On Answering Tough Questions

Photo Credit: DFID – UK Department for International Development


First, a little thank you note: to those of you who have been patient with me during the last year, in which my posts were scarce, thank you for not giving up on me. Hopefully now that my Ph.D. is done (yay!), I’ll have more time for the fun stuff—like writing this blog J


My son is well into what I call the “tough questions stage”. If you ever spent an hour with an early primary school child, you know what I mean. A couple of highlights are, “Mommy, where was I before I was in your tummy?”, “How do we know what happened before ALL the people were born?”, and “How heavy is the moon?”

The thing about these questions is that they are tough to answer. My husband and I consider ourselves fairly educated people, but how do you explain mass or pre-history to a 5-year-old? I know I’m not alone in this: a survey in 2012 commissioned by the Big Bang Science Fair showed that 65% of parents said they were puzzled by their kids’ science questions. A more recent survey, done by the “Read On. Get On.” project found that while half of the parents look up the answer together with their children, about a quarter of them are “creative with the truth”, that is, they make stuff up. Which I completely get, by the way; it’s really hard to tackle “why is the sky blue?” when you are in the grocery store checkout queue. However, it’s important to remember that children are more likely to ask reliable sources than unreliable sources, so if you want to be the one they come to with their questions later on, you should think twice before you get “creative with the truth”. Because the day they are introduced to Google your number will be up.

To me, the most important thing is not to make the children feel that it’s somehow wrong to ask questions. Asking questions and testing our ideas about the world is a big part of how we learn. Sometimes children’s questions can be tiring, especially towards the end of the day when you have already answered the previous ten. Sometimes, they are downright annoying (I don’t know nor do I care about what happens to Bob if he becomes Minion of the Year). But, instead of making something up or telling them I don’t have time to answer, I try to tell my kids something like: “that’s an excellent question, but I don’t know the answer and I’m making dinner right now, so can we look it up tomorrow?” (by then, trust me, the less critical questions will be forgotten).

What do you do when your child (or any child) asks you a question you don’t know the answer to? What is the funniest question a child ever asked you?

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Posted by on October 1, 2015 in Child Development, Parenting


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A Letter To My Daughter on Her Fourth Birthday

I actually baked a princess cake this year.

I actually baked a princess cake this year.

On your last birthday I was outrageously late with this letter, because we moved to a different country. I am determined not to be so late on this one even though it makes my blog looks like a mommy blog instead of the professional developmentalist blog I’d like it to be. Because none of these reasons are your doing, nor should you care about them, I have decided to post this regardless.

My Gorgeous Girl,

I love how independent you are becoming. You always wanted to do things your own way, and this year has been no different. You take out your own dishes to set the table, you pour your own milk or juice, and would cook the food yourself if I let you. You are still delegating some of the tasks you are less fond of, such as choosing clothes in the morning, but you forever find ways to get what you want: “Mommy, can you pick my clothes for me? But pick the white long-sleeved dress with pink polka-dots and the pink tights please.”

We focused this year on being assertive despite your small stature. Last weekend we went to the playground and some older children did not allow you the space you needed. You were upset, but then I explained that while they may be larger than you, you have an equally strong voice. You took my advice, as you always do, with attentive quiet and went to implement it immediately. The next time an older child cut in front of you, you calmly said “excuse me, I’d like to have a turn please.” I think the shock alone provided you with the space you needed to complete the trail at your own pace.

And speaking of advice, we started to talk about what girls can do. Or, more accurately, what some people think girls can’t do, but in fact they can. I learned an important lesson from you this year. You surprised me with constructing a princess castle from pink and purple Legos, and made me realize that I shouldn’t resist your adoration of all things pink, because your favourite colour has no implication on your skills. Also, and entirely unrelated, I love that you are left-handed.

I particularly like your take on the world around you, which is now really starting to shine through. My favourite tale is about the time you told me you wanted to be a mommy when you grow up, just like me. After I was done melting, I told you “that’s great, but you know you could be a mommy and something else, like I am your mommy and a scientist”. You thought long and hard about this one, and finally said “ok. When I grow up I want to be a mommy and a princess”. I think that was the time I realized that I can’t fight this princess thing.

For next year, I wish you a year of growth. You are starting school soon, and you’ll frequently encounter older and bigger children who won’t notice you. I hope you won’t lose your voice or heart, and learn how to cope with these older children and to take the space and time you need for you. I hope you don’t get tired from fighting to be recognized as a “big girl” even though you are a head shorter than the 2-year-olds in your nursery, and you will probably be the smallest child in your class. I hope that in spite all that, you would still enjoy school and learning new things.

Yours forever,


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Posted by on June 17, 2015 in Personal


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An Oxford Talk


Random College in Oxford

In the last little while (ok, long while) I have been busy writing my PhD dissertation. To the outside onlooker, it looks fairly straight-forward: you’ve done all the work, now you just have to put it in a document. How hard can it be, right? Well… it’s not the most complicated thing I had to do for my PhD, but it’s a lot of work. And this is relevant mostly because after four or five hours of writing my dissertation, I have no mental powers to write a blog post. Sorry about that. However, since I have you here, I’ll tell you about my trip to Oxford.

Last week I gave an invited talk at a seminar in Oxford University. I was super-excited (I still can’t believe I did that), and it went well. I went for the day, got to see a bit of the city and campus, and I had lunch at a college (don’t ask me how this system works, I’m still confused. I think my hosts were, too). It was fantastic. At one point I asked the people I was having lunch with whether you get desensitised to being at Oxford all the time. They all said “yes, pretty much”. I, however, marvelled at the 300-year-old buildings in which people are doing ground-breaking research for centuries. I’d love to have a conversation with the walls of one of the local old pubs.

Anyway, here is a pdf file of my slides from the talk I gave. One day I’ll write a post about my research, but for now, there are some interesting academic things in there :)

A tale of two flexibilities

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Posted by on February 2, 2015 in Personal


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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,


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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



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,



Posted by on July 27, 2014 in Personal


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