On Fiction and Real Life

My last post is about researchers who study Santa. How cool is studying Santa?? What does Santa have to do with a secular rationalist Jewish family? Read here. And don’t forget to subscribe while you’re over there, as I will soon stop updating this blog. If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact me via the link on this blog or on twitter @galpod.

Exciting News!!

So, today I have some very exciting news. I’m moving!! That is, my blog is moving. I have my very own website now and it’s all open-source, which my tech sources advise me is all the rage. I’ll still update this blog for a few more posts, but then I’ll shut this site down and focus on my own site. So this is what you will need to do if you’d like to keep getting the new posts in your mailbox:

  1. Head on to my new website: https://galpod.com
  2. Have a look around–I’m particularly excited about the side menu which opens on command!
  3. Enter your email address into the “subscribe” box at the very bottom of the page.
  4. Have a read of my latest post, talking about whether sitting up makes babies smarter: https://galpod.com/sitting-makes-you-smarter/
  5. If you have any questions please feel free to contact me. You can do that through this page (look to your right), or via twitter @galpod. I’m working on adding an “email me” button on the new website.

Finally, a big thank you to all of you who are reading this blog. I hope you find reading it as interesting as I find writing it. Hope to see you on the other side!!🙂

Keep Asking Lots Of Questions!

Sid The Science Kid

Asking toddlers wh- questions improves their vocabulary and reasoning skills.

I was very happy to stumble upon this cool article published recently. I learned quite a few new things about fathers from it, which is always interesting. I’m generally very much in favour of fathers; they play a very significant role in child development, and in the movement for women’s equality. From a researcher’s perspective, we don’t know anywhere near enough about the effects of having an involved male role-model for children, especially as compared with female role-models. My guess is that it would be beneficial. So, this article made me happy because the researchers actually studied fathers and their children.

What They Did

The authors recorded semi-structured interactions between fathers and their 2-year-olds in their homes. The semi-structured approach is great when you are looking for naturally occurring things (such as the conversations between fathers and their children) but you want all your participants to have roughly the same context, so you get fewer interactions that are completely out of left field. So, the authors gave fathers-child dyads three numbered bags that contained a story-book and some toys, and asked dads to open the bags in order, but the amount of time spent on each bag was up to the dads. The authors video-taped the next 30 minutes, and coded the number of utterances by both father and child, the number of wh-questions the dad asked, the number of non-wh-questions the dad asked, and the number and length of the child’s responses for all of dad’s questions. They also collected some background variables, but all the dyads came from a low socioeconomic status (SES). They collected data on the child’s vocabulary at the same time. Then they came back a year later and tested the child’s verbal reasoning skills (things like putting a story in order and so on–this skill is tested quite a bit in IQ tests of all kinds).

What They Found

First of all, the most common wh-question by far was “what” (almost 70% of all wh-questions). Which makes sense, given that the kids are 2-year-olds, so the most common question was probably “what is this?” or perhaps “what colour is this one?”, probably followed closely by “what does this one do?” (when referring to a toy, for instance). However, this is not in the article, this is my interpretation. Another option is “what do you think will happen now?”–but that’s unlikely to be asked of a 2-year-old. I would also argue that the last question (“what do you think will happen now?”) is a whole other ball game, especially when reading a story with a child, and it’s too bad that the authors didn’t go deeper in the analysis of the wh-questions.

Another interesting finding is that proportion of wh-questions (out of all questions) was a significant predictor of child’s vocabulary at the time of the interaction and of verbal reasoning skills at age 3. However, the child’s vocabulary was a mediator of the relation between dad’s questions and verbal reasoning. In other words, when dads ask their kids more wh-questions the kids have better vocabulary, which in turn leads to better reasoning skills later on.

What It Means

This study ties into the studies that found that children whose parents talk to them more have better vocabularies. However, the new finding is that it’s not the sheer amount of talking, but the quality of the conversation that helps kids develop their vocabulary. The authors argue that dads make “more challenging conversation partners”, so kids have to work harder when they are having a conversation with dad. And the more dad asks wh-questions, the better the kid’s vocabulary. However, the kinds of questions the dads in the sample asked were probably fairly similar to the kinds of questions that moms ask, and, more importantly, there was no comparison to how many questions moms asked. So what could happen is that in some families, the family culture is such that both mom and dad engage with the child when they are playing with her, ask her questions and encourage her to talk, and then build her vocabulary (and her confidence, but that wasn’t measured so that’s a whole other post). I’m not trying to dismiss the contribution of dads, and I think it’s fantastic that researchers are focusing on dads, but it’s important to remember what this study did–found that proportion of wh-questions is related to larger vocabulary and better reasoning skills–and what it didn’t.

In summary, asking your child wh-questions is probably a good idea, whatever your socioeconomic status or your gender. So, for example, don’t ask “did you have fun at school today?”; ask “what did you eat for lunch?” or “who did you play with today?” or even “which period was the best one?”. Or, if you find yourself asking “did you have fun at school today?” because that’s what you ask (it’s what I ask as my first question 9 days out of 10), after you get the inevitable “yes”, follow up with a more specific question. That would get the kids talkin’🙂

Gender Bias–Mothers do it too.

Baby Crawling

We treat baby boys and baby girls differently. Pretty much from day one. Without knowing it.

I tend to go on tangents. Often. I was really fighting this tendency while I was doing the Ph.D., because I needed to focus. However, now that I’m done, I read all kinds of random things. I still feel like I have to apologize for that, but I only read the random things once I’m done with my daily quota of writing academic journal papers, so that’s something. I’m telling you this because that’s how I got to the article I’ll talk about today: I was reading a random book I picked up at the library, and the author was describing a study and I thought to myself, “hmm, this would be a good blog post”. I would expect that the frequency of random posts would increase, by the way.

Anyway, this study comes from the lab of the fantastic Karen Adolph. Why is she so fantastic? Because she does really great, well thought-out research, and also because she replied to my email back when I was teaching within two days. And she actually answered my questions in said email. If you don’t remember, or don’t feel like reading that post, Karen Adolph does research about babies’ physical development (how they begin to crawl, and then walk), and about how babies navigate the physical space around them. Really interesting stuff.

What They Did

This study (pdf file from the lab here) is related to the physical development studies, so you need to understand the mechanism they used. Specifically, this lab has a platform with a ramp. The experimenters can adjust the angle of the ramp from 0 degrees (which is a straight plank) to 90 degrees (which is a sheer cliff; there are safety mechanisms in place to catch babies who fall). The idea is that you increase the slope gradually to find the steepest slope the baby is able to navigate without falling. Then you can look at the slope that the baby is willing to navigate, and whether that slope is steeper than the one she is actually able to navigate (overconfident) or shallower than the slope she is actually able to navigate (underconfident).

So, this study is focused on mothers’ expectations. The researchers asked the moms to set the slope that they think their baby is able to navigate, and then to set the slope they think their baby will attempt to navigate. Then, they compared moms’ expectations to their babies’ actual ability, and the decisions they made (what slopes they attempted to navigate).

What They Found

First of all, similar to their previous studies, boys and girls did not differ in their motor skills, or in their decision making. That is, as a group, baby girls were able to navigate the same slopes as baby boys. More interestingly, baby girls were as accurate as baby boys in judging their abilities, which was pretty accurate, because this sample was of fairly experienced crawlers (babies’ accuracy of judging their crawling skills improves with experience). This is interesting because there are some rumours out there claiming that boys tend to be overconfident and girls tend to be underconfident. This is apparently incorrect.

Moms, however, exhibited a gender bias. Mothers of girls underestimated their girls’ ability to crawl (they expected the girls to be able to navigate a much shallower slope than they actually could) whereas mothers of boys were more accurate in their judgement of ability. Mothers of boys, however, overestimated their boys’ decisions, meaning that they expected their boys to be overconfident and to try to navigate slopes that were too steep for them.

What It Means

By the time they are teenagers, boys outperform girls on physical measures: they run faster, they jump higher, and they throw a ball farther than girls. Even in preschool, boys are taller and heavier than girls on average, and this is thought to underlie their better motor performances. But during the first year or two of their life, babies begin to crawl, stand, and walk at roughly the same time, regardless of gender. What if the difference in motor performance is not because boys are bigger than girls, but simply because we expect them to be better at these things? As parents, we influence all aspects of development, and while we don’t expect our girls to start walking later than their brothers, we apparently expect them to be less able in this department.

My kids are a bit older, but I definitely see a gender difference. My son needs to run around outside, otherwise he’s fidgety and restless. My daughter is perfectly happy sitting at the arts-and-crafts table all afternoon, drawing and creating stuff from cardboard boxes and empty milk jugs. She likes going outside, but she doesn’t require it. I don’t remember treating them differently in that department, but my daughter was (and still is) small for her age so I may have been a bit overprotective. As a baby, she was definitely more cautious than my son was, but he was fairly cautious compared to other kids in the playground. I mostly encouraged (and still do) both of them to go play and let mommy read on the bench. But that is the beauty of unconscious bias: you don’t know that it’s there.

Here’s a quote from this article I really like: “Most infants’ first steps are into the open arms of an encouraging parent.” All aspects of development are social, and our society’s biases influence us unconsciously. I’m not entirely sure that any one person can overcome their social biases and approach another person as a “blank slate”. These social biases are probably even stronger when we approach our children–we expect so much of them, even if we don’t know it.

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.