’s convinced he’ll play for Arsenal, which is our
local football team, and he won’t. He won’t be good enough. But I don’t really
see the value of telling him that he’s never going to play for Arsenal. He’ll
work it out for himself, just as he’ll work out what happens to us all after he
dies.

GROSS: Nick Hornby will be back in the second half of the show to talk about
his new movie. His new novel is called “Juliet Naked.” Here’s a song by one of
the bands he said his young sons love, the Plain White T’s. I’m Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I’m Terry Gross, back with Nick Hornby, the author of
"High Fidelity," "Fever Pitch," "About a Boy," and the new novel "Juliet,
Naked." He adapted his memoir, "Fever Pitch," into a film; now he's written the
adaptation of a memoir by the British journalist Lynn Barber.

The movie, "An Education," stars Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina and Carey
Mulligan. One of the producers, Amanda Posey, is Hornby's wife. "An Education"
opens October 9th.

I want you to just kind of set up what the story is about in "An Education"
because I’ll let you give away as much as you’re comfortable giving away in
that...

Mr. HORNBY: Okay.

GROSS: ...description so that we could talk a little bit about the movie.

Mr. HORNBY: Well, it’s a movie about a 16-year-old girl who turns 17 during the
course of the film, called Jenny, and her relationship with an inappropriate
and slightly dodgy older man in London right at the beginning of the 1960s.

GROSS: The screenplay is based on a memoir by a woman, Lynn Barber, who's a
journalist in England who I gather writes a lot of celebrity profiles and
things like that?

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah. She - I guess she's quite famous for turning on people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: She's written the odd quite sort of notorious profile of
celebrities. When she doesn’t like them she let's you know that she doesn’t
like them. But she's a very good writer and an interesting person. And this
memoir, when I first read it, it was originally, it was a 10-page piece in the
literary magazine Granta. It just dealt with this one episode in her life and
she’s since turned that into a book. Not the episode but she's written a memoir
which incorporates other things. So I read it I guess about five years ago and
I showed it to my wife. I said I think you should do something with this,
there's a lot in here. And that's how it started.

GROSS: So one of the things I really like about the movie is that it's about a
really smart high school girl who really wants to live the life of the mind but
she, you know, she lives in this working class neighborhood. There's no - she
has no access to the kind of life that she dreams about. You know, she listens
to her Juliette Greco records and imagines what life in Paris would be like and
she's learning to speak French.

But you know, her life is actually pretty drab and her goal is to go to Oxford.
But when she meets this older man, who we don’t know much about, he can offer
her what seems to be this really glamorous life. Like nightclubs and art
auctions - and it’s so seductive and it’s so risky because it’s taking her away
from what she needs to develop a life of the mind, and who knows who he really
is?

And I found it really interesting that you were so passionate about this story
that you wanted to adapt it into a film. You’re so well-known for writing
mostly about a certain male point of view. Why did you want to write from this
female point of view and from the dangers that a woman in high school faces?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I guess first of all I feel that - I accept that I'm famous
for writing about a certain kind of man, but the last few books I think I've
moved from that a little bit. When I read the piece, I identified with her
completely. I felt the same. I grew up in a similar, I guess, suburb to hers
and I felt I was going to be crushed by the lack of culture around me. It
wasn't that, you know, it was a difficult upbringing in any way. I don’t think
Lynn's upbringing was difficult, but she was scared that she wasn’t going to
get access to the things that she wanted.

And so I started to think of it really as a female equivalent of my first book,
"Fever Pitch," which was a memoir about soccer, but where soccer seemed to
provide some kind of direct route into the life of the city. So there was that.
That attracted me to it immediately. And then the more I started to think about
it, the more I liked other things in it. I loved it totally. I thought it was
painful and funny at the same time. And most things just kind of go into a
groove and stay there. They're either funny or they're not funny. And I love
things that make you laugh and cry, and that material doesn’t come around very
often.

And I guess the third thing was Britain in 1962, so during the events of this
film, the Beatles and the Stones were more or less literally in recording
studios, but nobody had heard a note, so the country was going to change pretty
soon but they weren't aware of that as a country right on the verge of change.
And I think it probably has more in common with 1945 than it does with 1963.
That character would've lived with food rationing for the first half of her
life, for example.

GROSS: Yeah. And writing about British teenagers in the early ‘60s, when the
movie is set, you write: London at the time, at the beginning of the ‘60s,
still bore more than a passing resemblance to its wartime self. It is strange
to think, for example, that Jenny would've experienced the privations of food
rationing for the first half of her life. This was one reason why the UK needed
interpreters of American music like Lennon and McCartney, people to transform
it so that it made sense.

What didn’t make sense about American music to British kids growing up after
the war?

Mr. HORNBY: Well, I think if you look at ‘50s American rock and roll, it was a
product of affluence to a certain extent. You think about, you know, big cars
and driving your girlfriend around and that's what a lot of the songs were
about. Well, that just didn’t happen in England. Nobody had cars. You waited
for buses in bad weather normally. And we were completely ruined by Word War II
and America was made in some ways by World War II. And it took a while for us
to be able to recognize something in the music, I think, that made some kind of
sense.

When I was thinking about music for this movie, I was looking on my iPod and
realized that I don’t have one song that was made in England before 1960. I
have a great deal of American music made before 1960 but no English music at
all, and then suddenly that changed with what happened obviously, and I think
that's revealing of something.

GROSS: I want to end with a question that's based on your new novel, "Juliet,
Naked." There's two quotes about art that are such great contrast to each other
and I really think sum up so well what it's like when you’re immersed in music
or literature or film. Okay. So here's a quote about what it's like to be at a
bad concert: Mediocre loud music pens you into yourself, made you pace up and
down your own mind until you were pretty sure you could see how you might end
up going out of it.

And then here's a quote about great art: One thing about great art, it made you
love people more, forgive them their petty transgressions. It worked in a way
that religion was supposed to.

I love that contrast because, you know, great art, it is almost like religion.
I mean it’s so - it has this kind of larger resonance that makes you glad
you’re alive and see things in a different way and - but bad art...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...it can, especially when you’re trapped in a theater or in a concert
where it’s taking place and you can't really leave, it can just make you just
think about thoughts and obsess on bad things and make you really wish you
could get out of there and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah. And I think bad concerts and massages for me come to the same
thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Messages?

Mr. HORNBY: Yeah. I hate messages for exactly the same reason. There's no
escape.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: You’re stuck with your own…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: But yes, the great art thing. I guess that's the position I've
arrived at finally, is that anything that makes you feel more alive is good for
you, and if that happens to be the "The Da Vinci Code" or the Backstreet Boys,
well, you know, good luck to you. But if...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HORNBY: ...if you feel more alert and more able to cope and more willing to
communicate as a result of anything you might consume, then that thing is
performing a valuable function in your life, I think.

GROSS: It's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. HORNBY: Lovely to talk to you again, Terry.

GROSS: Nick Hornby's new novel is called "Juliet, Naked." He wrote the
screenplay for the new film "An Education," which opens October 9th. Here's
Peter Sarsgaard and Carey Mulligan in a scene from the film.

(Soundbite of movie, "An Education")

Mr. PETER SARSGAARD (Actor): (as David): I suppose you have homework to do.

Ms. CAREY MULLIGAN (Actress): (as Jenny): You have no idea how boring
everything was before I met you. Action is character, our English teacher says.
I think it means that if we never did anything, we wouldn’t be anybody, and I
never did anything before I met you.
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For Parents, The Return of Tough Love?

TERRY GROSS, host:

Many of modern society's strategies for nurturing children are backfiring
because new research in the science of children has been overlooked. That's the
premise of the new book, "Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children," by
Ashley Merryman and my guest, Po Bronson.

An article they wrote about parenting for New York magazine won an award from
the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Po Bronson is also the
author of the bestseller "What Should I Do With My Life?"

Po Bronson, welcome to FRESH AIR. Now in terms of talking about why modern
parenting has failed to produce a generation of angels, you say that, you know,
parents today know they're not supposed to fight in front of their children and
you say there are unintended consequences of taking marital arguments upstairs,
you know, in an attempt to shelter your children from a fight. What are the
unintended consequences of that?

Mr. PO BRONSON (Author, "Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children"): Mark
Cummings' lab out of the University of Notre Dame is looking at this very
phenomenon very closely and he has parents simulate arguments in front of their
kids, where he has kids watch videotapes of arguments and he has parents as
conspirators in his experiments. And normally when a kid watches a fight
between parents, an argument, a quite heated conflict, that kid will then lash
out afterwards or during it and act aggressive. But there's one thing that
happened in those experiments that makes all that aggressive behavior in the
child go away: it's watching the fight get resolved, it's watching your parents
work it out in a constructive way.

And when I read this, I understood that taking it upstairs, you know, I might
have a moment of conflict with my wife and I’ll say that according to Cummings'
data, you know, parents are bickering to each other seven to eight times a day
and the kids are a witness to it. It's wrong to imagine that kids aren't seeing
this and feeling it. But when we take the arguments upstairs, the kid sees the
fight begin but never sees it amicably resolved, and that's hurting kids more.

In fact, Cummings' work is now showing, this most recent data, that kids who
are exposed to constructive conflict, and it can be quite heated, but when it’s
resolved and worked out in front of the kids, those kids are being reported by
teachers as having better well-being and better social skills and they’re sort
of more adaptive in their environment at school. We need to - parents need to
model for kids how to work through arguments - how to work it out.

GROSS: So are you suggesting parents fight in front of the kids and then
hopefully they'll reach an end of the argument, have an amicable resolution,
then the kid will learn from that?

Mr. BRONSON: Mark Cummings would never say, hey, go out and fight in front of
your kids, it's a really good thing to do. He would say that, more that don't
pretend your kid isn't seeing some of your conflict. Parents believe they are
sort of hiding their kids from this conflict but the kids can feel it. And so
the important thing is to be aware when you did start something in front of
your kids to then really try to model, for the benefit of the kids, working it
out. And that might mean holding your tongue and enthusiastically trying to
compromise in front of the kids so they can see from their parents how to do
this with their own friendships.

GROSS: In your book "Nurture Shock" you cite a really interesting study that
compared, quote, progressive dads, traditional dads and disengaged dads” in
their styles of parenting. What is meant by progressive dads?

Mr. BRONSON: Well, these are the modern fathers who are co-parenting, who can
change a diaper one-handed and pop up the port-a-crib in 30 seconds and know
how to, you know, feed the baby and put the baby to bed and are very actively
involved in their children's lives.

GROSS: And a problem that emerged in this study is that the fathers who came
under this category of progressive dad are having trouble - some of them,
anyways, were having trouble disciplining their children. They didn’t want to
hit their children or scream at them of course, but they weren’t sure what to
do instead. What was the discomfort that they had with the idea of disciplining
their children?

Mr. BRONSON: Progressive dads – they imagine this wonderful, you know, tight
bond with their kids, and they haven’t really thought about the fact that
disciplining their kid is going to be part of the job. And they don’t
necessarily – they know how to be great to their kid and nice to their kid but
they don’t necessarily have a strategy for disciplining. And as a result they
experiment as discipliners. They – one day they’ll say well, you know, no
dessert. And the next day they’ll act really mean to their kid or angry or
offended, trying to show their kid what they’ve done is wrong. And then the
next day they’ll withdraw some other privilege or say you have to go to bed
early and it becomes very inconsistent.

And the science of disciplining your kids says the one mistake to make is to be
inconsistent. Any form of consistent discipline is better than inconsistent
discipline where you’re losing your cool and you’re confused. And as a result
the children of progressive dads, you know, when they were rated by teachers
and others at their schools were acting out or being just as aggressive as the
children of disengaged dads.

GROSS: So did that surprise you?

Mr. BRONSON: Yeah. Because I’m a progressive dad for sure, and I saw myself in
that data. I saw myself in Dr. Chip Sullivan’s(ph) data, that most of my
childhood, or most of my kids’ childhood - I wasn’t really sure what to do
about when problems came along and how to react to them. And I saw it and I
learned to just calm down and make sure I’m being consistent and talk calmly to
them and not lose my cool or lose my temper or not be offended when my kid, you
know, does something wrong.

GROSS: So as somebody who considers himself a progressive dad were you having
trouble being the disciplinarian with your children?

Mr. BRONSON: Yes. For my son and my daughter it was – I, like many of the
progressive dads, experienced almost a sense embarrassment that I’m in this
situation, that I have to discipline my kid. Because I would’ve thought, you
know, that as this modern parent doing all these supposedly good things for my
kid, that they wouldn’t be acting out at school. They wouldn’t be causing
problems. They wouldn’t have joined in in the teasing of that boy. They
wouldn’t have pushed that girl.

GROSS: And they would’ve just, like, learned from your example as a good
person.

Mr. BRONSON: Yeah. Because, you know, we’re such lovely parents.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BRONSON: And so I was – I - and the way that I dealt with this, I do
realize. I had been inconsistent. And seeing that portrait has really helped me
sort of just calm about this and be more consistent. And especially not act
offended and not lose my cool.

GROSS: If you’re just joining us my guest is Po Bronson and he’s the co-author
of the new book “NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children.” Let’s take a short
break here and then we’ll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you are just joining us, my guest is Po Bronson. He has been writing
about parenting for the past few years and his new book is called
“NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children.” It’s co-authored with Ashley
Merryman. Let’s move on to the issue of sleep, which you also write about in
your book, “NurtureShock.” And there’s been some interesting studies on how
sleep functions differently in children than in adults and the consequence of
not have - consequences of not having enough sleep are different for children
than adults.

Let’s start with the fact that one study shows that children are sleeping an
hour less than they did thirty years ago. How is that measured? How do they
know that?

Mr. BRONSON: It’s not a single study, that would be an aggregation of dozens of
studies, work from the National Sleep Foundation amongst many other scholars
have been looking at this. And when you look at the whole picture you’ll see a
disturbing trend which is that we all remembered not getting a lot of sleep
when - certainly when we were in high school. In the last 30 years, we
subtracted another hour from that. So, imagine what you used to get and how
sleepy you were and then subtract an hour and that’s what today’s kids are
doing. The average high schooler’s sleeping 6.65 hours per night.

And the science is interesting here because it says that - sleep scientists
will tell you, you should be sleeping without an alarm clock, you should be
sleeping, you know, nine, 10 hours a night. Okay, I think that’s not real.
People aren’t going to do that. But if you subtract the first hour, which is
what we did when we were kids, you don’t see a whole lot of impairment. But
when you subtract the second hour which is what we’ve done in the last 30
years, you see a huge steep falloff. And you see a dramatic sort of impairment
of cognitive abilities and you see this slushing over into other dimensions of
children’s lives.

GROSS: Are children sleeping less because school is starting earlier?

Mr. BRONSON: Many school districts, to save money, have gotten rid of the two
fleets of buses. The old fleet – one fleet would take kids to elementary school
and the other fleet would take kids to the high schools. And by having a single
fleet and starting high schools very early - 7:30, 7:15, 7:50 in the morning -
those buses could then turn around, pick up the other set of kids in the
elementary school and let them start at 8:30 or 9:00.

And so, yes, high schools are starting earlier and earlier around the country.
And it’s had a dramatic affect. A few districts – intrepid districts, looking
at the science of sleep have – they’ve been willing to bite the bullet and
trust the science, which I recognize isn’t necessarily easy, and move their
school start times back an hour. One of these districts in Minnesota did that
and they saw the SAT scores for the best and the brightest in the district leap
by over 200 points.

GROSS: Tell us some of the things that researchers have learned about the

importance of sleep in children when they’re learning?

Mr. BRONSON: Adults spend only four percent of the night in what’s called slow-
wave sleep. Kids spend 40 percent of their slumber in slow-wave sleep. We’ve
always heard this idea that there’s these different stages of sleep, you know,
REM sleep, non-REM sleep, slow-wave. We’re not really sure what those were for.
Well, it turns out that these different phases of sleep are being used by the
brain to take short-term memories and re-encode them as long-term memories to
be recalled later. And different forms of memories are being re-encoded in the
different stages of sleep. And it’s – you know, children are especially
vulnerable to sleep loss because it’s cutting way down on their slow-wave
sleep, when a lot of cognitive stuff is being encoded in their brain. And the
result is that the sleepy kid not only is sort of tired, and therefore
perseverates(ph) and can’t maintain attention, but that their brain literally
didn’t get done encoding things.

GROSS: Are there other cognitive issues that have come out of sleep research?

Mr. BRONSON: You know, the surprise, Terry, is not that sleep matters, it’s how
much it matters and how little bits of difference can even - can matter as
well. You know, Karscadan’s(ph) data out of Rhode Island and Walstrom’s data
out of Minnesota shows that – I’ll broadly characterize it here - that A
students average 15 more minutes sleep than B students, who average 15 more
minutes sleep than C students, and so on. Every 15 minutes can count.

And Dr. Avi Sadeh out of Tel Aviv University did some work where he had sixth
graders and fourth graders get a little more sleep, half hour more sleep than
they usually get, or a half hour less than they usually get, for three nights.
And then he gave them intelligence tests. And the sleepy sixth graders were
testing out like the fourth graders, that a loss of even three nights of sleep
for a half hour each night was equal to the difference between a sort of a
fourth grader and a sixth grader on the sort of subcomponent IQ Test.

And again there the idea was every half-hour counts. And we treat our children
sleep – I call it the slush hour before they go to bed - we sort of treat it
like a national debt, you know, what’s another 15 minutes on the bill? But we
wanted to argue that when every 15 minutes counts, you know, maybe parents will
now begin to pay attention to what’s going on in that slush hour of their
children’s lives.

GROSS: So, what are the recommendations that have come out this in addition to
the recommendation that schools should continue – should consider starting a
little later, not starting at 7:15 or 7:30.

Mr. BRONSON: It seems so easy to say – oh, well let’s go to bed earlier. I
mean, science has been arguing that forever and people have been hearing that
forever. And we’re not listening to it. I hope if people understand that every
15 minutes counts, they might begin to trust some of the science and inch it
back a little bit. In some ways this is one of those reductionist things, that
the broad advice is, of all this incredible science, is this puny little advice
point: go to bed earlier. It almost doesn’t just do justice to how interesting
the science is.

GROSS: And it’s just easier said than done, too.

Mr. BRONSON: It’s certainly easier said for done. I mean, what we were fighting
against is this notion in our society that resisting sleep is a character
strength. Sleep is for wusses. And, you know, sleep when you’re dead. And it’s
these mentalities that, you know, parents who are filling their kid’s lives
with so many activities and then the kids are bringing in all this technology
and social networking and unwittingly we haven’t really known the true cost of
the sleep. And as their parents, we could say – yeah, I’m sleepy but I’m
surviving. And what’s important to note is that what’s going on in your brain
is an adult brain. What’s going on in your kid’s brain is quite different.

GROSS: Well, Po Bronson, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. BRONSON: Thank you, Terry. Really appreciate it.

GROSS: Po Bronson is the co-author of the new book, “Nurture Shock: New
Thinking about Children.” You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site
freshair.npr.org. I’m Terry Gross.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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