It turns out that writing well-researched posts is not something I have time for, but I still find interesting articles and research on a near-daily basis.

So what’s the right medium for that? Twitter: ebparent!

teaching willpower in preschool

We know that the ability of kids to restrain themselves, to resist temptation, is a huge predictor of success. You can see that in the marshmallow test, or in studies on how restricting candy can lead to obesity presumably due to lack of restraint training. What I’m calling willpower is really a special case of executive function — mental tools involving planning, rules, inhibiting actions, and so on.

The open question is, how much is executive funtion innate, and how much can be taught? And if it can be taught, will that just make you better at resisting marshmallows, or will it also improve results on all the things that executive function tests predict, like test scores, criminality, all kinds of life success?

It turns out that there’s a new kind of preschool and kindergarten curriculum that seems to be aimed at trying out just that approach. It’s called, somewhat cheesily, Tools of the Mind. There’s been some coverage of it, like this NPR story:

Unfortunately, play has changed dramatically during the past half-century, and according to many psychological researchers, the play that kids engage in today does not help them build executive function skills. Kids spend more time in front of televisions and video games. When they aren’t in front of a screen, they often spend their time in leagues and lessons — activities parents invest in because they believe that they will help their children to excel and achieve.

And while it’s true that leagues and lessons are helpful to children in many ways, researcher Deborah Leong says they have one unfortunate drawback. Leong is professor emerita of psychology and director of the Tools of the Mind Project at Metropolitan State College of Denver. She says when kids are in leagues and lessons, they are usually being regulated by adults. That means they are not able to practice regulating themselves.

“As a result,” Leong says, “kids aren’t developing the self-regulation skills that they used to.”

That is why, in a Tools of the Mind program like the one at Geraldyn O. Foster Early Childhood Center, almost every minute of the day is spent building executive functions.

Here’s another highly favorable review from the NYTimes Magazine of the program. It discusses some of the underlying thought behind it:

In one experiment, 4-year-old children were first asked to stand still for as long as they could. They typically did not make it past a minute. But when the kids played a make-believe game in which they were guards at a factory, they were able to stand at attention for more than four minutes. In another experiment, prekindergarten-age children were asked to memorize a list of unrelated words. Then they played “grocery store” and were asked to memorize a similar list of words — this time, though, as a shopping list. In the play situation, on average, the children were able to remember twice as many words.

So how to they do it? A whole bunch of different ways. The most notable is that playtime is more structured — the children plan it out in advance and are expected to stick to the plan (here’s an interesting writeup of what it’s like). Reading is done in pairs with children taking turn listening. They play games like simon says which helps teach self control.

The big question is, how well does this work? In NutureShock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s book on modern thinking on childrearing, the Tools curriculum is presented as being sort of a universal panacea for children — it is claimed that they do better on tests of literacy, self control, IQ, and so on. For instance:

The average reading scores for the school district translated into the 65th percentile on the national spectrum. The Tools kindergartners (on average) had jumped more than 20 ticks higher, to the 86th percentile. The kids who tested as gifted almost all came from the Tools classes

As they note, however, there aren’t many controlled studies of the program. In a few cases, the studies were ended early because the Tools kids were doing so much better that the administrators decided it was unfair to the other kids to deprive them. Certainly a point in Tools favor, but ultimately not completely convincing either.

I found a study from the National Institute for Early Education Research entitled Educational Effects of the Tools of the Mind Curriculum: A Randomized Trial.

The Tools curriculum was found to improve classroom quality and children’s executive function as indicated by lower scores on a problem behavior scale. There were indications that Tools also improved children’s language development, but these effects were smaller and did not reach conventional levels of statistical significance in multi-level models or after adjustments for multiple comparisons.

Hm, so it helped the thing it was directly targeting, executive function, but did not spill over in the ways suggested by NutureShock. This roundup suggests that there aren’t any really reliable studies out there on its effectiveness for traditional measures of academic success, though the various articles suggest that some are underway. And an article in Science finds that this curriculum improves cognitive control.

Considering all that, I think there is really something to this approach. You could characterize it as teaching children how to think, and instilling strategies and methods for learning, rather than concentrating on the academic material per se. I have to think that’s a good idea as a place to start, rather than just diving in.

I actually wish there were Tools preschools in California — I’d be interested to check them out. I gather that most places they are used for underprivileged children and not so much the mainstream population. I have a two-year-old, so preschool is looming. It would be interesting to have him work explicitly on executive function via play rather than work on letters and numbers — those things, I think we can easily teach on our own.

Photo attribution:

two vaccine updates

The Canadian government commissioned a study looking at the effect of the seasonal flu vaccine on the swine flu.  What it found was surprising:

Distributed for peer review last week, the study confounded infectious-disease experts in suggesting that people vaccinated against seasonal flu are twice as likely to catch swine flu.

Twice as likely! That’s pretty scary, and pretty surprising. Most of the international community is skeptical, and a data review from the CDC in the US and elsewhere evidently found no such association.

Note that the study looked at the regular, seasonal flu vaccine and its effect on swine flu. The latest about the swine flu vaccine itself looks pretty promising. One research group modeled the spread of the swine flu assuming the level of side effects from the flawed 1976 swine flu vaccine and found that widespread vaccinations would save many lives and hundreds of millions of dollars.

Also, now the data from the mass swine flu vaccinations already happening in China are coming in. You always have to be a little skeptical of health data coming from government of China, but the WHO reports that there were only four reports of side effects — all minor — amount the 39,000 people vaccinated in China. That’s a very safe drug, if those stats are accurate.

candy as a kid leads to violence as an adult?

A new study in the British Journal of Psychiatry looked at Confectionary consumption in childhood and adult violence, and found:

Diet has been associated with behavioural problems, including aggression, but the long-term effects of childhood diet on adult violence have not been studied. We tested the hypothesis that excessive consumption of confectionery at age 10 years predicts convictions for violence in adulthood (age 34 years). Data from age 5, 10 and 34 years were used. Children who ate confectionery daily at age 10 years were significantly more likely to have been convicted for violence at age 34 years, a relationship that was robust when controlling for ecological and individual factors.

According to this news article about the study, the authors attribute the problem to parents not teaching their children to delay or resist gratification:

Lead researcher Dr Simon Moore, School of Dentistry, said: “Our favoured explanation is that giving children sweets and chocolate regularly may stop them learning how to wait to obtain something they want. Not being able to defer gratification may push them towards more impulsive behaviour, which is strongly associated with delinquency.”

The researchers concluded: “This association between confectionary consumption and violence needs further attention. Targeting resources at improving children’s diet may improve health and reduce aggression.”

I haven’t actually read the study — not being a subscriber to BJP — but I find their explanation pretty unsatisfying. My guess is that there’s a large genetic component: the kids who are naturally bad at resisting temptation eat a lot of candy at 10 and are more prone to violence at 34.

You could test that by looking at kids who’ve taken the marshmallow test to measure their willpower at 4, measure candy consumption at 10, and violence as an adult. My prediction would be that all those would be correlated, and the candy consumption would vanish as a predictive variable once you introduce the earlier measure.

Also, note how odd it is that the researchers suggest that the candy is indicative of impulsiveness and lack of ability to delay gratification, and then still suggest that intervening in diets may help. Surely if the problem is willpower, then simply restricting access to candy bars in an effort to improve a kid’s diet isn’t going to help.

Plus, as we noted here, there’s at least one study that finds that restricting candy actually harms willpower, so directly intervening in the diet might do more harm than good.

swine flu vaccine: should you get it?

The H1N1 (swine) flu vaccine is about to become available, at first in limited quantities, and then more widely. Most people seem to be hesitant to get it for their kids, and presumably themselves. Well, what do we know about the vaccine and the flu itself?

According to the CDC, the regular seasonal flu vaccine will not protect you against H1N1 (nor will getting the regular flu).  The vaccine should be just as safe as the seasonal flu vaccine — it’s made by the same people in the same places using the same methods. Of course, like all medicine, these vaccines have side effects, but they’re mostly mild and, at least with the inactivated version, are always better than actually getting the flu.

The swine flu itself, however, is a little different than seasonal flu. For one thing, it’s more prevalent right now, and as flu season picks up, it’s expected to be very widespread. It also seems to be more infectious than regular flu, so it’s easier to catch. However, the good news is that it’s no more dangerous than the regular flu, and may in fact be more mild, because it’s not as bad as the regular flu for the elderly and small children (again according to the CDC).

So what’s the upshot? I will get both the regular and swine flu vaccines, because I have a newborn — she’s too small to get vaccinated, and newborns haven’t fully developed their immune systems so the flu is much more dangerous for them. That means we need to reduce the chance that she gets infected by getting vaccinated.

More generally, definitely get it if you are in a high risk group, which means being pregnant, around little (<6 months) babies, a health care worker, a child 6 months through 18 or even 24 because those groups transmit illness more easily, or have factors that increase the severity like asthma, diabetes, a suppressed immune system, heart or kidney disease, and so on.

If not, then it depends on how much you like getting the flu. Flu vaccines normally give about 75% protection — this might be a little better because H1N1 seems to mutate less rapidly than avian flu, and the protection might also last longer than just a year, but that’s pretty speculative. You’re more likely to get H1N1 this year than the normal flu in normal years, perhaps significantly.

I suppose I should add one last point about thimerosal. It’s a preservative used in vaccines including the various flu vaccines. It’s been in the news recently for a purported and debunked link to autism, about which more at some point. But there’s no evidence that it’s dangerous to adults or mature children, despite being very toxic in large doses (which is why it works as a preservative). I wouldn’t worry about it — if you want to be super extra careful, you can get thimerosal-free formulations for your kids, which are somewhat more expensive.

parenting by lying


Parents lie to their children, says new research from UCSD:

Parents say that honesty is the best policy, but they regularly lie to their children as a way of influencing their behaviour and emotions, finds new research from the University of Toronto and the University of California, San Diego.

Surprisingly little scholarship has been published on the subject of parental lying, so Gail Heyman, professor of psychology at UC San Diego, Diem Luu, a former UCSD student, and Kang Lee, professor at the University of Toronto and director of the Institute of Child Study at OISE, set out to explore the under-researched phenomenon. They asked U.S. participants in two related studies about parents lying to their children – either for the purpose of promoting appropriate behaviour or to make them happy.

It’s not surprising to me at all that parents lie to their children, even while trying to teach them about the virtues of honesty. What is surprising is that this hasn’t been well-studied.

These particular studies don’t tell us anything about the effects, just the prevalence. So it’s hard to know what the effects are, positive or negative. For instance, it may be that it’s useful for children to learn how to deal with lies, given that they will encounter many of them in their lifetime. But it’s also possible (or likely) that parents who lie more have kids who lie more. I am curious to see what they’ll find.

One prediction: children see through lies more often than parents expect.

posting hiatus

Baby feet

Apologies for the recent posting outage. We had our own reason to start practicing evidence-based parenting, a new baby, now three weeks old. Just look at those tiny feet!

I hope to get back to a more regular posting schedule soon.

why not to tell your kid he’s smart

Kid with diploma

Attribution: / CC BY-ND 2.0

I set out to write a post on praise, an interesting and controversial topic that there’s actually some good scientific evidence about. But it turns out to be a really big area for one blog post, so instead I’m going to do a series. Here’s the first installment.

Children need praise. In the past few decades, there’s been a revolution in praising children, all around raising self-esteem. Raising children’s estimation of what they can accomplish can raise cause them to produce better results at school or whatever. We’ll talk more about how true that is in future posts, but there’s at least one type of praise that looks like it’s harmful instead of helpful: telling your kid he’s smart.

Po Bronson wrote an interesting article for New York Magazine discussing this phenomenon, called How Not to Talk to Your Kids. He discusses the following fascinating experiment:

Dweck sent four female research assistants into New York fifth-grade classrooms. The researchers would take a single child out of the classroom for a nonverbal IQ test consisting of a series of puzzles—puzzles easy enough that all the children would do fairly well. Once the child finished the test, the researchers told each student his score, then gave him a single line of praise. Randomly divided into groups, some were praised for their intelligence. They were told, “You must be smart at this.” Other students were praised for their effort: “You must have worked really hard.”

Why just a single line of praise? “We wanted to see how sensitive children were,” Dweck explained. “We had a hunch that one line might be enough to see an effect.

Then the students were given a choice of test for the second round. One choice was a test that would be more difficult than the first, but the researchers told the kids that they’d learn a lot from attempting the puzzles. The other choice, Dweck’s team explained, was an easy test, just like the first. Of those praised for their effort, 90 percent chose the harder set of puzzles. Of those praised for their intelligence, a majority chose the easy test. The “smart” kids took the cop-out.

Wow, telling kids they’re smart means they have less motivation and perform worse immediately? That’s crazy! The difference between “you are smart” and “you worked hard” seems pretty small, but the effects are actually quite big. If those sentiments can compound, imagine the effects of telling a child she’s smart for years and years. Just think what she wouldn’t end up doing!

This research has been replicated in a variety of settings with various different kinds of praise. For instance, instead of praising kids as smart, in another study, they were simply told how they compared to their classmates (compared with others who were praised for their mastery of the problem, or a control group that received no praise). The social comparison group showed less motivation than the control group, and the mastery group showed more. The effects were more robust with girls than with boys.

The lesson is that while praise is important, it needs to be about something the child can change. If you praise their level of effort, then can work harder next time; if you praise the way they approached a problem, they may try that next time as well. The idea is that you are positively reinforcing useful behaviors, and they’ll respond to that.

However, if you praise them generically, or tell them they’re smart, you’ve praised things they can’t directly affect. It’s unclear why that seems to suppress motivation: it could be that they are worried about no longer looking smart; that if their previous successes are due to intelligence rather than work that they expect things that they could be good at to be easy; or something more subtle.

In future posts, we’ll talk about how this varies across age and gender, why praise has to be sincere, some of the problems with applying the research to parenting, and some ideas about how to train yourself to praise in the most useful way possible.

In the meantime, check out this page of suggestions for new teachers, and you can see why there’s a lot of work to be done.

circumcision: to cut or not to cut

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Circumcision has been in the news a bit lately. The CDC is about to recommend that baby boys be circumcised to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS, which made Rush Limbaugh erroneously claim that Obama wants to mandate circumcision.  The AAP recommends against routine circumcision, saying that the medical benefits are slight enough that it should be up to the parents (though of course, it would be up to the parents regardless of what the AAP recommends).

So, what are the health benefits? Well, they’re all pretty minor. Risk of HIV/AIDS transmission is significantly reduced for certain strains of AIDS, which at the moment are primarily found in Africa. In fact, circumcision reduces heterosexual transmission by about half in sub-Saharan Africa. Given the rates of AIDS there and the commonality of unprotected sex, if you’re in Africa or expect your child to have much sex there, circumcision is a really good idea.

Circumcision also reduces penile infections, lowers the chance of urinary tract infections, HPV (which may in turn reduce cervical cancer rates in a partner), lowers penile cancer rates almost to zero, and eliminates any problems with foreskins, like tightness. However, it’s very easy to overstate those benefits: penile cancer is already super rare (estimated 1300 cases and 300 deaths in the US  this year); the STD transmission rate is only slightly lower and not lower at all if you use a condom; the UTI rates might be much lower, but UTIs are mild and easily treated these days; and most foreskin problems are pretty minor. Finally, circumcision seems to have no impact on HIV transmission in gay sex, which is a much more common transmission route in the US than in Africa.

On the flipside, the risks are so low as to be nonexistent. Complications are rare (about 1 in 500), and serious complications even more so. In fact, the chance of a serious complication is somewhat lower than the chance of penile cancer.  There is some weak evidence that circumcision reduces penile sensitivity, but the effect is small. Although evidently large enough for there to be a market for a fake replacement foreskin.

So what’s the best thing to do? In the US, it doesn’t really matter much. There are some small medical benefits, and from that standpoint it’s worth doing. This conflicts with lots of the advice given by various midwife groups, advice columnists, and right wing talk show hosts, who we can charitably believe are working with information from a couple of decades ago, when it really did look like there were no benefits. (Note that some of those links point to greatly exaggerated and misleading “information”.) More modern research finds otherwise.

Most people decide what to do for non-medical reasons, like tradition, similarity to Daddy, religion, and whatnot. Somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of babies in the US are circumcised, which is a rate slightly lower than the general rate in the population — it’s getting somewhat less popular. Worldwide about a third of men are circumcised (see the chart).

Add it all up? If you don’t want to, don’t do it. But if you’re on the fence or don’t feel strongly, it’s probably worth it.

guilt: the new willpower

Our last post discussed self control measured by resisting marshmallows. The NYTimes has an interesting article this week discussing how guilt can help with self control. It comes from the following experiment with toddlers:

Show a toy — a doll, say, or a model boat — to a toddler and explain that it it’s something special you’ve had since you were little. Ask the child to be “very careful” with it. Hand over the toy, which appears to be in fine condition, except that you’ve secretly rigged it to break spectacularly as soon as the child handles it.

When your precious toy falls apart, express regret by mildly saying, “Oh, my.” Then sit still and observe the child.

After a minute, they reassure the child and fix the toy so as not to permanently traumatize the little ones.

What’s interesting about this is how their behavior predicts future outcomes, much like the marshmallow test. The researchers are trying to isolate conscious self control from emotions that may cause the child to avoid breaking rules not because they decide not to, but because they can emotionally anticipate the consequences.

In Dr. Kochanska’s latest studies, published in the August issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, she and colleagues found that 2-year-olds who showed more chagrin during the broken-toy experiment went on to have fewer behavioral problems over the next five years. That was true even for the ones who scored low on tests measuring their ability to focus on tasks and suppress strong desires to act impulsively.

“If you have high guilt,” Dr. Kochanska said, “it’s such a rapid response system, and the sensation is so incredibly unpleasant, that effortful control doesn’t much matter.”

But self-control was critical to children in the studies who were low in guilt, because they still behaved well if they had high self-control.

They explicitly looked for parenting behaviors that led to having or not having guilt, and couldn’t find them. So it’s not clear what we as parents might do with this, except perhaps to note whether your child evinces guilt, and if not, work more on self-control to try and make up for the lack of a good emotional check on behaviors that might induce guilt (like hitting or taking toys or whatever). The researcher does have one piece of advice, on the difference between shame and guild:

“The key element is the difference between shame and guilt,” Dr. Tangney says. Shame, the feeling that you’re a bad person because of bad behavior, has repeatedly been found to be unhealthy, she says, whereas guilty feelings focused on the behavior itself can be productive. But it’s not enough, Dr. Tangney says, for parents just to follow the old admonition to criticize the sin, not the sinner. “Most young children,” Dr. Tangney said, “really don’t hear the distinction between ‘Johnny, you did a bad thing’ versus ‘Johnny, you’re a bad boy.’ They hear ‘bad kid.’ I think a more active, directive approach is needed.”

She recommends focusing not just on the bad deed, but more important, on how to make amends. “Both children and adults can be surprisingly clueless about whether and how to make things right,” Dr. Tangney said. “Little kids are overwhelmed by the spilled mess of milk on the floor. Parents can teach and support them to say ‘I’m sorry’ and to clean it up, maybe leaving the kitchen a little cleaner than it was before.”

I’m not sure I believe that strategies like that will help your child learn to feel benign guilt, but at least the kitchen will be cleaner.