Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sign Language for babies

Another interesting idea: teaching sign language to your baby so he can make more progress. For example:
This is the article in which we present the most important findings from our NIH-sponsored longitudinal study of the impact on verbal development of purposefully encouraging infants to use symbolic gestures. Standardized tests of both receptive and expressive language development had been administered at 11, 15, 19, 24, 30, and 36 months to both an experimental group of babies (Baby Signers) and two control groups. Results demonstrated a clear advantage for the Baby Signers, thereby laying to rest the most frequently voiced concern of parents – that Baby Signing might hamper learning to talk. In fact, the good news is that Baby Signing actually facilitates verbal language development.
 Taken from this list of research summaries. Skepticism warning: taken from a website that sells sign language courses for babies, and those papers were written by the people running the website (I had originally found the research summaries on another website,, but it appears they just copied the text off of without any attribution - not even in their links section). So, how much is marketing and how much is sound research?

I looked a bit for some more objective review of the research, I found this (summary only, the paper's behind a paywall):
Should parents be encouraged to teach their hearing infants to communicate using gestural signs? Does signing in infancy advance child behaviour and development as claimed by many commercially available products for parents? To answer these questions, a review was undertaken to evaluate currently available research studies that examined the effectiveness of prelingual signing for normally developing, hearing infants. Databases, reference lists and the Internet were searched for relevant documents using a pre-determined search protocol. Seventeen reports met the review’s inclusion criteria and were retrieved and evaluated. The review failed to support claims that signing facilitates language development, due to insufficiencies in scientific methods and to equivocal results.
I also found this paper, which says:
Claims that signing with infants benefits language development are examined. Fourteen infants aged 19 to 23 months were tested on their comprehension and production of novel labels in a word learning task. Infants participated in two conditions. In the Sign + Word condition, infants learned both a signed and vocal label for a novel toy, whereas in the Word Only condition, infants were taught only a vocal label for the novel toy. Results showed that when children participated first in the Sign + Word condition, their comprehension and production abilities were lower than when trained first in the Word Only condition. Previous exposure to sign language was not related to infants’ performance on the word learning task, although there was a marginal effect of previous language ability on performance. Contrary to previous findings (e.g., Goodwyn, Acredolo, & Brown, 2000), the sign and word combination did not facilitate children’s learning of spoken labels. Possible explanations for these findings are discussed.
It includes a review of the literature (many of which is papers by Goodwyn and Acredo), and in conclusion:
This study does not directly debunk any of the fundamental claims from the baby signing programs, i.e. that teaching baby signs to infants between 6 and 9 months of age will aid in communication. It simply debunks some of the extrapolations many of these programs use in order to recruit more customers.
I'd have to read up a bit more on this, but I'm less warm to the idea of sign language for babie than I was when I started off.

Monday, May 24, 2010

PsychPage on Spanking

I've been poking around the articles on Parenting at PsychPage - there are a few articles of interest:

A Review of "To Spank or not to Spank", which includes a good summary of the main points in the book, and while not being in favor of spanking, offers some practical advice on when it works and when it doesn't (when in anger, when it humiliates the kid, when it's too long after the facts, when the kid doesn't understand why ...).

A detailed summary of research on corporal punishment, combining the insights of researchers both in favor of and against a ban on spanking. A few quotes:

Child perceptions of the parent's wishes matter, as some misbehavior may be due to lack of parental clarity, and some due to child processes. Thus, future research likely should distinguish among kinds of misbehavior.

Child attributions about the parent's actions likely matter too. Attributions that the parent acts in the child's best interest and supports the child are likely to spell different consequences for physical punishment than attributions of hostility and anger alone.

[O]ne study that showed that adults, after having children, generally decreased their opinion of the effectiveness using corporal punishment.
While it may be that corporal punishment leads to increased aggression, it is also possible that increased child aggression leads to increased corporal punishment (as some studies have shown) or that some third factor causes both parental use of corporal punishment and childhood aggression.
It seems to me that a lot of arguments against spanking don't apply to "properly applied" spanking (not in anger, understood by the child, etc.), and some gain most of their strength by rhetorical tricks such as talking of "solving problems by violence". Still, one very believable problem is moral internalization:
  • Moral Internalization - She found that CP decreases internalization of moral rules. This is concerning in that parents are more likely to use corporal punishment when they believe the child is at fault for some misbehavior. Thus, using a method that decreases moral internalization to respond to a failure to adhere to internal rules the child should have known is likely to perpetuate the problem.
 ... this is a general problem with external rewards and punishments: they tend to replace internal motivations. A child punished when, for example, he failed to be polite to his grandmother, may be less likely to want to be nice to his grandmother, and may instead only do so out of fear of punishment.

The other  downsides may be due to the problems the authors mention - studies not sufficiently distinguishing between spanking and abuse (partly due to abusive parents reporting it as "normal" discipline), the difficulty of distinguishing cause and effect, etc. Still, spanking itself may still have some negative effects.

Finally, there's a review of an article on Parenting Types, which classifies parents as low or high on control, and low or high on warmth, and summarizes how children of those parents tend to defer. The best results seem to be for "Authoritative" parents (high control, high warmth). The profile of the children of authoritarian parents (high control, low warmth) fits what I wrote above about internalization of moral values:
Their children have a multitude of problems, and are less individuated and show lower internalization of pro-social values, ego development, and perform more poorly on cognitive tests and see their parents as more restrictive.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

More on The Nurture Assumption

So, I've been looking at a bit more on The Nurture Assumption - I found a review by Steve Sailer:
In contrast, her third assertion -- parents don't matter -- is plausible only within her narrow, arbitrary boundaries. To fully explain human behavior, everything matters. Anything conceivable (whether genes, peers, parents, cousins, teachers, TV, incest abuse, martial arts, breastfeeding, prenatal environment, etc.) influences something (whether personality, IQ, sexual orientation, culture, morals, job skills, etc.) in somebody
More interestingly, a review by a psychologist:
Ms. Harris notes that her largest problem with her book since its publication is that of people quoting her ideas and statements out of context, and making judgments of the book without having read it.
*Cough*, who, me?

He also has a more detailed criticism of the book, arguing that she overstates her case.

Let's be more specific. Ms. Harris says that smart parents read to their children, and their children grow up smart. Thus, some conclude, reading to your children makes them smart. She offers instead that smart people have smart genes which they pass to their children, and that's what makes them smart; the reading is irrelevant. But take this further. Parents who are great swimmers may pass on genes for great swimming to their children. But, if they never take their child to a pool, lake, or ocean, the child is unlikely to learn to swim and will never be a great swimmer regardless of her genes.
I think Ms. Harris is correct in pointing out that even with great genes, your daughter may learn to swim, but may never be a great swimmer unless her friends value swimming or at least don't devalue her for her swimming. Likewise, if you want her to swim, sending your daughter to a school with a swim team, and making sure she has the opportunity to associate with other children who value perseverance, athletics, internal motivation, and swimming are more likely to be effective than pressuring and ordering her to swim.
(emphasis mine)

The main thing to take away from the book would probably be that peers matter more than parents would expect. And, maybe we shouldn't fret too much about how the way we raise our kids.

Anyway - that PsychPage website looks like it has quite a few interesting posts - I'll look at the rest later.

Nature and Nurture

So, there seems to be quite a lot of disagreement on how to raise children. But what if it hardly makes a difference?
Identical twins, whether raised together or apart, turn out to be very similar, but one still finds differences in IQ and personality. The cause of those differences must be the different environments experienced by the twins, but can't be characterized by simple variables of the sort listed above: it is not the case that the twin raised by the higher SES family has, on average, the higher IQ! In fact, twins raised in the same family are about as similar as those raised apart, so family shared environment does not produce a measurable influence. See below for a plausible model that accounts for such outcomes.

By now these results are well understood and accepted by experts, but not by the general population or even policy makers. (See the work of Judith Rich Harris for popular exposition). The naive and still widely held expectation is that, e.g., high SES causes a good learning environment, leading to positive outcomes for children raised in such environments. However, the data suggests that what is really being passed on to the children is the genes of the parent, which are mainly responsible for, e.g., above average IQ outcomes in high SES homes (surprise! high SES parents actually have better genes, on average). Little or no positive effect can be traced to the SES variable for adopted children.

The implications are quite shocking, especially for two groups: high investment parents (because the ability of parents to influence their child's development appears limited) and egalitarians (because the importance of genes and the difficulty in controlling environmental effects seems to support the Social Darwinist position widely held in the previous century).
Steve Hsu's explanation involves learning styles, despite the fact that those don't seem highly regarded in the psychology community. One more contradiction, I guess.

See here for a bit more on nature, nurture and randomness - calling it "randomness" makes more sense to me then "non-shared environment".

So, does that mean that whatever the parenting style, the effect is negligible? On intelligence and personality at least, maybe parents can have very little influence on the nurture bit. That is surprising.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Is the Western Way the best?

So, on one hand we have educators like Alfie Kohn telling us that discipline is the problem, not the solution.

On the other hand, Miss Snuffleupagus tells us this:

What I find interesting is that over the years, I have noticed that the number one thing to help black children get on the straight and narrow is to 'send them back to Africa'. The same happens if the parent chooses to 'send them back to the Caribbean' of course. As long as you catch them young enough. Do it before the age of 14, and a miracle is in store for you.
The most unruly, most deranged black boys, who know nothing of discipline and respect get shipped off to Ghana and within weeks, they are transformed. Suddenly they respect their teachers, do their homework, speak politely and obey every command.
... and this:
Are we, the teachers, the ones who are failing our children? Or rather, is it not a culture of pandering to the desires of 12 year olds that means that we fail them? The children in that school in China are superior to my children in every possible way: morally, academically, spiritually. And why? Because of their teachers' and their society's expectations, and the sheer national horror at the thought of ever lowering them. 
These are quite different messages. More generally, it seems that in western countries, schools and parents are producing children that are less disciplined, less hard-working and less respectful than kids in China or Nigeria (I also get this impression from personal experience). And this despite the fact that in the West, we throw much more money and brains in the direction of improving our children.

So, why do we get worse results at a higher cost? Some possible explanations
  1. Kids in China are naturally more obedient than western kids (That doesn't fit much with Miss Snuffleupagus' observation on sending kids back to Africa - nurture does seem to be playing a significant role here)
  2. Western-style education is fundamentally wrong, we've been misleaded by what's fashionable and politically correct
  3. Alfie Kohn's views are a minority - our schools would work better if they listened to his advice (for example, he agrees with Chinese parents that complimenting a kid every time he ties his goddam shoelaces is a bad idea)
  4. Western schools have the right theories, but can't implement them due to other problems - risk of lawsuits from parents, policies imposed from up high like No Child Left Behind, etc.
  5. Western-Style education is better at fostering creativity, initiative, and other skills that are more useful in a modern economy than blind obedience.
  6. Western kids are not particularly better behaved or lazier than Chinese kids, I just got a distorted impression from biased sources.
  7. Discipline isn't what the kids need - the educational system in China might be better at creating obedient and respectful eight-year-olds, but the same system is also more likely to create eighteen-year-olds that spend their time in internet cafes.
I don't know which of these explanations is the best, and am probably missing quite a few factors. Still I hope it gives a good idea for why I have quite a few reservation about "expert" advice in the West, even when that advice is backed by scientific research and doesn't seem to be under heavy academic criticism.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Alfie Kohn on rewards, praise and motivation

Alfie Kohn seems to take the somewhat exptreme point that rewards are bad, period. It's not because it's extreme that it wrong; however I'd like to have a more detailed understanding of why, in which cases, what negative consequences to expect, in what cases, etc.

In Five Reasons to Stop Saying "Good Job!"; some possible downsides of praise:It can replace the intrinsic motivation of doing something (e.g. helping someone by compassion, drawing 'cause it's fun). This is different from some advice that I've heard before that it's better to praise kids for their hard work  and persistence than for their innate talent. He does suggest alternatives to praise:
* Say what you saw. A simple, evaluation-free statement ("You put your shoes on by yourself" or even just "You did it") tells your child that you noticed. It also lets her take pride in what she did. In other cases, a more elaborate description may make sense. If your child draws a picture, you might provide feedback – not judgment – about what you noticed: "This mountain is huge!" "Boy, you sure used a lot of purple today!"
If a child does something caring or generous, you might gently draw his attention to the effect of his action on the other person: "Look at Abigail’s face! She seems pretty happy now that you gave her some of your snack." This is completely different from praise, where the emphasis is on how you feel about her sharing
* Talk less, ask more. Even better than descriptions are questions. Why tell him what part of his drawing impressed you when you can ask him what he likes best about it? Asking "What was the hardest part to draw?" or "How did you figure out how to make the feet the right size?" is likely to nourish his interest in drawing. Saying "Good job!", as we’ve seen, may have exactly the opposite effect.
Looks like reasonable good and actionable advice! However, I wish there was more on how much this depends of the child's age group.

The Risks of Rewards has similar ideas but is more technical. I liked this bit:
In one representative study, young children were introduced to an unfamiliar beverage called kefir. Some were just asked to drink it; others were praised lavishly for doing so; a third group was promised treats if they drank enough. Those children who received either verbal or tangible rewards consumed more of the beverage than other children, as one might predict. But a week later these children found it significantly less appealing than they did before, whereas children who were offered no rewards liked it just as much as, if not more than, they had earlier (Birch et al., 1984). If we substitute reading or doing math or acting generously for drinking kefir, we begin to glimpse the destructive power of rewards. The data suggest that the more we want children to want to do something, the more counterproductive it will be to reward them for doing it.
At least ten studies have shown that people offered a reward generally choose the easiest possible task (Kohn, 1993). In the absence of rewards, by contrast, children are inclined to pick tasks that are just beyond their current level of ability.
... seems rewards for drawing is bad, but rewards for taking the garbage down may not be that bad (Oh no! It might destroy the intrensic pleasure of taking the garbage down! though yeah on the other side helping around the house could be "it's own reward").
In here, a critic says:
In his book, Punished by Rewards, Kohn claims “Praise, at least as commonly practiced, is a way of using and perpetuating children’s dependence on us.  It gets them to conform to our wishes irrespective of what those wishes are.” (p. 104.) Kohn also argues that praise and rewards for good behavior are destructive to motivation. The truth is actually somewhat more complicated. Rewards can reduce motivation, but only when motivation was somewhat high to start with. If the student is unmotivated to perform some task, rewarding him will not hurt his motivation. Praise can be controlling and exact a psychological cost, but its effect on the recipient depends on how it’s construed: does the child think you are offering sincere appreciation for a job well done, or sending the message that future behavior had better be in line with expectations? There is important psychological work showing that the role of praise and reward is complex. Carol Dweck is a leader in this field and her book, Mindset, provides a good overview.
 Whether or not this criticism is fair, Carol Deck looks worth reading! Anyway, Alfie Kohn answers:
2. PRAISE: Mr. Willingham [...] offers two specific assertions. First, “rewards can reduce motivation, but only when motivation was somewhat high to start with.” If motivation is sufficiently low, then, yes, there isn’t much room for it to fall. But (a) motivation is often low precisely because of the damage done by rewards administered earlier; (b) rewards are likely to prevent the recovery of intrinsic motivation regardless of the reason it’s currently in short supply; and (c) rewards may be disadvantageous in other ways. In a four-page response to the question “If we’re worried about reducing intrinsic motivation, then what’s the problem with giving people rewards for doing things they don’t find interesting?” (PBR, pp. 87-90), I offered a variety of other responses, both theoretical and practical, that challenge Mr. Willingham’s unqualified pronouncement. (Among the studies cited in that section is one by Danner and Lonky that found “extrinsic rewards were no more effective in increasing the motivation of children whose initial level of interest was low than were simple requests to work on the tasks.”)
Second, we’re told that the effect of praise will depend on how it’s construed. Well, yes and no. Verbal rewards are often difficult to construe in a way that isn’t controlling, or that don’t serve to devalue the activity in question, or that don’t communicate conditional acceptance of the child. Nevertheless, I think there is some truth to this statement and I have said so in print. In fact, my concern about behaviorism in its various guises is partly based on the tendency to slight people’s attitudes, goals, perspectives, and constructions, focusing instead just on observable actions and results: doing homework, taking (or doing well on) tests, giving or receiving rewards, and so on. I think any fair-minded reader would concede that what I do in Punished – and what I try to do in most of my writings – is say, “Things are not as simple as they’re generally made out to be.” The irony of accusing me of oversimplifying may offer a frisson of satisfaction to someone who doesn’t care for my views, but I’ve yet to see evidence that there’s any truth to the charge.
 ... which seems to cover most criticism.

I liked this guy's take: Alfie Kohn has nice ideas in theory, but they may not always work in practice. This makes a lot of sense to me:
Kohn was the daddy I wanted when I was 13. The permissive daddy who never shouted and never spanked. Who would coo and coddle me even when I failed my tests. My Baba is the daddy I am happy I got at 21. Unlike a Kohn Daddy, my Baba set down rules and helped me understand that rationality and morality were subjective. They rely heavily on a person’s cultural sensibilities and understanding of the world. And the world is often very Kafka-esque, possessed of a hermetic logic.
... that points out what seems to be a weak point on Kohn's arguments: while the reasoning about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation seems well supported by experience (and makes a lot of sense), the arguments about why his recommended way of raising children produces "better" adults (more psychologically balanced / happy / open-minded etc.) is much more theoretic.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Alfie Kohn, Constructivism ...

I guess Alfie Kohn is someone I should read up on too - he has some interesting ideas, which I should probably try to understand beyond the sound-byte level. The criticism section on the WikEd is a bit better furnished than on Wikipedia - apparently some blame him for damaging the US school system.

Ah, this article provides some criticism, with some pointers to research. Alfie Kohn put up a rebuttal that seems to address the points pretty well. The existence of criticism doesn't say that much, I'd expect some for any successful writer, especially in a somewhat politicized field like education. I also found this by J. Martin Rochester, unfortunately most is behind a paywall.

I also stumbled upon this criticism of constructivism, and some notes and criticism on the paper. Judging constructivism as a whole may be a bit too much for me though. I'll probably need at least a rough understanding of what the competing points of view in education are, I'm still far from that ...

I found this interview interesting, but it seems that the split between constructivists and traditionalists has a bit too much to do with US politics (or at least, the politics of education). Trying to figure out who's right and who's wrong probably isn't the best use of my time, I should focus on specific issues instead. Knowing about the big picture can still be useful, but mostly for putting more context around ideas.

Topics to explore

Some topics I want to explore on this blog:
  • Rewards
  • Discipline and spanking
  • Money management
  • Teaching languages to little kids
  • Homeschooling
  • Psychology
  • Ideas for cool activities
  • ...
... and how to find accurate information in those domains.

I don't really plan to say much about "my take on parenting" beyond just summarizing the info I find.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Yet Another Reddit Link

Ask Reddit: What are some amazing experiences/skills that you can give to young child that will positively influence them later in life.

Interesting answers:

The Montessori Method

I've been hearing (and reading) good things about the Montessori Method (apparently I've even been to a Montessori School myself !). There aren't any Montessori Schools nearby, but some of the practical tips might be useful at home.

So, one more thing I need to read up on.

Learning styles

So, learning styles don't exist, eh? Or at least, there are some serious questions about how well-grounded they are in evidence. One more thing I didn't know.

Here's also subtextual weighting in on learning styles:

But, there are a lot of barriers to making these changes that would need to be overcome in order to better match brains and the school system. Beyond just general inertia and the funding issue, there are other issues, including (1) that scientists aren't that good at communicating what they know about the brain to the layperson, (2) disciplines are not that great at talking to each other; for example, neuroscientists rarely sit down with educators and really 'hash out' how you'd actually translate brain research into practical classroom applications, and (3) this has created a vacuum into which well-meaning but misguided people have rushed, offering up a surfeit of non-scientific but lovely-sounding ideas about 'multiple intelligences' and 'sensory integration' and 'learning styles', all of which now have passionate proponents who want their (sometimes conflicting and sometimes nonsensical) ideas incorporated into classrooms.

... Wikipedia also has a fair amount of criticism.

This is a good example of why I want to get a better understanding of things here - it's not enough to know that "some researchers found X", because regularly someone else claims "some scientists found non-X". Why is there a disagreement? Sometimes an X was disproved a long time ago, but not everybody was notified. Sometimes X was only claimed by a crank with no academic credibility, but good marketing skills. Sometimes the researcher originally claimed Y, but the reported didn't understand and "rounded to the nearest cliche", X in this case. Sometimes X is true in some cases, but whoever repeated the story forgot the caveats. Sometimes X was highly fashionable and the idea caught on. Sometimes X is just an old wife's tale that someone once decided to spice up by claiming it had scientific support. Sometimes X and non-X got claimed by competing political factions, and more people care about being loyal to their side than about the actual truth of X. Sometimes X is perfectly true.

Of course, I'm not after knowledge for the sake of knowledge here. Some wrong theories may still be useful; for example even though a kid may nothave a specific Visual, Auditory or Kinesthetic learning style, teaching him something in different ways might help.

Subtextual on reddit

Part of what motivated me to start this blog is reading comments by a pediatric neuropsychologist with advice on how to raise kids:

[W]hat are some of the most important things a parent, or any adult, can do to ensure a childs brain heath?

Someone asked me a similar question a while back, and I threw together this list, which I'll recreate here:
• Find a smart mate, and keep her (or yourself) healthy during the pregnacy. Folate and vitamin D.
• Teach your child through movement, especially when she's younger. Moving and exploring is how her brain was designed to learn.
• Focus on teaching him how to think, not what to think. Focus on information processing skills or executive functions like planning, organization, self-monitoring, self-motivation, initiation. "Learning to learn" is important. There are starting to be some great books on executive functions and how to foster them - I like Smart but Scattered by Dawson and Guare.
• Invite her to solve her own problems. Give her the tools and information she needs, and be a resource, but don't solve her problems for her. This is easier to say than to do. The How to Talk so Kids Will Learn and similar titles by Mazlish and Faber are great for this.
• Foster creativity. Follow where he leads you, and show him how to follow his own creativity. Do experiments at home! Find out how stuff works if he wants to know!
• Emotional intelligence is probably more important than regular old IQ. If her "emotional IQ" is an area of weakness, teach her early on how to use her cognitive skills to compensate for her less "natural" social skills.
• Preschool ages - focus on learning to learn; Elementary School - focus on figuring out how she learns best and how to keep her motivated and engaged and curious; Middle school years - focus on organization and planning; High school years - focus on character, citizenship, and critical thinking.
• Exercise, nutrition, and sleep. Routines and structure.
• Be a good role model. Learn, and show him how you are learning.
Looking that list over, I am still pretty happy with it. With a particular emphasis on brain health, I would add: make her wear a helmet when riding her bike and a seatbelt when riding in the car. And, if your child gets a concussion, wait until they are not showing any symptoms of the concussion (e.g., headache, irritability, fatigue, nausea/vomiting, memory problems) until you have them get back into their usual activities.

I'm looking for more reliable of this type - practical advice backed by deep theories, or at least, backed by science and experience more than by fashion and word of mouth.

New blog!

I just started this to take notes as I read up on how to raise a kid - there's a lot of material online, and I may as well make my notes public :)

Who am I? Just some soon-to-be-father geek doing his homework.