On Trophy Children and Self-Esteem

Gold Trophy

Why depending on your child’s achievements for your self-esteem is bad for your child and for you.

We live in a rather posh neighbourhood. There are independent cafés and designer clothes shops everywhere. The kids attending school with my children are unfortunately almost uniformly white, and about 90% of them (that’s an estimate, I did not collect data on this) come from a two-parents (mum and dad) home in which mum is home with a younger sibling. Why am I telling you this? Because I have encountered an interesting phenomenon in this neighbourhood: apparently you start applying to secondary schools (junior high and high-school combined, roughly) when the child is in year 2. Second grade. When your child is 7 years old, that’s when you should begin to worry about where she’ll go to high-school. That’s because some high-schools are the “right” high-schools, and increase your child to later attend either Oxford or Cambridge (think ivy league colleges). I thought it was insane, but I’m a minority it would seem. At least in this neighbourhood.

This craziness is consistent with the increasing pressure on parents to promote children’s achievements. A recently published article showed that when parents feel they are accountable for their child’s achievements, they tend to hang more of their self-esteem on the child’s performance. That is, if my child does well, I feel good about me. I know I feel good when my kids do well, but I would put this more in the pride department (I’m proud of my son for becoming a better chess player; I’m proud of my daughter for learning to read so quickly). And yes, sometimes I feel that I get credit for their achievements, especially when they are well-behaved (because the number of times I said “what do you say?” is in the thousands, I feel that I deserve at least some credit).

But, why is that a problem? Why is basing your worth on your child’s achievements a bad thing? Well, this same study I linked to above also showed that parents (both mothers and fathers) whose self-esteem depends more on their child’s performance tend to be more psychologically controlling. Why is being psychologically controlling bad? The simple reason is that parents who tend to be more psychologically controlling have children who exhibit more problems, and who do less well in school.

Another reason that hanging your self-worth on your child’s achievements is not ideal is because parents whose self-esteem hangs on their child’s performance tend to promote more extrinsic goals, rather than intrinsic goals. Extrinsic goals (not to be confused with extrinsic motivation, which is also less ideal than intrinsic motivation) are goals that are directed externally: having more money, being famous, and so on. Intrinsic goals are aimed more towards self-fulfillment: for instance, personal development, contributing to the community, etc. From what I can gather, having good grades is an extrinsic goal, whereas learning more or doing well in school is an intrinsic goal, although the lines there are fairly blurry from what I can tell.

Finally, the research shows that parents whose self-esteem depends on their child’s performance feel that way regardless of the child’s actual performance. That is, the child can never be good enough to fulfill the parent’s expectations. Moreover, the parent will never be satisfied with the child, even when that child is the richest, most popular, and best looking kid in the world.

And now for the practical part: let’s say you suspect you are one of those controlling parents whose self-esteem hinges on your child’s performance. And let’s say you want to change that (you might not want to, and that’s obviously a personal choice). How do you change? I did not find research on this, but I suspect that there will be no shortcuts on that one. However, trying to pay attention to situations in which you try to control your child’s behaviour is a good start. There is also a kind of a circle going on: parents who have more extrinsic goals are more likely to depend on their children’s performance for their own self-esteem, and emphasize those extrinsic goals to the children. If you want to promote intrinsic goals in your children, you can start by taking a long hard look at your own goals. But that’s a topic for a very different blog.

New Year Resolutions

Happy New Year

The Dilemma of New Year Resolutions

I’m taking stock and trying out a new approach to the science-public connection.

New Year Resolutions are ranked rather high on my cliché scale. Everyone is writing about how the resolutions never work, so there’s no point in making them. Lifehack’s Steve Errey even said that resolutions reduce self-esteem (this sent me through a self-esteem rabbit hole in Google Scholars which I will share at some point; I did not find any empirical evidence for this hypothesis).

I actually like the reflection that a new year brings. Because my birthday is also in January, I generally take stock around this time of year. I think about what I like about my life, and what I’d like to change. I like writing this blog, for instance. I like that I was able to take the last semester off and “not work” (which, in my world, includes writing a journal paper, maintaining the blog, and keeping my two kids alive and on time for school). I don’t like how little veggies we eat as a household, so I’m in the market for veggie recipes that kids are willing to eat :)

But the Errey piece got me thinking about whether this practice of new year resolutions is beneficial. This is worrying me is because my 6-year-old son came home from school yesterday and said they talked about new year’s resolutions. I didn’t quite get the blow-by-blow of the discussion (something about someone who decided to carry around a sack of eggs? Must be a British thing), but I did get this: my son’s new year resolution is that he’d like to try all the foods on the table every time. On one hand, this makes me very happy, as we’ve been having issues with getting him to eat things that are not pasta (mostly we had issues with the veggies. Obviously). It makes me happy that he’s at least willing to try out new things–this is something we discuss a lot in our home. It’s also a practice we really encourage and a value of our family more generally. As my kids put it, we are a family of explorers. We value trying new things, going to new places, and being curious about everything.

On the other hand, reading the Errey piece, I was a little perturbed about how well-conforming my son is. This goal of trying new foods did not come from him, but from our persistence on trying new foods: we only talk about it EVERY MEAL. Our dinner-table rules include no standing on the table, no talking with your mouth full, and trying everything that’s on the table. So I worry that my son had internalized our insistence on this issue at the expense of being true to his own desires (which, I assume, are to eat only pasta, ever). This is also a value for us: we’d like our kids to be able to listen to their own bodies, to be able to tell what makes them happy, and to be true to themselves. What do you do when two of your values conflict?

I have no good answer for this dilemma. I’ve never posted on a topic before figuring out what I think about it. But, I think exposing the process is an important thing to do in a science blog (ok, semi-science blog). Science reports typically do not include the process, only the results. Yes, science reports include a “methods” section, which looks like a process; but it isn’t really. The methods section includes the tools the researchers used to measure the variables they are talking about in the report. It doesn’t talk about the thought process that led the researchers to use these particular tools, or to investigate the variables they chose to investigate. I think it creates the illusion that scientists have all the answers. We really don’t. Science is not about answers at all, it’s about questions. The more science you do, the more questions you have.

Which brought me back to the purpose of this blog, to why I started this blog. ‘Tis the season for reflection and taking stock, right?

I started this blog in order to bring together two aspects of my life: my research (about children), and my parenting (of children). Being away from academia for a bit made me realize how entrenched I am in the academic narrative of writing a tidy little story to publish in a well-respected journal. I’ve been having issues with how little connection there seems to be between science and the supposed beneficiaries of science, namely, people. It started when I became a mom and realized how little of the parenting advice–the stuff that are geared towards actual parents–is based on research and science. Sure, a lot of it is based on really great psychologists’ vast experience with children. But most psychologists see children only when there’s a problem, and experience–or rather, our memory of our experiences–is rather inaccurate. Since then I’ve discovered that science generally is not well-communicated to “the public”. I think one of the problems is that in the traditional model, scientists only share the end results, not the process. As a reader, you can’t follow every thought-process of every scientist in the world. But, as a reader who has access to the internet, you hardly ever get to see a single thought-process of a single scientist. And this is exactly what blogs were invented for, right?

So, to summarize: I’m not sure how I feel about my son’s new year resolution; I want to connect my readers (all three of them) to science: not only the results, but also the process. Oh, and Happy New Year! :smile:

PS My son really got the hang of new year resolutions: as soon as there was a salad on the table he decided to change his resolution from tasting everything to tasting most of the things. Excluding the salad.

Number of Books and Education

A boy reads a book in a library

Is the lack of physical books problematic for children’s education?

So, I read this op-ed in the New-York Times last week (how very scholarly of me…). Teddy Wayne argues that having more digital and less physical books may detract from children’s ability to pick up their parents’ books and be affected by them (for the better, I assume). He’s basing this argument both on his experience with his parents’ vinyl records collections, and a study that was done recently supporting the idea that the number of books in the home has large effects on children’s academic achievements. He argues that “Owning books in the home is one of the best things you can do for your children academically.” And he suggests that digital books may not have the same effects.

I want to talk a bit about this idea that the number of books in the home (the size of the home library) affects children’s academic achievements. The study found that the more books are in the home, the better children’s academic achievements are. Moreover, there is a much bigger effect for the first 100 books than the next 100 books, and these effects are similar across a wide array of developed and developing countries. These last two findings indicate that having more books at home (up to a certain level: there’s not much of a difference between 500 and 600 books) gives children tools to do better at school, rather than signal to the elite gatekeepers that you come from an ‘elite’ household.

How does having more books help children do better at school? Presumably, the more books are in the home, the more often parents and children share a book, and this shared reading is what helps children do better. We know that shared reading at home does help children read better, but if you look closely at the linked study, you’ll see that actually the number of books in the home was completely unrelated to the number of times per week parents reported to share a book with their child. What’s more, a survey done a couple of years ago in the UK showed that the number of children books in the home was related to the child’s reading skills (as reported by the parents)–but so was the number of non-children books.

This mean that the link may be not so much about how many books are there in the home or about how many times the children read books, but about how much the parent(s) enjoy reading, care about and value books and reading. If that’s the case, it shouldn’t matter whether the books are physical or digital, assuming that the parents’ reading habits are similar regardless of the form of the book. I, for one, find that I read much more since I’ve acquired my Kindle–access to new books is much easier when you don’t have to physically drag yourself to the library or the bookstore whenever you finish your book. It looks like people are coming back to print books, but I couldn’t find a study about whether people prefer ebooks or print, and what makes them read more.

The truth is we don’t know how the transition to digital books is going to affect children’s educational attainment as a whole. We do know a little bit about the differences between the two forms of books for children. For example, I wrote a little while back about a study that compared how parents and children interacted when they were reading a physical book as compared with an e-book. There has been some more research on this since I wrote that blog post, but the main conclusion is still that e-books are different from print books.

I think it’s still too soon to tell whether this difference means that e-books are somehow less or worse than print books. E-books do provide “a multisensory reading experience that supports comprehension and critical reading”. That is, children interact with digital books in different, more complex ways than they do with print books, and that makes sense. Digital books offer a much richer stimuli array than print books: they often include games (especially if the e-book is on the iPad or other computers), they have the syllable-light-up effect, and so on. Children tend to be more engaged with the digital books, but there seems to be no difference in their story comprehension or in the effect of reading either kind of book on children’s reading skills.

So, should you buy more physical books? Only if you’re going to read (and enjoy) them. Should you read with your child? Absolutely. That is hands-down the most important thing to remember: when we read with our children, when we engage them in the book (ask questions such as: What do you think will happen next? Why do you think (s)he did that? How do you think (s)he feels now?) we teach them how to read and understand a story, but also how to enjoy reading a book. And if reading a book is the prize, we have already won.

Helping Children Remember Better


Can you play memory games to improve your preschooler’s working memory?

A new article about an intervention to improve children’s executive functions caught my eye this week. This was done by Emma Blakey, a Ph.D. student at Sheffield University. Interventions are particularly scary for Ph.D. students because if the intervention doesn’t work you need to start from scratch, so just putting it out there: way to go Emma for a courageous foray! :smile:

What They did

The authors wanted to see whether an intervention would improve 4-year-olds’ working memory skills. For those of you who do not feel like going back to read my old posts about it (though you should, they are very good! :smile:), working memory is the ability to hold and manipulate information in mind. So, for instance, in order to do sums in your head (like 3+5=?) you need both to remember the question and to process it and figure out the answer. It is thought to be a part of executive functions, which are a group of cognitive processes that enable goal-directed behaviour (basically, anything you don’t do on autopilot).

The experimenters measured a bunch of things at the beginning of the study (very important, to make sure the groups are similar), and then randomly assigned children to either a training group or a control group, ran the intervention (the control group got tasks that did not train executive functions, which is an excellent way to have a control group), and then re-measured the same skills (a pre-post design). They also measured the children in a follow-up after 3 months, and threw in a maths assessment.

So, the intervention was basically tasks (or measures) that were very different on the surface from the tasks that they used to measure the before and after skills, but that in fact measure the same skill. This sounds very complicated, but it really isn’t. For example, to measure working memory at baseline (before) and at the follow-up (after), the researchers used the backwards word span task. This is a classic task to measure working memory. Basically, you ask children to repeat a string of words (dog, tree, house) in a backwards order. To do that, children have to both remember the original list and reverse it (process it in some way).

As an intervention, the researchers used a task called the six boxes task. Children have to look for two stickers that are hidden under two out of six boxes (similar to a memory game, in a way). The idea is that if you remember the boxes you searched under, you can find the stickers in 2 trials if you’re lucky, and a maximum of 6 trials if you’re unlucky. Children typically take more than that, because they search under the same box more than once. In order to do this task in a minimum number or trials, you need to remember which box you already looked under, and to figure out which one you want to look under next.

So both these tasks measure working memory, but they are very different in their characteristics: the backwards word span is very verbal and the input is auditory, whereas the six boxes task is rather visual; the backwards word span requires reversing the order of a list, whereas the six boxes task requires figuring out what box is next. The idea here is that because the tasks are so different, you are not training the kids to succeed in a certain task. However, because both tasks require working memory, you train the kids’ working memory as they get exposure to these tasks.

The researchers did the intervention once a week for 4 weeks. Each intervention session took 20 minutes. This is not an intensive intervention–this is not even an after school club. All in all, and I’m sure this was the point, we are not talking about something you need an expert to come in every day (which would be expensive and unrealistic for most children), we are talking about something most parents can do, and definitely all teachers can do.

What They Found

Children in the training group improved on working memory measures more than the children in the control group (everyone improved a little bit from the first time they did the task to the second time they did it, which is to be expected). They did not improve on any of the other measures. This lack of improvement on the other measures is particularly telling because the intervention included an inhibitory control part, which appears to have done fairly little.

Here’s a very neat finding: when the researchers came back 3 months after they gave children the intervention, they found that the children who had training did better on the maths assessment than the children who didn’t have training (the control group). This effect remained significant after the researchers controlled statistically for kids’ baseline working memory levels. This means that it’s not just that the children who had high working memory to begin with did better on the maths assessment.

I have a couple of issues with this study. First, the researchers did not separate the working memory intervention from the inhibitory control intervention. Sure, it would have required doubling the sample size, because ideally you want to use a 2×2 design with some children in the control group, some getting just a working memory training, some children getting just an inhibitory control training, and some children getting both training types. But it would have told us a much more interesting story. Another issue I have is with their statistical analysis: they had several outcome measures, but they did not run them in an analysis that includes all of them, but in separate analyses, one for each measure. For the purpose of this blog, I’ll just say it was not the appropriate analysis, and that it increases the chances of finding a significant finding accidentally (more details here). That said, they did find an effect 3 months after an intervention of 4 once-a-week 20-minutes sessions, which is extremely neat. Why? Because three months is a long time when you are 4 years old.

What It Means

There are three interesting parts to this study. The first is that you can train working memory in 4-year-olds. Given the fairly large number of studies that have already found that you can train working memory in older children and in adults, this finding is not entirely shocking. But we have very little studies doing interventions with 4-year-olds, so it’s good that the authors have done that.

The second interesting part to this study is that the effects of the interventions were transferred to maths skills 3 months later. This could be for a host of reasons that this study cannot speak to (they did not measure, for instance, any maths skills of any kind at the baseline), but still, really interesting. Working memory and maths are related in all kinds of interesting ways. Specifically, what this study suggests is that we may be able to create a curriculum for preschoolers that would help them with their maths skills later on.

The third interesting part to this study–for me at least–is the lack of effects on inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility measures. It could mean that these skills are un-trainable. I can see that on inhibitory control: it’s really hard to train kids on inhibitory control tasks, and that makes a lot of sense to me. It’s one of those skills that you have to wait for the child to be mature enough (kind of like potty training, talking, and walking). You can’t really rush them. The lack of effect on cognitive flexibility in my opinion speaks to the fact that it is not just a more complex skill, as the authors mention, but also that it is a bit removed from the more basic skills such as working memory and inhibitory control. That’s why, I think, a working memory and inhibitory control training did not have an effect on cognitive flexibility.

To answer the question I’m sure many of you are asking: yes, you can probably help your child with their working memory skills. The training the authors used was simply other working memory tasks, in which feedback was given. So, practice makes perfect: ask children what happened already when you’re reading a story, or do some simple sums without writing things down. These will not only help practice their working memory, they are also good for literacy and maths (respectively). And play memory games. These will not only provide working memory practice, but also some family-togetherness time. And tell them they’ve done a good job when they succeed, or just give them a thumbs-up.
Happy Playing! :smile:

A Day At The Museum

Photo Credit: Mario Sánchez Prada (Flickr)
Photo Credit: Mario Sánchez Prada (Flickr)

What helps children learn from their visit to the museum?

Quick note: you may have noticed the theme changed. I’m trying a new look. It’s a work in progress. Do let me know if you like it!

Last week, an opportunity arose when my daughter commissioned her daddy to take her to a friend’s birthday party (“but no drop-off, daddy! You have to stay the WHOLE time.”). So, my son and I went to the British Museum. For a geeky 6-year-old and his nerdy mama, the British Museum is anthropological heaven. We saw all kinds of things: mummies, the Rosetta Stone, 6000 years old flint knives, and things that were buried in a ship 1300 years ago.

This got me thinking about museums and how children learn. Naturally, I consulted Google Scholars and found a study done in Chicago about how talking to your kids help them learn. As we are a family who talks a lot (I’m the least chatty person in our family, if you can imagine), I was very happy to find this paper.

What They Did

The researchers wanted to look at the effects of having conversation cards (with open-ended questions on them), as well as having a physical object (a hands-on experience). So they randomly assigned families into one of 4 groups: families who received no activity, families who received only conversation cards, families who received only physical objects, and families who received both (this is a very neat 2×2 design).

They then took the families to an exhibit that contained the target objects (the cards were about the same objects), and then to another exhibit that was linked, but did not contain the exact same objects. I thought the second exhibit was a nice addition because they could look at transfer—whether the families talked about what they saw in the first exhibit when they were going through the second exhibit.

What They Found

Parents who received the cards used more elaborative talk while going through the exhibit. Parents use elaborative talk when they ask the child open-ended questions (“What do you think this was used for?”) and when they make explicit connections with prior knowledge (“This is very different from your bed”). Elaborative talk is important because it helps children engage with what they are seeing, and anchors the things they see in their own daily experiences, which are very concrete.

The parents who received the cards (regardless of whether or not the families received the physical objects) also made more connections between the second and the first exhibit, supporting children’s transfer of knowledge. This means that the child is more likely to be able to transfer this knowledge to new settings, such as the classroom.

They also found that children whose families received the cards made more spontaneous comments while going through the exhibition, and they also made more associations between the second and the first exhibits.

What It Means

The British Museum has “family trails”—basically booklets that take you to certain items along the galleries and explain about them. They have some activities on them (such as, “talk about what you would bring to your after-life”. I’m not kidding.), but from this research it would appear that sitting down before going into the exhibit and talking about what we are going to see might have helped my son to get more out of the experience. Personally, I was a bit disappointed when all my son could remember the next day was that he has the best eye-sight in the family because he spotted all the items we were supposed to find on our “trail”. Not exactly what I was hoping for in terms of learning.

So, if you are taking your kids to a museum, ask them lots of open-ended questions and connect what you see to their lives (try not to invoke discussions about death if your kid is young unless you really want to). If you have a few extra minutes at home before you head out, take a peek at the museum’s website and find something you want them to see. Show it to them, and talk about it on the way: talk about why you want to see it, what you think the museum people wrote on the sign beside it, what would you use if for if you had one at home, and so on. It might be a fun talk 😀


Creativity at One

Photo Credit: Aaron Gilson (Flickr)
Photo Credit: Aaron Gilson (Flickr)

It’s nice to have time to read things that are not directly related to my area of research—the perks of being done with the Ph.D… :) So, today I’ll talk about a very neat study looking at divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is what we do when we brainstorm and come up with lots of ideas. It’s a very cool area of research, and it’s kind of related to my research area, which is basically convergent thinking (finding links between objects or events and combine them into a new idea).

This study comes from Elena Hoicka, who is at Sheffield University. She and her colleagues have a very neat device they call the Unusual Box—it’s a colourful box that has all kinds of pieces attached to its external walls (shelves and strings and such). The Unusual Box Test includes getting 5 different objects to play while interactive with this box. They are measuring divergent thinking by counting the number of different actions that the toddler is performing with these items and the box. Simple and elegant; I’ll get to a tiny little problem with this score later.

What They Did

The researchers gave toddlers this test, and counted the number of different actions they performed. They did this twice, in the space of about a week or two, to check whether the scores on this task are reliable (see a new entry on reliability in the glossary!). They also measured children’s motor development—a very nice control on their part. The idea is that this task is motor, and so children who are more advanced on their motor development might get higher scores not because of their divergent thinking but because of their better dexterity. They also gave the kids’ parent (they didn’t say how many dads brought toddlers to the lab) a measure of adults’ divergent thinking (drawing as many different things as you can on a set of circles. Try it; it’s lots of fun).

What They Found

This task was reliable, which means that children tend to get similar scores on it in both times. The researchers also checked that children did not just repeat the same actions on the second time they saw the task, which was a nice touch. Interestingly, children’s score on this task was related to the parents’ score on the adult divergent thinking test, which means either that children inherit their parents’ creativity, or they imitate their parents’ creative style (more on that next week!).

What It Means

Well, it’s a really nice little task to measure creativity in one-year-olds. It means that we can see individual differences in this skill at a very early age, which is very cool. Here is my small issue with how they scored the task: I think that they should have accounted for the total number of actions the children performed on the box. One-year-olds’ attention tends to stray sometimes, and some kids are just more active than others. Either of these scenarios (lack of focus, higher activity levels) could impact the number of total actions the child is performing on the box, and by that impact the number of different actions she is performing. So I would have liked to see the score as something like the ratio between different (divergent) actions and total actions (and it would also be an easier variable to work with, statistically speaking, but that’s for a whole other blog). In general, however, this lab has produced some interesting research, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else they’ve got :)

Imitation and Problem Solving: More Complicated Than It Seems

Photo Credit: Booyabazooka

This week I have an unusual post. I’m going to talk to you about an article that I think has not managed to answer the question it was asking. I haven’t posted about these kinds of articles, because I didn’t think it would be useful. However, this is part of being scientifically literate: recognizing when the article hasn’t done what it said it would. So I figured I’ll walk you through my thought process on this one.

The authors set out to examine whether children can combine (by imitating) two different actions in order to solve a novel problem. The authors argue that it’s possible that problem solving, rather than being an individual generation of ideas, is really about combining different previously witnessed actions in order to create a solution. This idea is really neat, because it directly challenges the (widely common) concept that we come up with ideas in a vacuum (see this oldie-but-goodie).

What They Did

So, the authors gave preschoolers a problem box with two stickers in it. Children had to open two compartments in order to get the two stickers (stickers are thought to be fantastic motivators among researchers who study preschoolers). Then, some children were randomly assigned to a baseline condition—they were given no instructions, and were allowed to explore the box. Other children were randomly assigned to a single model condition, in which one model showed children the four actions needed to solve the box (removing two Velcro “defenses” and opening two compartments). They also had a dual-model condition, in which two different models showed the children various parts of the solution.

What They Found

Not-so-shockingly, children were more likely to open both compartments when they were shown what to do as compared with the baseline, in which they were not shown what to do. Sometimes it looks like researchers think that children are complete idiots. In our defense, children sometimes behave like complete idiots. But that’s not the point. By the way, children were more likely to open the two compartments when they saw two models as compared with a single model. The authors suggest that this is because children made fewer errors when they saw two models as compared with a single model, but that’s not an explanation. I would have hypothesized that it would be something about the memory, since using two models provided a more salient break and breaks help us remember what we saw.

What It Means

Yes, children imitated the actions shown to them by the models. So, the researchers found significant results and published them, and that’s fantastic. But, my problem with this study is that each compartment of the box was independent. That is, children didn’t have to combine the actions in order to open both compartments, they just had to repeat these actions, and then both compartments would be open. So, children didn’t really aggregate the different actions, they just imitated a longer sequence. And that’s not really new: we know that children are great imitators. So the article says they want to examine children’s ability to aggregate actions into a novel solution, but then they had a methodology that didn’t quite test this. It doesn’t mean that this study is not neat; it is. It just doesn’t answer the question it’s asking. And that’s a shame because it’s a fantastic question.