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’ 🙂


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.

Double Thumbs Up

Photo Credit: Brendan Riley
Photo Credit: Brendan Riley

A little while ago I wrote a post about how the way we praise children influences their motivation. Previously, researchers have looked at two specific verbal praises: linking children’s success to a stable trait (e.g., “you’re so smart”) and linking children’s success to effort (e.g., “you worked really hard”). Researchers generally find that the first kind of praise actually reduces children’s motivation after a failure. The logic is this: if I succeeded because I’m smart, and now I’ve failed, I must be too stupid to do this. That’s not a fun place to be in, by the way. In contrast, the second kind of praise increases motivation: if I succeeded because I worked hard, and now I failed, I just have to work harder next time.

So, here are some great news: two researchers from Ohio found that gesture praise, such as a thumbs-up or a high-five, and vague verbal praise (e.g., “great!”) function in the same way as linking children’s success explicitly to effort, as opposed to a stable trait.

What They Did

These authors conducted a straight-forward and elegant research: they randomly assigned 5- and 6-year-old children into five groups: children either got specific trait praise, specific effort praise, vague verbal praise, a thumbs up gesture, or a high-five gesture. They first measured everyone’s motivation levels, to show the children had similar levels of motivation going into the experiment. Then, they showed all groups of children four “successful” works (on which they received praise according to the condition they were assigned to), followed by two “failed” works (incomplete drawings, such as a cat without ears). They measured children’s motivation levels after these “failures”.

What They Found

First, all children had similar motivation levels at the beginning of the study. After they heard the praise for the successful works and saw the incomplete pictures, children in the first group (who heard praise such as “you’re a good drawer”) had lower motivation, and were more likely to focus on errors than the other groups. Children in the vague verbal and gesture praise groups showed similar levels of motivation as the children who received specific effort praise (“you did a good job drawing”).

What It Means

My kids think they’re awesome all on their own, they do not require me to tell them this. I noticed that I don’t often say to my kids “you succeeded because you worked hard”. I tend to either say “great” or give them a thumbs-up (and sometimes, when they’ve done something very excellent, a “double thumbs-up”, as my daughter calls it). I’m really glad to know that they interpret this in the most positive way they can—it tells us something about children’s resilience. The lesson for parents here is clear: if you don’t have anything nice to say, give them a high-five.

Parenting and Self-Regulation

How we influence our children’s behaviour and compliance.
Photo credit:  athomson
Photo credit: athomson

As I was reading “Bringing Up Bébé” (which is a whole other post that I don’t know if I’ll ever write) it struck me that the author assumes that the way French parents behave makes their children more compliant. As a developmental researcher, I of course performed a “scholar search”, and came across several interesting studies. One of them was published a few years ago, and was really interesting.

What they Did

The authors examined the relationship between parenting behaviours and other demographic factors, such as gender and socioeconomic status, and the development of inhibitory control. If you need a refresher on what inhibitory control is and why it’s important, you can read about it here and here. I’ll wait.

So, this study had parents fill out a questionnaire assessing their child’s inhibitory control skills, and their parenting behaviours were assessed by the researchers during a home visit. The question was which variables would affect the initial level of inhibitory control at age 2 years, and which variables would affect the growth of inhibitory control between 2 and 4 years of age.

What They Found

There were two interesting findings about parenting. First, harsh parenting only influenced the initial level of inhibitory control but not the development. That is, harsh parenting was associated with lower levels of inhibitory control at age 2, but not with a slower growth of inhibitory control between the ages 2 and 4. In contrast, supportive parenting was associated with increased growth of inhibitory control over the two-year period, but it was not related with the initial levels.

What it Means

I think that we can combine these findings with what I talked about a few weeks ago regarding the praise we give. I said then that parenting a two-year-old is really different from parenting a four-year-old. As I’m doing both right now, I’m keenly aware of that. There’s a different focus, a different set of expectations, and of course different things “tick us off”. If my two-year-old is unable to follow the post-dinner routine, for example, I remind her and make it into a game. If my four-year-old skips his “duties” (brushing teeth, taking plate off the table, etc.) I’m more likely to get snippy because he should know better by now. So I can see how being patient rather than harsh helps the two-year-olds, but that later on a bit of annoyance isn’t all that harmful (and really quite reasonable). Similarly, I can see how being supportive and involved with the child is a bit over their head at 2, but can go a long way in later years. Of course, I don’t mean you shouldn’t talk to your child until she’s three, but there’s a qualitative difference, I think, between how you approach a similar situation with a two-year-old and with a four-year-old.

Parents and Bullies

Photo Credit:  Chesi - Fotos CC
Photo Credit: Chesi – Fotos CC

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

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

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

What They Did

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

What They Found

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

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

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

What It Means

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

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

More than Words

Photo Credit: Brendan Riley
Photo Credit: Brendan Riley

The way parents praise their children impacts later beliefs about ability.

This post is rather longer than usual, but I felt quite a bit of background was needed. Bear with me, as the study is absolutely fascinating. I hope this will spark a discussion in the parenting community about the way we talk to our kids.

Motivation Theories 101

The field of motivational theories and research (what makes people behave the way they do) is complex. But generally in psychology we talk about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation is the kind of motivation that makes you try harder after you fail, that makes you want to know more about whatever it is you are learning about, or to master a certain task. Extrinsic motivation is the kind of motivation that makes you do the minimum required to satisfy what you perceive as external demands, and it’s associated with giving up quickly in the face of failure or adversity, and with having “performance” goals (as opposed to mastery goals) – you only want to be better than the ones you are comparing yourself to, you don’t care about being the best you can be. Intrinsic motivation is associated with persistence, deep learning, and better understanding of new material; extrinsic motivation is associated with quitting easily, surface learning (e.g., rot memory), and a poor understanding of the learning material (e.g., in class).

What Makes You Go?

Of course, a lot of factors play a role in the kind of motivation you have. For example, some people are just more inclined to one kind of motivation. Moreover, the task that you face plays a big role. Naturally, if you care about the task at hand (e.g., you want to learn more about the subject matter) you are more likely to have intrinsic motivation than if you don’t care about the task (e.g., you are forced to take a course that you don’t care about). One of the factors that determine the kind of motivation you will have is how you perceive your chances of success. And how you perceive your chances of success stems for whether or not you think you (and people in general) can improve through effort. If you think that “you either have it or you don’t” – let’s say, you either have a musical talent or you don’t – you are likely to think that your actions (say, the number of hours you practice) don’t matter to the outcome. If you think, however, that “you are what you do”, you are more likely to think that if you practice enough, you too can be a performing musician. I’ve written before about the concept of talent and whether we could teach our kids to work hard. A new study shows that the kind of praise parents give their children is actually related to whether children perceive intelligence, for example, as being malleable or fixed.

What They Did

This paper, which was published very recently, followed kids and their parents from a very young age (14 months) to grade school (8 years of age). They measured the amount of praise that parents gave their children when the child was young – at about 1, 2, and 3 years of age. These authors were interested in the difference between process and person praise. Process praise is a praise focused on the process: good job, great catch, etc. Person praise is a praise focused on the person: good girl, you’re so smart, etc. They measured these by observing parents and children in their homes, and then later (when the child was in first or second grade) they asked children about their perception of the malleability of certain attributes (specifically, intelligence and morality, or “being smart” and “being good”). For example, they asked the children why they thought children succeed in class. Is it because they are smart, or because they work hard?

What They Found

I’ll talk about two interesting findings. First, the study found that boys received more process praise than girls (but there was no difference in the person praise amount, or the total amount of praise between boys and girls). Second, and this is the main finding of the paper, children who received more process praise were more likely – 5 years later – to think that attributes (such as intelligence) are malleable. Children who received less process praise were more likely to think that intelligence is fixed – that your academic success depends on how smart you are, and that your efforts will not make a difference. This relation between process praise and children’s perception of the role of effort in success was significant even after statistically controlling for the effects of parents’ own beliefs, the family’s socioeconomic status, total amount of praise, total amount of parent-child verbal interactions, and the child’s gender. Is your mind blown yet?

What it Means

First, I find it remarkable that as parents we praise our boys and girls differently. One explanation the authors propose is that perhaps boys are more likely to engage in activities that lend themselves to process praise – that is, for instance, most types of sports. By the way, you should read this post by Rachel from Hands Free Mama about telling your children how you love to watch or hear them play. Also, given the fact that more process praise leads to kids believing that they failed because they didn’t work hard enough rather than because they are not good enough, and given that the latter approach is much more common in girls, I would advise parents to go find their daughters and tell them something good about whatever it is they are doing.

Second, a very clear conclusion from this paper is that parents should try and give their kids more process praise. Now, when I read this kind of thing, I think that I’m a bad mom, because most of what I say to my kids is either person praise (“what a big girl!” qualifies as such, per the authors) or praise that focuses on the outcome – “what a great picture you drew!” But this is not the right approach, neither as a parent nor as a scientist. What we need to remember is that an important determinant of the praise parents give is the type of activity that is most common for the age group. Most of the praise around our house is given for doing things independently – putting on clothes, setting the table, etc. For example, when my daughter goes potty (clearly the most common activity for the 2-year-old age group), I say “what a big girl”. It’s easier than commenting on the process, that’s for sure. By the way, the study found that the use of person praise decreased from 1- to 3-years, although the use of process praise remained the same (overall). So instead of this being another thing that moms feel guilty about, maybe just try to throw in a “good job” more often.

Can You Say Interaction?

A cute baby during video conferencing. Photo Credit: chimothy27.
A cute baby during video conferencing.
Photo Credit: chimothy27.

Interacting with a screen is an increasing part of our lives – and our children’s lives. But do children really interact with TV?

Many parents are concerned about “screen time”, and rightly so – it has been linked to obesity, and some people argue that 24/7 connectivity is not good for productivity. TV today has certainly changed since I was a kid. My son expects the characters on TV to talk to him, to invite him to participate in “adventures”, and to applaud him (but he’s three and a half and thinks everyone should applaud him all the time). My son grew up in a home where grandma and grandpa are on the screen every weekend, sometimes as child-minders (if mommy really has to go to the washroom) and daddy is on the screen fairly often, from various hotels around the world. But can three-year-old kids really understand what it means to be “on TV”?

Can Dora See Me?

So, here’s a clever little study published recently that looked into what kids think when they are “interacting” with a TV character. The researchers had a setup in which the child was sitting across the table from a live girl and a TV-screen with a computerized cartoon of a girl. On the table were two different boxes, and the child had to turn her back while the experimenter hid a sticker in one of the boxes. When the child turned back to face the table, each of the girls told her where she thought the sticker was. The child had to choose the box in which the sticker was hidden. Five-year-old children chose to follow the live girl’s clues as often as they chose to follow the TV cartoon’s clues. Seven-year-olds were a little bit better at it, performing significantly better than chance (that is, they chose the live girl’s clues significantly more than 50% of the times), and 9-year-olds did a bit better than that – they chose the live girl’s clues about 75% of the times. It would seem that at least the 5-year-olds think that the televised character can actually see what was happening in the room. Interestingly, children’s TV-time or experience with video-conferencing did not correlate with performance in this study.

Can On-Screen Interaction Replace Live Interactions?

If children think that characters on TV can see them, can we replace live interaction with on-screen interaction? There’s a study done a couple of years ago on young children’s interactions with their parents through a live video feed. The researchers used a “Strange Situation” paradigm (a paradigm used to measure children’s attachment to the parent in infants). In this paradigm, the child plays with the parent in a strange room. A strange person (a researcher typically) enters the room and interacts with the child a bit. Then the parent leaves and the child is left with the researcher. The parent comes back, and the amount of comforting the child needs from the parent is recorded. The separation-reunion cycle is typically done twice. In this study, the researcher did this cycle once as usual, and once with the parent available to the child through a live video feed. They found that the children interacted with the videoed parent as much as they did with the physically present parent, and that they needed less comforting after a separation period in which the parent was available to them. In other words, the video presence of the parent was “as good as” a physical presence – that’s a strong finding. There are a couple of problems with this study (one is that the strange situation was designed for the first year of life, and it was used with children of a wide age-range, all of whom are past their first year of life), but that’s still interesting stuff (that’s my professional opinion, by the way).

Let’s take both these studies together. It would appear that children, at least up to the second grade or so, assume that “people” (either people they know through live feed or fantasy characters such as Elmo) on TV can see them and the room they are in. The kids would treat those on TV as if they were in the room, in all respects. I would say this is good news for my husband, who gets to test this hypothesis every other week or so. However, we find that most of the time – especially if they’re watching TV or doing something really interesting – the kids are not really interested in talking with their dad on the iPhone. They treat him so much as if he were in the room that they do not take into account that he’s not actually here. I can’t tell you whether it’s good or bad, but it sure can be frustrating for the person on the other side of that FaceTime.