Raising Well-Adjusted Children
Memes on parenting and activities to encourage intelligence and good behavior in children.
Folksonomies: parenting child rearing
Production of speech is seen as a pure motor act, involving muscles and the neurons controlling them, while perception of speech is seen as purely sensory, involving the ear and the auditory pathway. This parcellation of the systems appear intuitive and clear, but recent studies [beginning with Taine 1870!] ... suggest that such divisions may be fundamentally wrong. Rather than separate processes for motor outputs and individual sensory modalities, adaptive action seems to use all the available context-specific information. That is, neural representations across the brain may be centered on specific actions. This view on neural representations puts 'Molyneux's Problem' in a new light. Unisensory signals are fused into multisensory motor representations unified by an action, but since Molyneux does not suggest any action, his 'problem' may be better viewed as an ill-posed question -- at least from a neuroscientific perspective".
I shall here insert a problem of that very ingenious and studious promoter of real knowledge, the learned and worthy Mr. Molyneux, which he was pleased to send me in a letter some months since; and it is this:- "Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube, which the sphere. Suppose then the cube and sphere placed on a table, and the blind man be made to see: quaere, whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube?" To which the acute and judicious proposer answers, "Not. For, though he has obtained the experience of how a globe, how a cube affects his touch, yet he has not yet obtained the experience, that what affects his touch so or so, must affect his sight so or so; or that a protuberant angle in the cube, that pressed his hand unequally, shall appear to his eye as it does in the cube."- I agree with this thinking gentleman, whom I am proud to call my friend, in his answer to this problem; and am of opinion that the blind man, at first sight, would not be able with certainty to say which was the globe, which the cube, whilst he only saw them; though he could unerringly name them by his touch, and certainly distinguish them by the difference of their figures felt. This I have set down, and leave with my reader, as an occasion for him to consider how much he may be beholden to experience, improvement, and acquired notions, where he thinks he had not the least use of, or help from them. And the rather, because this observing gentleman further adds, that "having, upon the occasion of my book, proposed this to divers very ingenious men, he hardly ever met with one that at first gave the answer to it which he thinks true, till by hearing his reasons they were convinced.
When we want to engage, believe me, we can. And not only will we then make fewer mistakes of perception, but we will become the types of focused, observant people that we may have thought we were incapable of becoming. Even children who have been diagnosed with ADHD can find themselves able to focus on certain things that grab them, that activate and engage their minds. Like video games. Time after time, video games have proven able to bring out the attentional resources in people that they never suspected they had. And what’s more, the kind of sustained attention and newfound appreciation of detail that emerges from the process of engagement can then transfer to other domains, beyond the screen. Cognitive neuroscientists Daphné Bavelier and C. Shawn Green, for instance, have found repeatedly that socalled “action” video games—games characterized by high speed, high perceptual and motor load, upredictability, and the need for peripheral processing—enhance visual attention, low-level vision, processing speed, attentional, cognitive, and social control, and a number of other faculties across domains as varied as the piloting of unmanned drones and laparoscopic surgery. The brain can actually change and learn to sustain attention in a more prolonged fashion—and all because of moments of engagement in something that actually mattered.
The more parents talk to their children, even in the earliest moments of life, the better their kids linguistic abilities become and the faster that improvement is achieved. The gold standard is 2,100 words per hour. The variety of the words spoken (nouns, verbs, and adjectives used, along with the length and complexity of phrases and sentences) is nearly as important as the number of words spoken. So is the amount of positive feedback. You can reinforce language skills through interaction: looking at your infant; imitating his vocalizations, laughter, and facial expressions; rewarding her language attempts with heightened attention. Children whose parents talked positively, richly, and regularly to them knew twice as many words as kids whose parents talked to them the least. When these kids entered the school system, their reading, spelling, and writing abilities soared above those of children in less verbal households. Even though babies don’t respond like adults, they are listening, and it is good for them.
Educational psychologist William Fowler trained a group of parents to talk to their children in a particular fashion, following some of the guidelines mentioned above. The children spoke their first words between 7 and 9 months of age, some even speaking sentences at 10 months. They had conquered most of the basic rules of grammar by age 2, while the controls achieved a similar mastery around age 4. Longer-term studies showed that the kids did very well in school, including in math and science. By the time they entered high school, 62 percent of them were enrolled in gifted or accelerated programs. Critical parts of Fowler’s training program need further study, but his work is terrific. It adds to the overwhelming evidence that a whole lot of talking is like fertilizer for neurons.
The perfect parent, if she (or he) existed, would devote herself full time to the care and teaching of her child. She would begin, even before conception, by shoring up her folic acid reserves and purging her body of any chemical remotely suspect. Once pregnant, she would never touch a drop of alcohol, pump her own gasoline, get less than eight hours sleep, or allow herself to be stressed in any way. She would have an ideal, unmedicated, and uncomplicated delivery, and breastfeed from the moment of birth until the child was potty-trained. She would know precisely how to stimulate her baby, but also how to avoid over-stimulation. She would spend hours every day playing with him—singing, cuddling, talking, massaging, exercising, reading, showing him how all kinds of toys and other fascinating objects work—and never have to leave him in his swing for half an hour while trying to make supper or balance the checkbook. Her house would be perfectly baby-proofed, so he could explore every comer and rarely hear "No!" She'd take him on all kinds of different outings, always giving him her full attention, and never grow annoyed when he pulled all the vitamins off the shelf at the pharmacy or whined for cookies at the grocery store. She'd introduce him to other children, all with similarly perfect parents, and gladly clean up after the messiest play dates. She'd start him on piano/tennis/dance/French/swimming/art/violin/computer/Spanish/tumbling lessons at age three (practicing herself, to provide a good role model) but, if he showed no interest, would happily forfeit the ten weeks' tuition. She'd send him to the perfect preschool, using their time apart to brush up on the latest child-rearing information and prepare all sorts of new and interesting educational activities for him. And of course, she wouldn't do it alone. She'd have the "perfect spouse" right alongside, equally loving/stimulating/nurturing/teaching their child every step of the way.
There may actually be one or two parents in the world like this. And perhaps their kids will turn out to be the most brilliant, talented people ever. Then again, you have to wonder what children learn from parents whose only focus in life is their offspring. The fact is that children pick up much more than mere cognitive skills from their parents and other caregivers. They also learn how to work, share, love, nurture, juggle, and enjoy life. Once again, it is the model we set, rather than the specific teaching we attempt, that is going to have the biggest impact on a child's cognitive abilities and success in life.
Remarkably enough, the most obvious influence over children's language development turned out to be the mere amount of parents' talking; children whose parents addressed or responded to them more in early life had larger, faster-growing vocabularies and scored higher on IQ tests than children whose parents spoke fewer words to them overall. Parents who talk more inevitably expose their children to a greater variety of words and sentences, so a correlation also turned up between the diversity of parents' language—the number of different nouns and adjectives they used, and the length of their phrases and sentences—and their children's linguistic progress.
In addition to these quantitative features, Hart and Risley discovered a particular qualitative aspect of parental language that seems to especially influence children's language: the amount of positive versus negative feedback children hear. Youngsters who heard a larger proportion of no, don't, stop it, and similar prohibitions had poorer language skills than three-yearolds who had received less negative feedback. Of course, no parent of toddler-aged children can avoid all prohibitions, but those who kept their negative responses to a minimum, emphasizing instead positive responses, such as repeating their children's vocalizations or following them with ques¬ tions or affirmations, fostered better language development.
A follow-up study on the same group of children reveals that these differences in verbal skills persisted well into the grade-school years; by third grade, children whose parents spoke more to them during the first three years continued to excel at various language skills, including reading, spelling, speaking, and listening abilities. So even after children enter school, when their parents cease to be the sole influence over their cognitive development. their early language exposure has created a lasting legacy in their language achievement.
There is another, very disturbing side to Hart and Risley's report. In selecting the forty families tor their study, they deliberately chose a crosssection of American socioeconomic classes. When the researchers factored in these differences, it became blatantly clear that virtually every feature of parenting style improved substantially as families ascended the ladder of educational and financial advantage. Even something as simple as the number of words addressed to young children tended to increase dramatically, with chi dren on welfare hearing an average of 600 words per hour addressed to them, as compared with 1,200 for children of working-class families and 2,100 for children with professional parents. Socioeconomic level also correlated strongly with the type of feedback parents tended to give their children. On average, professional parents were heard to praise or otherwise respond positively to their children seven times more often than welfare parents, and they doled out negative feedback—those particularly toxic prohibitions and imperatives—only half as frequently. With such enormous differences in both the quantity and quality of interaction with their parents, it's not hard to see how children from different socioeconomic groups are propelled onto wildly different trajectories of language-learning.
The social and political implications of these findings are staggering. Obviously, it would take a massive effort to overcome these extreme differ¬ ences in children's early language experience. But it's important to realize that socioeconomic class per se is not the primary factor determining chil¬ dren's language achievement. For while children's fate may seem to be sealed by their level of economic advantage, what really matters is their parents' style of interacting with them. In other words, if we look just within a single socioeconomic group, like the twenty-three families that made up the "working-class" rank in Hart and Risley's study, parenting style turns out to be a much better predictor of each child's language skills than the parents' precise financial and educational attainment. Within this group, parents who talked more to their children, who used a greater variety of words and sentences, who asked rather than told their children what to do, and who consistently responded in positive rather than negative ways to their chil¬ dren's speech and behavior, tended to raise more verbally gifted children than those who were poorer at these parenting skills. Similar findings have been reported in a study of professional-class children in Chicago: those whose mothers addressed more words to them in the second year of life had the fastest-growing vocabularies, ou even m higher socioeconomic ranks, there is enough variety in parenting styles to significantly affect the quality of children's language development, exploding, as some call it, "the myth of the educated parent."
First of all, language stimulation should begin very early: by just three years of age, children are already headed down vastly different paths of verbal achievement as a result of their cumulative experience with language. Ideally, language stimulation should begin at birth, since we know that newborns' brains are already attuned to human speech and immediately start learning the sounds of their mother tongue. In fact. Fowler's group found that babies who entered their program between six and eight months of age were not as successful as those who began at the earliest age, three months, so clearly earlier is better.
Secondly, the quantity of language is critical: the more words a child hears, the larger her vocabulary will be, and the faster it will continue to grow. But it cannot be overemphasized that this quantity means the number of words addressed to the child. Mothers aren't doing their kids any favors by talking on the phone all day; day-care workers don't help by conversing only with other workers; nor is television an adequate way to increase young children's language exposure. (Indeed, at one point deaf parents were advised to leave the TV on for their hearing babies, but it never succeeded in teaching them spoken language.) A baby can begin to make sense of language only when it refers to something she can directly relate to. Parents and other caregivers should thus talk frequently to their babies and try, whenever possible, to focus on the here and now: pointing out and labeling the objects, people. and events in their immediate environment, especially the babies' own actions, feelings, and attempts at speech.
Which brings us to the quality of language to which a child is exposed. Language addressed to young children needs to be simple, clear, and positive in tone in order to be of maximum value. Fortunately, most caregivers already use a special style when speaking to infants and young children. As noted in Chapter lo, babies clearly prefer the higher pitch, highly intonated style, and slower pace of "motherese," and recent evidence suggests that it even helps them in the earliest stages of phoneme-learning. But it's important to avoid the kind of muddled baby-talk that tums a sentence like "Is she the cutest lit¬ tie baby in the world?" into "Uz see da cooest wiwo baby inna wowud?" Care¬ givers should try to enunciate clearly when speaking to babies and young children, giving them the cleanest, simplest model of speech possible.
Of course, it's easy to say that speech should be at a level your child can understand, but it's not always easy to figure out what that level is. For instance, older babies understand much more than they can say, so you need not limit your speech to single syllables or words. On the other hand, there's evidence that even Sesame Street does more harm than good for children under eighteen months, probably because it comes at the expense of more direct, positive parental interaction. (But it is great for preschoolers.) At every age, parents need to seek out that happy medium of speaking to their child in a way that is largely within his reach of understanding but also stretches him just a bit beyond it.
But with the right balance, parents can modify even the most difficult side of their children's temperaments. As an example, consider those 15 percent or so of toddlers who are very inhibited—kids like Andrew, whose right frontal lobe explodes with anxiety whenever he's confronted by new people or a new environment. While many of these children don't change, about 40 percent do lose their extreme timidity by kindergarten. Researchers have observed that these are the youngsters whose parents, though sensitive, manage to gently challenge them, encouraging them to face their fears and learn how to cope with minor stresses, thereby coaxing along those connections on the left side of the brain.
Patricia is one parent who's decided to try challenging her child more. She's enrolled Andrew in nursery school, now encourages him to be more adventuresome on the playground, and has begun traveling with him, so he can spend his first nights away from home. So far he's not too happy about it, but he is showing signs of gradually adapting, rising to the challenge his parents are laying out for him. Before long he'll probably actually enjoy school and will undoubtedly even make a few friends. Though it's likely that he will always be a pretty cautious kid, he'll surely have a happier youth than it his parents hadn't stepped in and deliberately helped rewire his limbic system.
By the time babies are about one-and-a-half yearsrs old, they start to understand the nature of these differences between people and to be fascinated by them. Again we can demonstrate this systematically. Alison and one of her students, Betty Repacholi, showed babies two bowls of food, one full of delicious Goldfish crackers and one full of raw broccoli. All the babies, even in Berkeley, preferred the crackers. Then Betty tasted each bowl of food. She made a delighted face and said. 'Yum," to one food and made a disgusted face and said. ''Yuck," to the other. Then she put both bowls of food near the babies, held out her hand, and said, "Could you give me some?"
When Betty indicated that she loved the crackers and hated the broccoli, the babies, of course, gave her the crackers. But what if she did the opposite and said that the broccoli was yummy and the crackers were yucky? This presented the babies with one of those cases where our attitude toward the object is different from theirs, where we want one thing and they want something else. Fourteen-month-olds, still with their innocent assumption that we all want the same thing, give us the crackers. But the wiser (though, as we will see, sadder) eighteen-month-olds give us the broccoli, even though they themselves despise it. These tiny children, barely able to talk. have already learned an extremely important thing about peopie. They've learned that people have desires and that those desires may be different and may even conflict.
We can demonstrate this discovery in the laboratory, but it is also dramatically apparent in ordinary life. Parents all know. and dread, the notorious "terrible twos," when the adorable if somewhat out-of-hand one-year-old rogue becomes a steely-eyed two-year-old monster out of melodrama. What makes the terrible twos so terrible is not that the babies do things you don't want them to do—one-year-olds are plenty good at that—but that they do things because yon don't want them to. While one-year-olds seem irresistibly seduced by the charms of forbidden objects (the lamp cord made me do it), the two-year-olds are deliberately perverse, what the British call bloody-minded. A two-year-old doesn't even look at the lamp cord. Instead his hand goes out to touch it as he looks. steadily, gravely, and with great deliberation, at you.
But this perverse behavior actually turns out to be quite rational. Just as experiments with very young babies explain our parental intuition that we have a special kind of rapport with our newborns, experiments with toddlers explain our intuition that that rapport sometimes breaks down when they get older. Two-year-olds have just begun to realize that people have different desires. Our broccoli experiment shows ths childreren oDnly begin to understand differences in desires when they are about eighteen months old. Fourteen-month-olds seem to think that their desires and ours will be the same. The terrible twos seem to involve a systematic exploration of that idea, almost a kind of experimental research program. Toddlers are systematically testing the dimensions on which their desires and the desires of others may be in conflict. The grave look is directed at you because you and your reaction, rather than the lamp cord itself, are the really interesting thing. If the child is a budding psychologist, we parents are the laboratory rats.
It may be some comfort to know that these toddlers don't really want to drive us crazy, they just want to understand how>w we work. The tears that follow the blowup at the end of a terrible-twos confrontation are genuine. The terrible twos refleets a genuine clash between children's need to understand other people and their need to live happily with them. Experimenting with conflict may be necessary if you want to understand what people will do, but it's also dangerous. The terrible twos show how powerful and deep-seated the learning drive is in these young children. With these two-year-olds, as with scientists, finding the truth is more than a profession— it's a passion. And, as with scientists, that passion may sometimes make them sacrifice domestic happiness.
Scientists typically describe intelligence as consisting of two distinct components: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence refers to the general ability to solve new problems and recognize unfamiliar patterns. Crystallized intelligence, by contrast, consists of particular kinds of knowledge.
When children learn to count, for instance, they show gains on crystallized intelligence, even as their fluid intelligence remains constant. Scientists have typically regarded fluid intelligence as the aspect of our thinking that is most determined by genetics, since it can't be easily taught.
And yet these schoolchildren showed gains in fluid intelligence roughly equal to five IQ points after one month of training. The IQs of 68.2% of the populace fall within a 30-point range, so this is a significant change. These kids weren't learning facts they would soon forget. They were learning how to think better.
These improvements were triggered by a mental exercise known as the n-back task. The exercise is not fun, even when translated into videogame format. It begins with the presentation of a visual cue. For the kids in the experiment, the cue was the precise location of a cartoon character.
In the next round, the cue is altered—the cartoon character has moved to a new location. The job of the child is to press the space bar whenever the character returns to a spot where it has previously been, and to ignore the other irrelevant locations. As the children advance in the task, these locations move further back in time, forcing them to sort through an increasing amount of information.
How does this tedious exercise boost intelligence? The crucial change concerned the nature of the children's attention. After repeatedly playing the n-back game, the young subjects were better able to focus on the necessary facts. As a result, they squandered less short-term memory on irrelevant details, such as cartoon locations they didn't need to recall. The children "got better at separating the wheat from the chaff across a variety of different tasks," says John Jonides, a senior author on the paper.
Grandmother says, "You had them and you should never leave them." Such martyrdom is selfish and harmful to both you and the child. Someday such clinging, dependent children will have to be torn from their mothers and get the rude shock that there are other people m the world—on the first day at school, for instance. This shock will be far less and the adjustment to the presence of other residents of this planet far better if they get a sneak preview in advance that there are others. There is nothing more sickening to see than a child throwing a tantrum ("Don't leave me, don't leave me!") when the parents are going out for an evening. If they have been regularly introduced to baby-sitters since they were two weeks old, they are intellectually curious about outsiders. They get sick and tired of looking at their parents constantly and will tend to ask later, "Don't you two ever go anywhere?" They will accept and like the challenge of meeting strangers. Also, parents tend to get tired of their children ("They get on my nerves!") if f they are never separated for regular short intervals.
"Children who had the greatest self-control in primary school and preschool ages were most likely to have fewer health problems when they reached their 30s," says Terrie Moffitt, a professor of psychology at Duke University and King's College London.
Moffitt and a team of researchers studied a group of 1,000 people born in New Zealand in 1972 and 1973, tracking them from birth to age 32. The new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the best evidence yet on the payoff for learning self-discipline early on.
The researchers define self-control as having skills like conscientiousness, self-discipline and perseverance, as well as being able to consider the consequences of actions in making decisions.
The children who struggled with self-control as preschoolers were three times as likely to have problems as young adults. They were more prone to have a criminal record; more likely to be poor or have financial problems; and they were more likely to be single parents.