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 highprofile 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