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.


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.

When One of my Children Goes Neglected

Photo Credit: Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism (Seriously!)
Photo Credit: Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism (Seriously!)

Motherhood involves a lot of guilt. Apparently, it’s a part of being a mom (although some would argue that there are societal and institutional factors at play). I know dads who experience guilt as well, so it’s not just a woman thing, but it seems to be more prevalent in moms. Our feelings of guilt typically emerge when we feel we could have done something better, that we are not doing our best. With today’s overload of information about motherhood, the conscientious mom can pretty much always find someone who would tell her she could do better.

When I feel guilt about not doing well enough for my human kids, I typically take action right away. I make a plan for a week of healthy meals and make time to cook more; I make an effort to spend more quality time with my kids; I enrol them into random classes (we are starting music classes next week!). However, when I feel guilt about not doing well for other “kids” – including my dog, my blog, my volunteer time, or other random little projects – I tell myself that it’s ok, because I have so many other things to do. It’s not that bad if my dog only gets two walks now instead of three. It’s ok if I don’t volunteer this year. It’s ok if I don’t update my blog every single week. And the truth is that, in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not a big deal.

But in the case of my blog, it’s a bit of a snowball. I haven’t had time to write a post last week, so I better make this week’s count. Oh, I didn’t write a post three weeks in a row, this week’s post has to be a big one. And now, all of a sudden, I have to write this fantastic post that would knock all of my (four) readers off their chair and make them feel like it was worth the wait. I know that no one actually sits on their computer obsessively checking their inbox for my new post, but still. I feel that I have to do better.

But, as you can already tell, that big awesome post? It ain’t coming. My next one will (probably) have actual content to it, but I write about little things; daily things; mundane things. So I’d like to take this opportunity and let you know what I have planned for me this fall.

This fall my main task will be to finish my data collection. Since I’m sitting with every child for an hour (in two sessions) and I still need about 60 kids, this would take a fair bit of time. My other task would be to work on my course – I’m teaching an introduction to developmental psychology course in the winter – so that I don’t get too flustered come January. I’m working on two journal papers right now and trying to get a good dent in my PhD document so that I can, you know, finish my PhD at some point. I’m also a student member of the ethics committee in my department, which means I will be reviewing research projects and looking for ethical issues (I’m really looking forward for this one). We also have music classes for my son starting next week, not to mention his birthday is coming up in October (REALLY excited about that one), and I’ve signed myself up for a Pilates class (finally!). And I would really love to write a blog post every week. But I’m being realistic here and saying that that might not happen. In the same way that we might miss some of the music classes throughout the fall; in the same way that I’m likely to miss some of my Pilates classes; and in the same way that I might show up to class unprepared and flustered (that one is actually fairly likely – I get flustered with more than 10 people in the room and my class enrolment is currently at 114).

Your turn: what will your fall bring? And – dare to share – what do you feel guilty about?

2012 in review

Not bad for a first year, but it sure leaves room for a lot of New Year Resolutions 🙂

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,400 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

The Negativity Games

I have recently been scared out of my wits about any prospects I thought I might have had regarding having a career. (Sorry about that, but I’m pretty sure I’m not breaking any grammar rules. Then again, English is not my first language; so if that was not a sentence, please correct me in the comments :)). I read this post about why women run away from academia (it’s too hard), which led me to this post about how mothers have a real disadvantage when it comes to careers. Also, there was this article that argued how hard it is to even prepare for a job application in academia, let alone get an interview. To top it all off, I read this article written by a guy who just gave up the prospect of having a faculty job. Apparently it’s a trend (#altac), and it makes having two or three years of “field” experience sort of a requirement. As an (almost) fourth year, not 27 anymore, mother of two, PhD student I really felt like curling up in a ball and cry.

This linked up in my head to a point I made in a previous post. Briefly, it feels to me like some of the mom blogs out there are really just a stage for bitching. Also posting cute kids pictures, but mainly bitching. I’m all for bitching: it lets you blow off steam and sometimes it’s really cathartic. However, I really have a problem with this negative trend.

It’s not that I don’t think there’s no room for complaining. On the contrary, I think the glory of blogs is that they expose the good and the bad of whatever they are written about. Having a bad time is part of the human experience, and it should be talked about and recognized just like having a good time. As a psychologist (and as someone who had been to therapy quite a lot) I know that facing the problems is much better than ignoring them. And I bitch too. A lot.

But something irks me about having a negative-quality general feeling after reading blogs. And I thought about why is that. At this point, I’d like to tell you a story about my 2.5-year-old son. We have a back yard, with a few stairs going from the back door down. We were in the yard last weekend and he climbed onto the third step, and then stood there, looking out at the yard. Then he jumped down to the ground. I nearly had a heart attack, of course, but that’s not my point. My point is that if I had thought he was going to jump, I would have told him that he couldn’t. I would have told him it was dangerous, and that he’s likely to fall on his head and get rushed to the ER (yes, we’re saving for therapy). I would have told him all the negative stuff. But since it didn’t occur to me that he’s going to jump three steps, I didn’t tell him any of these things. And he jumped. And he landed on both feet, steadied himself, looked at me (in shock) and said: “wow, what a big jump!”

The moral of the story, I guess, is that if you don’t think about the negative stuff, and you just jump, you might even land right. I’m fully aware that I sound like a life-coach, and I apologize. But I’ve been thinking in the last few days, since the infamous jump, that maybe I tell him he can’t do stuff too many times. He’s not 3 yet; he should be trying out gravity and testing heights and examining mommy’s reactions to his crazy stunts. And I read this great post that talked about saying yes to kids’ crazy ideas (although I’m not sure having a picnic under the table counts as crazy at our house – that’s pretty much standard lunch). My point is that everyone will agree that we should tell our kids yes more, and stop putting them down by telling them about gravity and other depressing forces of nature.

So, I wondered: why do we tell ourselves no all the time? Why do we lavish in the negative aspects of academia (or our jobs) and parenting? Why not just take the leap, and see if maybe we could land on our feet?

What do you think? Do you hate how I sound like a yoga instructor or do you also feel you’ve had enough of the negativity?