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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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Do Kids Use Too Much Media?

Should we limit screen time or screen content?

Photo Credit: IntelFreePress (I know, I know)

Photo Credit: IntelFreePress (I know, I know)

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published their new guidelines for children’s media use. This, combined with a new survey that found that about a third of kids under 2 years of age have used a tablet or smartphone, has the potential to quickly becoming the new “health scare”.

The new policy is well thought out, and it emphasizes parenting monitoring mostly. Of course, what the media took from this was the one recommendation that – at least in the new policy – is the least supported one: the recommendation to limit total “screen” time.

So what is the problem with screen time? When I was young they said you shouldn’t watch too much TV because you’ll need glasses. That makes the time-limit concern about 30 years old, and not quite substantiated (see link). But if you read the actual guidelines, the experts are mostly concerned about two things: the content that the kids watch and obesity. Kids watching unsupervised content (especially if it’s in their room) may be learning undesirable behaviours from TV and online. A different point completely is the fact that every hour a child is sitting in front of a screen is an hour in which they are not physically active. Let’s talk a bit about both these points.

Kids watching bad content

Sure, there’s a lot of bad content out there. From TV shows that have been experimentally shown to cause a decrease in executive functions, to pornography that is linked to all kinds of morally questionable attitudes, there’s no question that we as parents must monitor the content that kids are perusing. My question is, can you do that if your first rule is a time limit? When I was a kid, we didn’t have time limits on TV watching. If our homework was done, we could watch as much TV as we wanted to. Our house was the most popular house in the neighbourhood: all the kids who had time limits at their house told their parents they are going to play at my house. Kids are evil geniuses. So in my opinion, setting time limits is not in itself sufficient. If what we are trying to solve is unmonitored TV watching, then we have to increase monitoring, not decrease TV watching. That’s because kids can still watch a lot of bad stuff in two hours if they are left to their own devices. Personally I think that we as parents have a responsibility to teach kids how to watch TV. That is, we have to teach them that TV is not real, that people on TV are not real people, and that some things that happen on TV can’t happen in real life. This is particularly important, I think, in the pre-pubescent age, when they are old enough to watch, for instance, kids on TV that can do bad things and suffer no consequences. But at every age teaching them about how to watch critically and talking about the content they see is important.

A Link Between Watching TV and Obesity

A study done more than a decade ago found that children who have a TV in their room are significantly more likely to be overweight than kids without a TV in their room. This was true after controlling for “sociodemographics, physical activity, frequency of TV or movie watching[,] and internet use”. That’s an impressive set of controls. I don’t have access to the actual paper, so I can’t say anything about the methods of the research. But I think a couple of things are worth noting. First, they controlled (that is, statistically “levelled out”) frequency of TV watching. This means it’s not the time spent watching TV that is driving this relationship. What does? Could it be that kids who have a TV in their room have fewer rules in the household overall? Or perhaps the TV ads increase consumption of less-than-healthy foods? There’s a host of possible explanations, and the truth is we don’t know enough to say what the exact mechanisms are. Another thing to note is that the odds ratio was 1.32. Odds ratio is a statistical way to calculate the difference in risk between two groups. I took the liberty of translating this into concrete numbers, since that’s a lot easier to understand. It means that if in the general population of kids in the US you would expect 22 kids in 100 to be overweight (based on the numbers in this article), than for kids who have a TV in their room that number increases to 29 kids in 100. This is a statistically significant difference, yes, but it’s not quite an epidemic. I think it’s much more pressing to figure out why the other 22 kids are overweight.

Do my kids watch TV? You betcha. But we typically either watch with them (on the first, say, 20 times or so. By the 20th time I’m fairly confident we covered everything), and talk about what the characters do, whether they are real or not (especially monsters and dinosaurs), and what we can do in certain situations (say, if our teacher took us on a field trip to outer space). There’s great content out there, and some pretty awesome iPad apps. For instance, thanks to out newly installed “endless alphabet” app, not only can my 4-year-old spell famished, he can also use it in a sentence. You just have to mind it, like everything else, and teach your child independent thinking and moderation.

 
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Posted by on November 5, 2013 in Child Development, Parenting

 

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You Can’t Always Get What You Want

Photo Credit: asenat29

Photo Credit: asenat29

I wrote before about what developmental scientists call “Theory of Mind” – the ability to reason about others’ mental states, such as desires, beliefs, and intentions. This field of research is endlessly fascinating, as there is so much to learn. One of the hardest things to accommodate is seemingly contradicting findings with different age groups.

Take for example research about desire. A while ago (16 years now), researchers looked into 14- and 18-month-olds’ ability to respect another’s desire that conflicted with their own. An experimenter exhibited “liking behaviours” (saying “yummy”, rubbing her tummy, etc.) towards either goldfish crackers or broccoli. Since 93% of the kids preferred goldfish crackers (naturally), for about half of the kids the experimenter’s preference for broccoli conflicted with their own. Then the experimenter held out her hand and asked, “Can you give me some?”

About 80% of the 14-months-olds gave the experimenter goldfish crackers regardless of her expressed “desire”. However, only 30% of the 18-months-olds gave her goldfish crackers when she showed preference for broccoli. That is, the majority of 18-months-olds were able to respect the experimenter’s preference for broccoli, as weird as they may have thought it was. So, as per the authors, 18-months-olds were able to consider another person’s desire and act on it, despite the conflict with their own preference.

Now, another recent research looked at 3- to 5-year-olds. Cristina Atance is a lovely person and bright researcher working at Ottawa University. Our lab has collaborated with hers and we have a good relationship. She and her graduate student ran a study in which they looked at whether preschoolers can choose a gift for their mom. They showed the kids two items: a stuffed teddy bear and a magazine. There were several copies of each item, like you can see in a store. They asked children what would be a good gift for them and what would be a good gift for their mom. But they changed the order of the questions. So, some of the children first got to choose a gift for themselves and then choose a gift for their mom, whereas some of the children had to choose first for mom and only then for themselves. They also had a condition in which children were told that they will get to choose for themselves later, but they have to choose for mom first (the anticipated satisfaction condition). Turns out that all kids were better at choosing the appropriate gift for mom after they chose (or anticipated choosing) a gift for themselves than they were before they chose a gift for themselves. Most 3-year-olds selected the teddy bear for mom if they had to choose for mom first, but about 50% were able to choose correctly after they chose the teddy bear for themselves. Most 4- and 5-year-olds were better than that, and were able to choose the appropriate gift for mom after they chose a gift for themselves (although their performance when choosing for mom first was lower).

There are a few problems with this study. One of them is the (very) small sample size – there are simply not enough kids in each condition and each age group to really be able to generalize. Another problem (and I think the main one) is with the fact that the verbal instructions for the choose-for-self-first and the anticipated-choosing-for-self were much longer than the last, choose-for-mommy-first condition. “Stop-and-think” paradigms have been well documented to increase preschoolers’ inhibitory control, so it’s possible that the longer verbal instructions provided a long enough “stop and think” time interval for the kids to think about what’s actually appropriate for mom.

But let’s assume that we accept the results of this study as is. How come 18-months-old kids can think about someone else’s desires but they somehow loose this ability when they are 3-years-old? One explanation is that there’s something different in the way we think about food from a very young age. That is, when it comes to food (the objects of “desire” in the first study I discussed) even babies can understand that different people like different things. I suspect that’s not the case, but that’s one difference between the first and second papers I mentioned. Another possibility (and I think this one’s more likely) is that all of the babies’ experience with the experiment in the first study was her intense dislike of goldfish crackers and her intense liking of broccoli. In contrast, 3-year-olds are likely to experience their mom as someone who actually likes teddy bears (because when your toddler brings you a teddy bear, you say “oh, cute teddy!” even if you are only half conscious), and are not very likely to experience their mom as someone who reads magazines (do you know any moms of very young preschoolers who have the time?). Therefore, it only makes sense that the kids were not entirely sure what to do. By the way, I tried this with my own kids, and both said that, between a stuffed zebra and glasses, glasses would be a good present for mommy – despite never seeing me wearing glasses. But they also thought I would like broccoli better than a cupcake (not quite true), at which point the conversation was derailed by requests for cupcakes. Clearly my homemade experiment was not well thought out.

That said, this field of research is really interesting and highly practical. The next time you want to take your preschoolers shopping, promise them they can choose something for themselves at the end, and see if it goes better. I would love to hear the results of that experiment.

 
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Posted by on October 29, 2013 in Child Development

 

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A Letter For My Son On His 4th Birthday

My Love,

You amaze me almost every day. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. You are so mature now; no longer a baby but a boy. I find it hard to remember you’re actually only 4 years old.

Your music skills are out of this world. I don’t know many kids who can accurately sing not only nursery rhymes like the wheels on the bus, but also complicated grown up songs, and full Disney musicals. You like arts and being creative, as long as you don’t have to work with little things like crayons. I think that’s why you like singing – it doesn’t involve any fine-motor skills, and you can do it anywhere. And you literally sing everywhere.

You share so well with your sister. You are in general such a great big brother. You always have an eye out for her, and you make sure that she gets an equal part of whatever you guys are playing with together. It doesn’t always go smoothly, but most of the times the way you two play together makes me melt. No wonder your sister no longer cries on daycare drop-off but happily runs into the room screaming, “Adam starts in the Juniors!”

You have such good friends. I really love how you have actual relationships with kids at your daycare – a trend I started watching happily last year. When they were here yesterday for your birthday party it really showed. They all showed up happily, and they all were almost as excited as you were for the party. They wanted to play with you. And you have different relationships with each of them. You gently hug the little girls and you show them the musical instruments, and you play rough-and-tumble with the boys who seem to be made out of rubber. Not that the girls didn’t jump right into the kids-pile after two seconds of being proper, but you gave it a shot.

And this is the first year you were actually excited about your birthday. You have been talking about it for a month. And it was a big one, too. Not long ago you started being completely diaper-free, and on your birthday-eve you gave up your nighttime soother because you’re “already a big boy”. You got a new bike last week – big kids bike – and you drive them around proudly, if cautiously. And you knocked me out of the water when we were in the car the other day, and you asked why the sign said no. Our foray into reading land has truly begun.

For your birthday this year, I wish for you to learn to cope when things don’t go your way. If you find something difficult to master, you tend to give up on it. That doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen. And you don’t like it at all. Not very many kids do, and I hope you’ll figure it out. You will learn that in life it is often the case that things don’t go our way. I wish for you to learn not only to deal with your negative emotions, but also to turn your failure into a learning opportunity, and turn the negative event into an opening for growth.

Yours forever,

Mommy.

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2013 in Personal

 

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Parents and Bullies

Photo Credit:  Chesi - Fotos CC

Photo Credit: Chesi – Fotos CC

A new meta-analysis shows that there is a relationship between parental behaviour and being a bully.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Virtually all the parents’ blogs I follow mention bullying at some point of the month. I decided to join in again this year, even though it is not my area of expertise, because this is a good cause, and it’s important that parents know as much as possible about this problem.

A meta-analysis that just came out[*] explored the link between parental behaviours and bullying, and I thought this is the perfect time to talk about it.

What They Did

A meta-analysis is a study of studies. It uses the combined data of published studies to provide an overview of the research question. The advantage of a meta-analysis is that more data (more information) means more power, both statistically and conceptually; we would be more confident accepting a relationship between parental behaviour and bullying if 10 independent studies reached the same conclusion than we would be if only one study found it. A disadvantage of meta-analyses is that they can only investigate questions that other people have already asked. That is, if I think that, for instance, caffeine intake is related to bullying, and no one has studied this relationship (or there is only one study looking at it) I can’t do a meta-analysis. So these authors did a meta-analysis of studies that looked into the relationship between parental behaviour and bullying.

What They Found

The authors report a small but significant relationship between parental behaviour and bullying. That is, positive parental behaviour – such as good communication, warm relationship, and parental involvement were associated with a lower likelihood of being bullied. Negative parental behaviour such as abuse and neglect were (perhaps not surprisingly) associated with a higher likelihood of being bullied and particularly with being a bully/victim, that is, someone who is both a victim of bullying and a bully him/herself. Interestingly, over-protection was associated with an increased likelihood of being victimized.

I thought there were a couple of problems with this meta-analysis. First, while the research typically looks at being bullied in a school context, children of neglecting or abusing parents are by definition victims of bullying. They are bullied by their parents – they experience repeated aggression from someone who has more power than they do. Also, I tend to think that their peers bullying them is likely the least of these kids’ worries, if they are being abused at home by their parents. Another problem is that there was an effect of age – older children (12 and up) reported a less warm relationship with their parents (regardless of being bullied or not). But the authors did not check the effect of age on being bullied. So if there is an effect of age, it’s possible that this correlation is driven by age. Personally, I find it hard to believe that the incidence rate of bullying in the 4-7 years age group is as high as the incidence rate of bullying in the 12+ age group. Also, from my experience working with children, age is almost always a factor, and it should never be ignored in a developmental study. So until I see a non-correlation between the rate of bullying and age, I’m not quite convinced of the results.

By the way, the authors themselves note that most of the studies in their sample were cross-sectional (that is, they took a “snap-shot” in time rather than followed development over time) and that this “does not allow to differentiate cause and effect.” (pp. 13). This limitation does not prevent the authors from suggesting that “intervention programs against bullying should extend their focus beyond schools to include families…”. Interesting approach.

What It Means

I think all children would benefit in many areas of life from having warm, affectionate parents with whom they have a good relationship characterized by good communication, and who do not neglect and abuse them. I can’t imagine what I would do if I find out one of my kids is being bullied, but I would probably think this is somehow my fault. This study is not helping on that front. That said, there is an ongoing debate between researchers who think that parents don’t matter at all to development and researchers who think that parents do matter. If you look at this study from that lens, you can see it sitting squarely in the latter camp, bolstering the “weapons” (read: evidence). But that’s a topic for another post.


[*] Actually, it hasn’t been published yet – it’s “in press” which means it has been accepted for publication but not printed yet – academic world is crazy sometimes

 

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