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A Letter To My Son On His Fifth Birthday

Photo Credit: Andy Eick

My, how you’ve grown in the last year. You’ve had many experiences this year that put you squarely into the big-boys club. Moving to a different country and continent, leaving all your friends behind, and making your way in this new and strange world must have been so hard. I know it was hard for us grown-ups. But you didn’t flinch, and you took on the new experiences with your head held high – looking for Mary Poppins.

You are always so curious about how things work. Reading comes easily to you now. We were also lucky enough to find a teacher who not only allows you to run ahead with your skills, she challenges you and encourages you to go even further: to learn new things, and figure out new tricks, like writing the numbers 1-100 using the pattern the numbers make.

You made new friends at your new class so quickly, it’s like you knew them for years. Your friends greet you enthusiastically on the playground, and love coming over and having you over. And you wouldn’t even consider not inviting everyone in your new class to your birthday party, so we had to find a venue to accommodate all of them.

We also discovered this summer that you don’t like to lose. You hate it so much, in fact, that sometimes you have uncharacteristic tantrums when you do. It breaks my heart every time I tell you, “You know what? We can’t win all the time”. It’s true, and you have to learn that, but I wish you didn’t have to learn it quite so early, and in such a harsh way. But you have to learn it, so we try to make it about learning to enjoy the game for the sake of the game. And you do like to play these games – from football (American Translation: soccer) to chess and checkers, which you started playing this summer with gusto.

I feel like only yesterday you were a baby, looking around from your baby carrier as we walked along the streets. You always liked busy streets, and fell asleep when we were walking down the street with the most traffic. Now you ride around on your scooter in one of the busiest cities in the world, like it’s nothing to write home about. You have preferred restaurants, and you love going to the library because that means we have new books to read. When did you become such a big boy?

I wish for you to always be learning new things. It’s what you love most, and it is what you should do at this age. I wish for you to learn about the physical world, but also about the social world. I wish for you to learn about numbers, but also about how important is each friend. I wish for you to learn about letters and sounds, but also about how to make your voice heard and when not to say everything that pops into your mind. I wish for you to learn the most from your failures, even though they hurt.

 

With all my love,

Mommy.

 
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Posted by on October 22, 2014 in Personal

 

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Should We Reward Children For Reading?

By Tim Pierce via Wikimedia Commons

 

One of the nice perks of our Great European Adventure is that we live in a really big city. One of the features of a big city is that there’s practically whatever you want within a walking distance. For example, the local library is closer to our house than my daughter’s nursery (American translation: daycare) is.

So this summer, which was extremely long seeing as I had both kids at home (SAHMs and SAHDs everywhere, I salute you. Don’t know how you do it), we spent a lot of time at the library. We spent a lot of time in other places too (did I mention it was a long summer?), but today I’ll talk about the library. The libraries in our borough, coordinating with the schools, had a summer reading challenge: for every two books you read, you get two stickers, and the challenge was to complete 6 books (in the 6 weeks of summer holidays). This got me thinking: I was pretty sure that the research shows that giving rewards for reading does nothing to motivate students to read. See, what typically happens when you give people rewards for something is that you lower their intrinsic motivation. They then do whatever you want them to do to get the reward, rather than because they enjoy it.

Of course, being the scientist that I am, I looked up the research. I found an interesting paper in the journal Reading Psychology that reviewed programs giving students rewards for reading. The amazing thing is, there is no proof that these programs help children read more, or improve their reading. Moreover, most of the programs give rewards for number of books/words read. This means you don’t necessarily have to understand what you are reading. Several studies previously found, in different contexts, that if you give rewards for doing something that isn’t the core task you are looking for, you actually impair people’s motivation to do the core task. Not to mention that if all you are looking for is mechanical reading, that’s all you’re going to get. And lets face it, that’s not going to get anyone anywhere. It’s an important first step, but that’s not the end goal.

Now, there are great reading programs out there. I read about (but never attended, it’s on our to do list) a “Chatterbooks” program, in which kids talk about the books they read – like a book club. This program sounds like a good one because the understanding is front and centre, not the reading itself. Also, the website my son’s teacher is using is good, because there are questions inside each e-book and he gets points for answering the questions. I personally find the “read to me” option in the e-books to be somewhat counterproductive, but luckily my son is fantastic, and he doesn’t use it because I said he shouldn’t.

So what do you do if you are a parent and you want your child to read more? I would argue for intrinsic motivation first and foremost. Make them love reading for reading, not for anything else. Reading is so fantastic that you really don’t need a prize. The prize is that you have read something; you have gained knowledge about something that interests you, or you were engaged with an interesting story that opened your mind. Your kid likes sports? Find a book about sports. Your girl likes fashion? Find a book about clothes designs. Another good tip is to talk to your kids about the book they read. Ask them to tell you what happened, what they liked about the book or didn’t like. If there are any words they didn’t understand, help them figure it out, from context or just talk about what this word means. Make it quality time, and that’s a bonus reward for everyone.

What about the reading challenge, you ask? I ended up stopping the challenge after a couple of weeks. We still read books, probably more than one a week, but I didn’t chart each book in the pamphlet we were given, and he didn’t get any more stickers for reading. My son didn’t seem to mind, but he’s probably a bit young for this kind of program. We read lots of books (most of them were by Julia Donaldson), talked about them, and sometimes acted them out (or we each picked a character and just improvised). It was a long summer.

 
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Posted by on October 9, 2014 in Child Development

 

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A Legal Alien – Again

Sting

Sting

I published a few weeks ago the long-overdue letter for my daughter’s third birthday. I can’t believe I have been blogging for over two years now. I haven’t written a post in 6 months, but there’s good reason. I’m going to do one more personal post, and then back to the regular content (I hope in a more regular timing). I’d like to tell you what I’ve been up to in the last 6 months.

In the winter term I was teaching a course. I was a “pretend” university professor. I call this “pretend” because there’s much more to being a university professor than teaching courses. But students, bless their hearts, don’t distinguish between contract instructors and associate professors. In fact, many people do not make that distinction (my parents included), but that’s another story. I had a great time teaching. This was a wonderful opportunity for me: I got to develop a full curriculum, set the exams and assignments, and determine the content. I took a lot from that experience, and I hope to teach again some day (maybe soon). What struck me most was how much teaching was like the work I do in this blog. I did my best to take complex research and explain it in a way that my student would understand. My teaching assistants (both fourth-year undergrads) were delighted with the course. My students a bit less so, but I suspect a lot of it had to do with the midterm being a bit hard.

Then, I presented in two conferences. I gave talks in two conferences. I’ve never given a scientific talk before, and this was also a fantastic experience. I don’t think I could have done it without teaching first though. Teaching made me a bit less anxious about standing in front of an audience and looking like I know what I’m talking about. It was a good preparation for these talks. I gave talks about my research, which was extra-awesome, because I’m excited about my research. It may not be the cure for cancer (it is about as far from a cure to cancer as blue birds are), but this is my work.

Then, we moved to London. For my Canadian readers I’ll add: London, England; not London, Ontario. We packed our stuff (man, do we have a lot of stuff), we heavy-heartedly said goodbye to our dog (he is too old to make this trip, he deserves to go live with his favourite person in the whole world, his walker), we packed the kids, and got on a plane, and we are now living in a different city, country, continent.

This has been a big change for everyone. Since my son will be starting school in September, we figured it makes sense to have both kids at home with me. I took the summer off school, and now I’m a stay-at-home-mom for the summer. We like it here a lot. We live in a great neighbourhood, which has just the right amount (for us) of families and trendiness. I have been taking the kids exploring the public transportation system. We also happened by a few free museums and fun places along the way.

Next week, my daughter starts full day nursery. The week after that, my son will begin attending primary school (with uniforms and everything). Also next week, my part-time after-school nanny (score!) will begin working for us. This will definitely give me more time to work (I have managed to work a total of 7 hours throughout the summer, including this post), and hopefully will also give me some time to blog. Until then, I will keep adding items to my list of “things you can do on a rainy day when you have been home with your kids for two months and you really would like to strangle them but you love them too much to do it”.

 
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Posted by on August 25, 2014 in Personal

 

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A Letter To My Daughter On Her Third Birthday

Image credit: Pixabay.

Image credit: Pixabay.

My goodness, I’m almost two months late. I know you’ll forgive me this time around, because you know I’m busy, what with settling into a new city/country/continent, and having to amuse your brother and you all day. Besides, I’ve been writing it in my head all this time.

 

My Dear Girl,

You are three years old. A big girl, as you keep reminding us. When I wrote the first of the birthday letters and posted it here on this blog, you were one year old. You grew a lot since then – you march (sometimes you stomp) towards independence at an alarmingly fast pace. You love doing things on your own. But what hasn’t changed a bit is your personality, which was quite evident when you were a tiny baby. You know what you want, and you make sure everyone involved knows it too. You want to do things your way, and I can’t blame you. It’s hard being the smallest kid on the playground. The other day I was astonished to see a baby, no older than two years, towering over you. But the amazing thing about you is that these incessant little insults and setbacks don’t frustrate you. You keep trying, going this way and that way, figuring out a way to get what you want. And if all else fails, you call out for me to get you there.

You are such a social creature. How much you miss having your friends to play with. I’m sorry we uprooted you from your social group, but your adaptability in this transition has come through like nothing I’ve seen before. Sure, you had a few rough days (ok, weeks. Ok, maybe less “rough” and more “hellish”. But you know what I mean.). You bounced back though, and you adapted to the new situation. I’m sure you’d do great in the new daycare you’ll start in September. And I know that already you are enjoying the new surrounding, going to various museums and fun places with mommy and your brother.

I’m so glad you haven’t lost your voice. I’ll repeat my request that you’d lower your volume a notch or ten (man, you’re loud). But other than that, I’m so happy that you don’t give up on what you want, and that you are able to direct others to help you get it.

So, my wish to you on your third birthday is that you won’t get discouraged by being the smallest one. Don’t rely on other people to do things for you – find a way to do them for yourself. And don’t ever give up this lovely habit of yours to randomly look up at me and say, “Mommy, I love you”. I like that.

 

Yours forever,

Mommy.

 
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Posted by on July 27, 2014 in Personal

 

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On Affordances And Raising The Bar

Photo Credit: Alon Banks

Photo Credit: Alon Banks

My class this week included me stumbling through Karen Adolph’s work on how infants perceive and negotiate physical obstacles. She does awesome work, you should really check her website out. There are also videos. Side note: I have become addicted to showing videos in my class.

In short, here is the story. Back in the 1950s researchers devised a contraption called the visual cliff. Basically, there is a platform with a pattern, but half of the platform is raised (about a meter off the ground). There is Plexiglas on the entire platform, so that one side is “shallow” and the other side is “deep”, and the drop halfway through is a “visual cliff”. Originally, researchers used this paradigm to check whether babies can perceive depth. The idea was that if babies would avoid going over the “cliff”, it is evidence that they can perceive the difference in height between the two halves of the platform. This is a classic developmental paradigm, and it is probably one of the best-known experiments in child development. It is currently taught in introduction to developmental psychology as evidence that infants are afraid of heights. Karen Adolph’s work with “actual cliffs” (same as visual cliff but without the Plexiglas, with an experimenter functioning as a safety net to catch the babies should they decide to go over the edge), slopes, and gaps shows that babies are in fact not afraid of heights. They are simply learning to negotiate an unfamiliar physical situation, or to solve a novel problem. Most babies, as my students noted in class, do not come across visual cliffs in their natural environment. The explanation is that as they learn to crawl, babies become more and more accurate in perceiving affordances – possibilities for actions – and get better and better at estimating their own ability to traverse these kinds of obstacles.

What surprised me about all this was that when I started prepping this class I was sure that it’s a new advancement in research. The article I read was “in press” (i.e., not yet published), and I was convinced that this interpretation of the findings is not mentioned in my introduction to development psychology textbook simply because it is brand new. Imagine my shock when I found out that the Discovery Channel documentary about these findings was filmed over a decade ago. The idea of affordances is as old as I am (which is not new), and yet it is not mentioned in the chapter about perceptual and motor development.

Which got me thinking: why? Why isn’t it in the textbook? Is it because it is too controversial? Not supported enough empirically? The original article by Gibson is cited, as per Google Scholars, some 2,679 times. Surely it has been tested enough to warrant a mention in the textbook, no?

I have nothing but respect to people who write textbooks. It’s gruelling work, there are lots of details, and it is truly hard to capture the foundations of our knowledge about child development in a book that would be priced so as not to force students to take out a student loan. But following the epigenetic conundrum, I suspect that the reason these “new” findings are not in the textbook is because the authors think that the students (and perhaps the teachers) would find them too complicated.

I admit, neither epigenetic nor affordances are simple notions. They are sophisticated and complex. I will further admit that my explanation of these ideas in class probably left something to be desired. But I passionately believe that it is our job as scientists to get these complex ideas across to people who are not scientists. This is why I write this blog, and this is what I try to do in my class. I will see it as a personal and professional failure on my part if my students leave my class thinking that science possesses a clear and correct answer to every question about child development. In fact, I think we are doing students a disservice if we lead them to think that science is about the answers. Science is about the questions. And students should not be halfway into their PhDs to understand that.

 
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Posted by on January 30, 2014 in Child Development, Meta-Blogging, Teaching

 

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On Nature, Nurture, and In Between

Photo Credit: Michael L. Kaufman

Photo Credit: Michael L. Kaufman

So, I’ve been kind of busy. I’ve been doing all kinds of fun stuff, but one that I’m really enjoying (and takes up most of my time now) is teaching an introduction to developmental psychology class. I’m very excited about this opportunity, and I’ve re-discovered how much I love to teach. But my amusement is not the topic today. I’ve been researching articles that are far off my field for this course, and one that I found completely blew my mind, so I’m going to write about it even though it’s fairly “old” for the post-twitter era (published in 2007). In a psychological journal article, this would qualify as “recent research”. So, this might be common knowledge, but I took my intro dev psych in 2002 and my last “genetic bases of developmental disorders” course in 2006, so there you go.

What They Did

The study was a meta-analysis (a study of studies) that examined heritability estimates over time. Heritability estimates are typically arrived at by comparing the correlation between monozygotic (identical) twin-sets and dizygotic (fraternal) twin-sets. The idea is that identical twins share 100% of their genes, so if they are more similar than fraternal twins on a certain measure (say, IQ), than that measure is likely influenced by genes.

This meta-analysis examined several measures, including internalizing and externalizing behaviours (depression and aggression, respectively), as well as IQ and ADHD symptoms. They looked at twins that were measured at least twice, and were between 13 and 25 years old at the time of the first measurement.

What They Found

Externalizing and internalizing behaviours and IQ all increased in heritability as time went by. I’ll say that again. The older the twins were, the more likely the identical twins were to be more similar than the fraternal twins. Is your mind blown yet?

What It Means

If you (like me) were holding the traditional view of how heredity influences development, you probably thought something along the lines of “genes provide the clay and environment does the sculpturing”. In other words, the genes are what you come into the world with, and then the environment does its thing. But this is clearly not the story here. The authors argue that the identical twins, because of their shared genes, are more likely to select similar environments, and the cumulative effect of these environments is what drives this “increase in heritability”. However, an alternative explanation is that some genes are expressed later in life, and these could be driving the increase in similarity. This alternative explanation, by the way, was conceived by a non-geneticist, so it may not actually be correct.

Nature Vs. Nature

I’ve written several posts in which I (lightly) touched on the nature vs. nurture theme. This question is one of the main one in psychology, especially when it comes to development. After all, one of the main reasons to study children is that they give us a window into the kinds of skills we come into the world with. But recent (ha!) research clearly shows that not only both nature and nurture influence development – nature and nurture also influence each other and then these influences influence development. Mind: blown.

 
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Posted by on January 13, 2014 in Child Development

 

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Parenting and Self-Regulation

How we influence our children’s behaviour and compliance.
Photo credit:  athomson

Photo credit: athomson

As I was reading “Bringing Up Bébé” (which is a whole other post that I don’t know if I’ll ever write) it struck me that the author assumes that the way French parents behave makes their children more compliant. As a developmental researcher, I of course performed a “scholar search”, and came across several interesting studies. One of them was published a few years ago, and was really interesting.

What they Did

The authors examined the relationship between parenting behaviours and other demographic factors, such as gender and socioeconomic status, and the development of inhibitory control. If you need a refresher on what inhibitory control is and why it’s important, you can read about it here and here. I’ll wait.

So, this study had parents fill out a questionnaire assessing their child’s inhibitory control skills, and their parenting behaviours were assessed by the researchers during a home visit. The question was which variables would affect the initial level of inhibitory control at age 2 years, and which variables would affect the growth of inhibitory control between 2 and 4 years of age.

What They Found

There were two interesting findings about parenting. First, harsh parenting only influenced the initial level of inhibitory control but not the development. That is, harsh parenting was associated with lower levels of inhibitory control at age 2, but not with a slower growth of inhibitory control between the ages 2 and 4. In contrast, supportive parenting was associated with increased growth of inhibitory control over the two-year period, but it was not related with the initial levels.

What it Means

I think that we can combine these findings with what I talked about a few weeks ago regarding the praise we give. I said then that parenting a two-year-old is really different from parenting a four-year-old. As I’m doing both right now, I’m keenly aware of that. There’s a different focus, a different set of expectations, and of course different things “tick us off”. If my two-year-old is unable to follow the post-dinner routine, for example, I remind her and make it into a game. If my four-year-old skips his “duties” (brushing teeth, taking plate off the table, etc.) I’m more likely to get snippy because he should know better by now. So I can see how being patient rather than harsh helps the two-year-olds, but that later on a bit of annoyance isn’t all that harmful (and really quite reasonable). Similarly, I can see how being supportive and involved with the child is a bit over their head at 2, but can go a long way in later years. Of course, I don’t mean you shouldn’t talk to your child until she’s three, but there’s a qualitative difference, I think, between how you approach a similar situation with a two-year-old and with a four-year-old.

 

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