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.

Number of Books and Education

A boy reads a book in a library

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Day At The Museum

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

What helps children learn from their visit to the museum?

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

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

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

What They Did

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

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

What They Found

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

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

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

What It Means

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

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


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.

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?

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.

Do Kids Use Too Much Media?

Should we limit screen time or screen content?

Photo Credit: IntelFreePress (I know, I know)
Photo Credit: IntelFreePress (I know, I know)

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published their new guidelines for children’s media use. This, combined with a new survey that found that about a third of kids under 2 years of age have used a tablet or smartphone, has the potential to quickly becoming the new “health scare”.

The new policy is well thought out, and it emphasizes parenting monitoring mostly. Of course, what the media took from this was the one recommendation that – at least in the new policy – is the least supported one: the recommendation to limit total “screen” time.

So what is the problem with screen time? When I was young they said you shouldn’t watch too much TV because you’ll need glasses. That makes the time-limit concern about 30 years old, and not quite substantiated (see link). But if you read the actual guidelines, the experts are mostly concerned about two things: the content that the kids watch and obesity. Kids watching unsupervised content (especially if it’s in their room) may be learning undesirable behaviours from TV and online. A different point completely is the fact that every hour a child is sitting in front of a screen is an hour in which they are not physically active. Let’s talk a bit about both these points.

Kids watching bad content

Sure, there’s a lot of bad content out there. From TV shows that have been experimentally shown to cause a decrease in executive functions, to pornography that is linked to all kinds of morally questionable attitudes, there’s no question that we as parents must monitor the content that kids are perusing. My question is, can you do that if your first rule is a time limit? When I was a kid, we didn’t have time limits on TV watching. If our homework was done, we could watch as much TV as we wanted to. Our house was the most popular house in the neighbourhood: all the kids who had time limits at their house told their parents they are going to play at my house. Kids are evil geniuses. So in my opinion, setting time limits is not in itself sufficient. If what we are trying to solve is unmonitored TV watching, then we have to increase monitoring, not decrease TV watching. That’s because kids can still watch a lot of bad stuff in two hours if they are left to their own devices. Personally I think that we as parents have a responsibility to teach kids how to watch TV. That is, we have to teach them that TV is not real, that people on TV are not real people, and that some things that happen on TV can’t happen in real life. This is particularly important, I think, in the pre-pubescent age, when they are old enough to watch, for instance, kids on TV that can do bad things and suffer no consequences. But at every age teaching them about how to watch critically and talking about the content they see is important.

A Link Between Watching TV and Obesity

A study done more than a decade ago found that children who have a TV in their room are significantly more likely to be overweight than kids without a TV in their room. This was true after controlling for “sociodemographics, physical activity, frequency of TV or movie watching[,] and internet use”. That’s an impressive set of controls. I don’t have access to the actual paper, so I can’t say anything about the methods of the research. But I think a couple of things are worth noting. First, they controlled (that is, statistically “levelled out”) frequency of TV watching. This means it’s not the time spent watching TV that is driving this relationship. What does? Could it be that kids who have a TV in their room have fewer rules in the household overall? Or perhaps the TV ads increase consumption of less-than-healthy foods? There’s a host of possible explanations, and the truth is we don’t know enough to say what the exact mechanisms are. Another thing to note is that the odds ratio was 1.32. Odds ratio is a statistical way to calculate the difference in risk between two groups. I took the liberty of translating this into concrete numbers, since that’s a lot easier to understand. It means that if in the general population of kids in the US you would expect 22 kids in 100 to be overweight (based on the numbers in this article), than for kids who have a TV in their room that number increases to 29 kids in 100. This is a statistically significant difference, yes, but it’s not quite an epidemic. I think it’s much more pressing to figure out why the other 22 kids are overweight.

Do my kids watch TV? You betcha. But we typically either watch with them (on the first, say, 20 times or so. By the 20th time I’m fairly confident we covered everything), and talk about what the characters do, whether they are real or not (especially monsters and dinosaurs), and what we can do in certain situations (say, if our teacher took us on a field trip to outer space). There’s great content out there, and some pretty awesome iPad apps. For instance, thanks to out newly installed “endless alphabet” app, not only can my 4-year-old spell famished, he can also use it in a sentence. You just have to mind it, like everything else, and teach your child independent thinking and moderation.