Tag Archives: parenting

Infants Quickly Learn to Ignore Unreliable and Silly People

Chil­dren learn a lot from imit­at­ing the actions of adults, with recent research sug­gest­ing that infants as young as 14 months are select­ive imit­at­ors – tak­ing cues from our beha­viour in order to decide which of us adults to learn from and which to ignore.

In a study where research­ers expressed delight before either present­ing an infant with a toy (the reli­able con­di­tion) or not present­ing the infant with a toy (the unre­li­able con­di­tion), they dis­covered that infants detect “unre­li­able” people and choose not to learn from then, opt­ing instead for adults that appear con­fid­ent and know­ledge­able – the reli­able group.

“Infants seem to per­ceive reli­able adults as cap­able of ration­al action, whose nov­el, unfa­mil­i­ar beha­viour is worth imit­at­ing,” the research­ers said. “In con­trast, the same beha­viour per­formed by a pre­vi­ously unre­li­able adult is inter­preted as irra­tion­al or inef­fi­cient, thus not worthy of imit­at­ing.” […]

The new find­ing adds to a grow­ing body of research show­ing chil­dren’s selectiv­ity in who they choose to learn from. For example, chil­dren prefer to learn from adults as opposed to their peers, and they prefer to learn from people they are famil­i­ar with and who appear more cer­tain, con­fid­ent and know­ledge­able.

Child Development: Content, Not Medium, Matters (Why Sesame Street Beats Teletubbies)

Debates have raged over the last couple of years on the effects (det­ri­ment­al or not) of tele­vi­sion, com­puter games (viol­ent or not) and the Inter­net on a child’s cog­nit­ive devel­op­ment. Tak­ing excerpts from a review art­icle that provides an excel­lent sum­mary of the top­ic, Jonah Lehr­er makes it clear: for a child’s cog­nit­ive devel­op­ment, the medi­um does­n’t mat­ter but the con­tent is cru­cial.

First, an explan­a­tion of why this is:

In the same way that there is no single effect of “eat­ing food,“ there is also no single effect of “watch­ing tele­vi­sion” or “play­ing video games.” Dif­fer­ent foods con­tain dif­fer­ent chem­ic­al com­pon­ents and thus lead to dif­fer­ent physiolo­gic­al effects; dif­fer­ent kinds of media have dif­fer­ent con­tent, task requirements,and atten­tion­al demands and thus lead to dif­fer­ent beha­vi­or­al effects.

And some find­ings on how devel­op­ment is affected by vari­ous chil­dren’s shows:

  • Ses­ame Street is asso­ci­ated with “a wide assort­ment of pos­it­ive out­comes, includ­ing improved per­form­ance on meas­ures of school read­i­ness, express­ive lan­guage cap­ab­il­it­ies, numer­acy skills and vocab­u­lary size”.
  • Sim­il­ar effects have been found for Blue’s Clues, Dora the Explorer and Clif­ford the Big Red Dog.
  • Tele­tu­b­bies is asso­ci­ated with the slow­ing down of early edu­ca­tion.
  • Mater­i­al tar­geted to infants, such as Baby Ein­stein and Brainy Baby are awful: “each hour of daily view­ing between the ages of 8 and 16 months led to a sig­ni­fic­ant decrease in the pace of lan­guage devel­op­ment” and a 17 point decrease in lan­guage skills (in com­par­is­on, “daily read­ing with a par­ent was asso­ci­ated with a 7 point increase in the lan­guage skills of 2 year olds”).

As for video games, action games have been asso­ci­ated with “a num­ber of enhance­ments in vis­ion, atten­tion, cog­ni­tion, and motor con­trol”.

The art­icle goes on to describe the required format for chil­dren’s tele­vi­sion shows that wish to pro­mote early literacy: “the use of child-dir­ec­ted speech, eli­cit­a­tion of responses, object labeling, and/or a coher­ent story­book-like frame­work through­out”. In oth­er words, they need to “engage the young viewer, […] eli­cit dir­ect par­ti­cip­a­tion from the child, provide a strong lan­guage mod­el, avoid over­load­ing the child with dis­tract­ing stim­u­la­tion, and include a well-artic­u­lated nar­rat­ive struc­ture”.

via @TimHarford

Recognising Drowning and Surviving Cold Water

Drown­ing does not look like drown­ing, and without flot­a­tion you will not live long enough to die from hypo­ther­mia if you fall into cold water. These are just two warn­ings from Mario Vittone–long-serving U.S. Navy and Coast Guard expert on mari­time safety–writing in the mari­time and off­shore news site, gCap­tain.

In the first of two art­icles on water safety, Vit­tone dis­cusses what drown­ing is really like, and how to recog­nise it:

Drown­ing is not the viol­ent, splash­ing, call for help that most people expect. […] Drown­ing is almost always a decept­ively quiet event. The wav­ing, splash­ing, and yelling that dra­mat­ic con­di­tion­ing (tele­vi­sion) pre­pares us to look for, is rarely seen in real life.

The Instinct­ive Drown­ing Response […] is what people do to avoid actu­al or per­ceived suf­foc­a­tion in the water. And it does not look like most people expect.

In a fol­low-up to this art­icle, Vit­tone then dis­cusses the truth about cold water and how to sur­vive it (recog­nise and attempt to man­age the “sig­ni­fic­ant physiolo­gic­al reac­tions that occur, in order, almost always”).

This first of these art­icle has been men­tioned on a num­ber of high-pro­file sites, and for good reas­on. It’s a must-read.

The Argument for Parenthood

It is often sug­ges­ted that hav­ing chil­dren has a neg­at­ive net effect on the hap­pi­ness of the par­ents. Eco­nom­ist Bry­an Caplan dis­agrees, sug­gest­ing that stud­ies have missed the evid­ence sug­gest­ing that par­ents sac­ri­fice more than they need to and over­es­tim­ate the long-term effects of par­ent­ing on a wide range of child out­comes (includ­ing edu­ca­tion, mor­al­ity, obesity, and gen­er­al demean­our).

Caplan’s next book is the intriguingly titled Selfish Reas­ons to Have More Kids and in this essay for The Wall Street Journ­al he out­lines his core argu­ment for why we should have chil­dren:

While the pop­u­lar and the aca­dem­ic cases against kids have a ker­nel of truth, both lack per­spect­ive. By his­tor­ic­al stand­ards, mod­ern par­ents get a remark­ably good deal. […]

It’s also true that mod­ern par­ents are less happy than their child­less coun­ter­parts. But hap­pi­ness research­ers rarely emphas­ize how small the hap­pi­ness gap is.[…]

If […] you’re inter­ested in kids, but scared of the sac­ri­fices, research has two big les­sons. First, par­ents’ sac­ri­fice is much smal­ler than it looks, and child­less and single is far inferi­or to mar­ried with chil­dren. Second, par­ents’ sac­ri­fice is much lar­ger than it has to be. Twin and adop­tion research shows that you don’t have to go the extra mile to pre­pare your kids for the future. Instead of try­ing to mold your chil­dren into per­fect adults, you can safely kick back, relax and enjoy your jour­ney together—and ser­i­ously con­sider adding anoth­er pas­sen­ger.

The Evidence on Breastfeeding

In an art­icle the Roy­al Stat­ist­ic­al Soci­ety announced as the run­ner-up in their annu­al Awards for Stat­ist­ic­al Excel­lence in Journ­al­ism, Helen Rum­below thor­oughly invest­ig­ates the well-debated sub­ject of breast­feed­ing.

The con­clu­sion of the piece is that much of the evid­ence in sup­port of breast­feed­ing is massively mis­rep­res­en­ted or inher­ently flawed.

“The evid­ence to date sug­gests it prob­ably does­n’t make much dif­fer­ence if you breast­feed.” […]

“The con­clu­sion is that the evid­ence we have now is not com­pel­ling. It cer­tainly does not jus­ti­fy the rhet­or­ic,” [Amer­ic­an aca­dem­ic Joan Wolf] says. The prob­lem with the stud­ies is that it is very hard to sep­ar­ate the bene­fits of the mother­’s milk from the bene­fits of the kind of moth­er who chooses to breast­feed. In the UK, for example, the highest class of women are 60 per cent more likely to breast­feed than the low­est, so it is not sur­pris­ing that research shows that breast­fed infants dis­play all the health and edu­ca­tion­al bene­fits they were born into. But even if edu­ca­tion, class and wealth is taken into account, there is known to be a big dif­fer­ence between the type of moth­er who fol­lows the advice of her doc­tor and breast­feeds, and the one that ignores it to give the bottle. In oth­er words, breast­feed­ing stud­ies could simply be show­ing what it’s like to grow up in a fam­ily that makes an effort to be healthy and respons­ible, as opposed to any­thing pos­it­ive in breast milk.

This is not to say that breast­feed­ing is not good:

  • Wolf acknow­ledges that it helps pre­vent gastrointest­in­al infec­tions (life-sav­ing in the devel­op­ing world, gen­er­ally a mild com­plaint in the West).
  • Michael Kramer (one of the world’s most author­it­at­ive sources of breast­feed­ing research; advisor to the WHO, Unicef and the Cochrane Lib­rary) believes:
    • The evid­ence is “encour­aging” in pre­vent­ing res­pir­at­ory prob­lems.
    • The data on help­ing pre­vent breast can­cer is “sol­id”.


  • The data on obesity, aller­gies, asthma, leuk­aemia, lymph­oma, bowel dis­ease, type 1 dia­betes, heart dis­ease and blood pres­sure are “weak” at best.
  • The “highly respec­ted” Amer­ic­an Agency for Health­care Research and Qual­ity (AHRQ) warns that, “because the breast­feed­ing moth­ers were self-select­ing, ‘one should not infer caus­al­ity’ ”.
  • The World Health Organ­isa­tion’s own research review con­cluded that gains were “mod­est” and also warned that “because none of the stud­ies it looked at dealt with the prob­lem of con­found­ing, the res­ults could be explained by the ‘self-selec­tion of breast­feed­ing moth­ers’ ”.

via @TimHarford