Monday, April 27, 2009

Inside the Preschool Mind

Perhaps the alternate title for this post should be something like: why your preschooler doesn’t take a coat when it’s cold outside. Although I don’t have children yet, I’ve been around enough of them to know that they often do not follow the directions or precautions you give them, no matter how many times you repeat yourself. So why is that? Are they just choosing to ignore you? Or is there something different about the functioning of their brain that makes it difficult for them to plan ahead? New research shows that it probably has a lot more to do with the latter.


In the past, many researchers thought that the functioning of young children’s brains were much like little adults: they could reason and plan ahead but just not as effectively as adults. New research is showing that this may not be the case. Instead, young children’s brains actually function quite differently, especially in regards to skills like planning ahead. University of Colorado researchers conducted a creative study to understand how young children (3-year-olds) follow directions compared to older children (8-year-olds). They set up a simple computer game involving a set of rules. When a picture of the character Blue (from Blue’s Clues) was followed by a picture of a watermelon, the child was told to press the happy face button. When any other character appeared (e.g., SpongeBob Squarepants) they were told to press the sad face button. The researchers then used a device to measure the children’s eye activity to determine how much mental effort they were using to complete the task. What they found was that the older children had to exert very little mental effort to do this task because they could anticipate which picture was coming up next. Preschoolers, however, had to use more effort to think about which button to push in response to the game. They had to consciously think back to the character they had just seen, instead of being able to anticipate the future.

So what does this mean for parents of preschoolers? As the researchers point out, this study seems to indicate that parents shouldn’t expect their preschooler to think ahead, for example, and bring their coat when going outside, even if you told them in advance. Just repeating this type of information over and over probably won’t help. While your preschooler is probably listening to you, their brain doesn’t really retrieve this information until it becomes immediately needed, like when they step outside and realize it’s cold. The researchers put it this way,


"The good news is what we're saying to our kids doesn't go in one ear and out the other, like people might have thought," said CU-Boulder psychology Professor Yuko Munakata. "It also doesn't go in and then get put into action like it does with adults. But rather it goes in and gets stored away for later."


Of course, children’s brains do eventually mature to the point that they can plan ahead and anticipate future events. Even the 8-year-olds in the study already had a much easier time completing the task than the preschoolers. In the meantime, this study is a good reminder that young children are not just like adults in smaller bodies. 

More info about this article

See the author discuss the study

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Understanding Scientific Research: The Post I Wish I Had Written

I recently ran across a post on The Mother's Handbook that I thought was so clever that I couldn't resist sharing it here. So many times I've heard "scientific" studies reported in the media in such a way that science (child development or otherwise) seem so simple and clear cut. In reality, if you were to read the actual study you'd realize how less than clear cut it actually is. One study does not prove that A causes B, yet the media would have you think that. If you've ever wondered about some of the science you hear about in the news, I highly recommend reading this post. It definitely gives me even more motivation to look at reports with a critical eye. And by the way, the author is a physician so she actually knows what she's talking about.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Does Having Children Make You Happier?

This may seem like a controversial question to some people. Of course, you love your children and cannot imagine your life without them. But consider for a moment, do you feel happier with children compared to when you were childless? This is the question raised by a recent article in the Journal of the British Psychological Association. Author Nattavudh Powdthavee reviews much of the psychological research examining the relationship between parenthood and happiness. He finds that much of the data from Europe and America show that parents, on average, have lower rates of life satisfaction, happiness, marital satisfaction, and mental well-being as compared to non-parents. I, like many people, was surprised by this finding. Isn’t having children supposed to be one of the greatest joys in life? If so, why do these findings not match up with the conventional wisdom?


First, remember that this is an academic study so several psychological theories are thrown around throughout the article. I’m going to consider just one, that I think actually helps us look at this finding in a new way. It’s called the focusing illusion. The basic idea is this: when imaging what an experience will be like (whether it be parenting or having a different job) we tend to focus more on the positive rather than the negative aspects of the experience. I would call this the “grass is always greener on the other side” illusion. The result of this, according to researchers, is that you often feel happiest when you first find out about the new experience (e.g., becoming a parent or getting a new job), but when the reality of the experience sets in, you may experience a drop in happiness. To me, this means it’s all about expectations. There’s actually some research to back this up. Psychologists studying the relationship between individuals’ life satisfaction and major life changes have found that people often experience an increase in satisfaction in the year prior to the birth of a child, but this often drops within a year of the birth. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean they end up less happy than they were when they were childless, it just means that they experience a decline in happiness once the reality of parenthood sets in.


The idea of the “focusing illusion” may also help explain why parents did not rate their happiness as high as we might expect when asked in surveys. According to psychologists, the focusing illusion implies that we often focus much of our attention on everyday, mundane experiences (like changing diapers or picking kids up from school) because they are more frequent than the meaningful, but less common, life-changing experiences like seeing your child born. So what this means is that yes, the birth of a child can bring a burst of great happiness, but this extreme level of happiness cannot be sustained for the long-term. After awhile we return our attention to the everyday routine of life. Therefore, when parents responded to surveys about their happiness they were most likely not thinking about the moment their child was born, but something more mundane like, whose turn is it to drive carpool.


So that’s the psychological explanation, but what about a more personal one. When you had children did you think they would make you happier? Although I’m not a parent quite yet (though soon to be), when I think about why my husband and I decided to have a child, I don’t think “to make us happy” was very high on the list. Of course, I hope to be happy being a parent and not miserable, but I don’t expect our child to instantly bring me more happiness. Like religious and spiritual gurus all around the world have said, I don’t think you can rely on something outside yourself to completely determine your happiness, even if it is your child. Happiness is more about perspective than objective events. People decide to become parents for a variety of reasons, but I think for many of us it has more to do with finding meaning in life (through the good and not-so-good experiences), rather than simply blind happiness.


What do you think? I’d love to hear your comments!

For more interesting information about the focusing illusion and other psychological thoughts, check out this great book by Daniel Gilbert: Stumbling on Happiness and his associated blog.

More commentary from Motherlode

Source article: Pawdthavee, N. (2009). Think having children will make you happy? Journal of the British Psychological Association, 22: 4, 308-310.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Difficult Temperament ≠ A Child Destined for Problems: Good Parenting is Key

I’ve been talking a lot about temperament lately, so when I found this interesting article about the interaction between parenting and temperament I decided I had to do one more post on the subject.

So here’s the lowdown on the study. Researchers from Indiana University wanted to look at how babies with different temperaments (e.g., difficult, easy) ended up doing socially and academically by the time they reached first grade and what, if any, role parenting played in this process. Previously, some people had thought that a baby with a difficult temperament would have more difficulty adjusting to school later in life. These researchers studied 1,364 children from birth to first grade, along with their parents. The children were given a temperamental classification (e.g., difficult, easy) at 6 months of age. Mothers’ parenting style was observed several times over the course of the study with areas such as warmth and age-appropriate control being examined. Lastly, children’s adjustment to first grade was considered in areas such as academic competence and social skills.


The findings were very enlightening: children who were labeled as having a difficult temperament as infants had as good as or better grades and social skills in first grade as children not labeled as difficult IF their mothers provided good parenting. In other words, parenting matters! This is probably not a huge surprise to many people, but it’s interesting to see the research to back it up. Not surprisingly, children with difficult temperaments who received less-than-optimal parenting fared worse in first grade than other children.


Perhaps the most interesting part of the study is the fact that researchers believe that children with difficult temperaments are more sensitive to both positive and negative parenting. That is, they were more likely (than children with non-difficult temperaments) to adjust poorly to first grade if they experienced negative parenting, but they were also more likely to perform well in first grade if they received excellent parenting. Although this is just one study, it makes a lot of sense. Children with difficult temperaments are thought to be extra sensitive to the external environment and find it harder to regulate themselves. While this can be challenging for parenting at times, it may also mean that these children are also more sensitive to parents’ interventions and attempts to help them learn to regulate their emotions.


I think this study sends an optimistic message to parents. What you do really matters! As if you didn’t know that already. If your child has a difficult temperament, approaching him/her with sensitivity and warmth can make a huge difference.


Source: Stright, A. D., Gallagher, K. C., & Kelley, K. (2008). Infant temperament moderates relations between maternal parenting in early childhood and children’s adjustment in first grade. Child Development, 79, 186-200.


The press release for this article is here.

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Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Carnival of Play

The blog PhD in Parenting is hosting a Carnival of Play April 1-15. This is a great way for bloggers who share an interest in child development/parenting to write about the role of play in children's lives, share some ideas, and have fun. I wrote a post awhile back about play so I submitted it to the carnival. Here's the link if you missed it. 

Check out all the other great posts and commentary on PhD in Parenting.

Monday, April 6, 2009

My First Blog Award!

Thanks to Amber at Because Babies Grow Up for nominating me for my first blog award! Check out her blog for creative ideas for playing with your toddler in ways that stimulate their cognitive, social, and emotional development.
Here are the rules for the blog award:

1. Add the logo of the award to your blog

2. Add a link to the person who awarded it to you

3. Nominate at least 7 other blogs

4. Add links to those blogs on your blog

5. Leave a message for your nominees on their blogs

I would like to nominate:

This is not only a fun award but a great way to learn about some other interesting blogs, so check out all these!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Parenting on Your iPod

Much like the rest of America (or should I say world) and I love my iPod. During the last few months I have really been enjoying listening to podcasts about all things pregnancy, parenting, and child development-related. I thought I'd highlight a few of my favorites in case you may not have found them yet. I'm listing the websites here, but these are all available through iTunes.
The Parents' Journal: This is a very high quality series that is broadcast on some NPR stations. It's not broadcast on my local NPR station so I'm glad it's available for download. The host features several guests each week, most of whom are pediatricians, child development experts, or professors. Great information that goes into a enough depth to be useful.

Tumblon: This is one of my new favorite parenting websites and they've recently added podcasts to their offerings. Their offer very thoughtful discussions about a wide range of topics like literacy, child development, early childhood education, and developmentally-appropriate toys.

PregTASTIC Pregnancy Podcast: This is a great resource for moms-to-be. Each week a group of pregnant women discuss pregnancy-related topics with an expert guest. The guests are high caliber, too, including well-known authors, pediatricians, and ob-gyns.

Babies and Moms: Birth and Beyond: This podcast features of a group of moms discussing a wide variety of parenting topics. It's nice to hear the perspective of other parents in a thoughtful way. They also feature great guests who are experts in their field.

Enjoy listening!

(photo credit: