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.

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.

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.

Monkey See, Monkey Help

Photo Credit: CopyrightFreePhotos.HQ101.com
Photo Credit: CopyrightFreePhotos.HQ101.com

I love it when my kids play together. Typically, one of them starts something (say, run around the room in circles). The other one would join in, making it a party. Monkeys see and monkeys do, and my little monkeys love to mimic each other (and us, but that’s a different story). Kids and even babies mimic other kids and adults (as I’m sure many parents notice) – it’s how they learn and practice their skills. Our mimicry skills are so advanced, that babies, after watching an adult trying but not succeeding to do something, would actually mimic the intended action rather than the action they actually witnessed. If that’s not cool, I don’t know what is.

Researchers have long been interested in mimicry in children – especially infants – but they mostly investigated how infants mimic others’ actions. A new study that’s just been published looked at the effects that being mimicked has on infants.

What They Did

In a brilliant twist on regular mimicking studies, Malinda Carpenter and her colleagues randomly assigned babies (18-month-olds) to a mimicked and a non-mimicked group. In the mimicked group, the experimenter spent a few minutes following the baby around and mimicking their actions (stretching, sitting, running around, etc.). In the non-mimicked group (the control group) the experimenter spent the same amount of time not mimicking the babies. That is, for every action the baby did, the experimenter did a different action (sitting when the baby stood up, stretching up when the baby bended to pick something up, etc.). So the difference between the groups was only whether they were mimicked or not, with the experimenter-baby interaction carefully controlled (I love it when researchers carefully control other variables. It makes me happy).

After the “set-up” stage, they started the test phase. The experimenter (either the same one who mimicked the kids or a different one) “accidentally dropped” some sticks, and the researchers recorded whether the babies helped her gather her sticks back into the box (I wrote about a similar procedure here). Then she took the box to a cupboard but couldn’t open the cupboard door since her hands were full. The researchers recorded whether the babies helped her open the door.

What They Found

Interestingly, they found that babies that were mimicked were significantly more likely to help both the experimenter who mimicked them and the experimenter who didn’t mimic them. In other words, babies who were mimicked showed more pro-social behaviour and were generally more helpful. This experiment, by the way, is a replication of an experiment that found similar results with adults.

What It Means

First, this sounds like a fantastic way to get your toddler to cooperate! Just mimic them a bit before you ask them to do something. I’m definitely trying this with my own little rebellious devil (also known as my 2-year-old daughter). Another interesting implication is that this puts our natural tendency to mimic other people in a whole new light. If this exists in babies, there must be some innate roots, which means that we are wired to respond more helpfully to people (or creatures) who we think of as similar to us – who behave like us. Definitely food for thought.

Why All Parents Should Take Their Child to Participate in a Study

In the last couple of weeks (and a couple of weeks to come, it looks like) I have been working on getting my research off the ground. The amount of work is remarkable. Granted, some researchers have to breed and raise their own participants. I think there are pros and cons to this approach. On the negative side, it takes longer to prepare for a study; on the positive side, you don’t have to get the rats’ parents to agree to participate.

Which brings me to my point: all parents should take their child to participate in a study. I know, you are really busy, and the laundry is not going to fold itself. I know, by the time you get to work you have already made breakfasts, packed lunches, got everyone dressed and brushed and ready to go, and you are well into your day before other people even had their first morning coffee.

Here is why you (the parent reading this) should take the time to consider the studies done in your community and to take your child to participate in one.

First, you don’t always have to literally take your child. Sometimes the researchers come to you. Sometimes they want you to fill some questionnaires, and they don’t even want to see the child.

Second, it’s good karma. Really. Think of it as a random act of kindness. Why is this a kindness? Because the graduate student who is spending hours on end calling daycares and science museums and kid coffee shops, distributing brochures in every community centre, and basically begging everyone she meets to participate in her study will be grateful.

Third, and most importantly, science matters. Take my research for example. At first glance you might think: another theoretical research, this has no implication on my life. But I’m looking into children’s ability to consider different aspects of events or objects, which can easily be tied into being creative. So if my research is successful (and by successful I don’t mean has the results I want it to have, I mean has enough participants to determine any kind of results), other researchers who are working in the field might come up with, say, a curriculum that promotes creativity. So that your child will have a better (or at least better-informed) curriculum, a better school experience, and a better life. OK, I may have taken it a tiny bit too far in the end there, but that’s the general idea.

In order for science to move forward, experiments must get done. For developmental research, this means children must participate in experiments, because if we are to learn things about kids, we have to learn them from the kids. So go on, find a study in your community, and get going. As a bonus, you might learn something about yourself and about your child in the process.

Have you ever participated in a study yourself? Have you ever taken your child? Please share your experience!