Concerted cultivation

This is one of the first posts I’ll make about concerted cultivation, a form of parenting in which parents place an emphasis on organized activities in their kids’ lives  In addition, parents practicing concerted cultivation encourage their children to think critically and to assert themselves around adults. This is a parenting style associated with middle- and upper-class families.

In contrast, lower-class families often encourage their children in the accomplishment of natural growth, in which children have more unstructured time.  This results in children creating their own games, for example. 

One of the main benefits of concerted cultivation is that children learn to perform better in structured environments such as school. In addition, they become more comfortable with interacting with adults (whom they consider their equals).  These together help children stand out in many settings — school, for example — because the children appear more intelligent.

I first learned about concerted cultivation while reading the excellent book Outliers by Malcom Gladwell.  The Wikipedia article about concerted cultivation is also a great source of information on the issue.

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New research out of MIT demonstrates that 1-year-olds are capable of complex reasoning.  This work, by the team of Josh Tenenbaum, a cognitive scientist MIT, demonstrates that babies have a complex physical model of the world.

LiveScience reports on the finding:

Babies are sophisticated mini-statisticians, a new study finds, capable of making judgments about the probability of an event they’ve never seen before.

Using a computer model, researchers were able to accurately predict what a baby would know about a particular event if given certain information… The study also demonstrates just how savvy baby brains are, Tenenbaum told LiveScience.

“The deeper thing that this shows is that infants’ knowledge of objects is not a gut feeling,” he said. “They’re actually doing some kind of rational, probabilistic reasoning.”

Years of research have shown that young babies grasp all sorts of information, from the fact that physical objects can’t blink in and out of existence to how social hierarchies work. One 2009 study even found that 6-month-olds can tell the difference between a friendly and an angry dog.


The researchers set up a number of tricky videos for their 1-year-old subjects to watch. In the videos, a set of objects bounced around an enclosure with one exit. A blue barrier would then appear on the screen, covering the enclosure. Next, one of the objects floated out of the enclosure through the exit, appearing onscreen just before the barrier faded away to reveal the objects left behind. [See a video of the experiments]The likelihood of any given object exiting depends on many factors: How many of each type of objects there are, how long the scene was covered up, how the objects are moving and where they were the last time the baby saw them. For example, in a scene in which a circle is hovering near the exit when the barrier covers the enclosure for a split-second, you’d expect the circle to pop out. In a scene where the barrier goes down for two seconds, the location of that circle might not matter as much, because other shapes could have moved closer to the exit in that time. To guess what is going to happen, infants have to pull together all the information.

Turns out, babies have this one in the bag. Their performance on the task matched that of the computer model given the same information. The implication, Tenenbaum said, is that reasoning skills blossom early.

“Even young infants’ brains, before they’re able to walk and talk, they are building coherent, rational models about what is happening out there in the world,” Tenenbaum said, adding, “We actually think that at 12 months, they know more than this model does.”

The article goes into considerable more detail, so check it out.

What you can do.

Most importantly, don’t underestimate your 1-year-old’s awareness of what is going on.  They already have a complex model of how the world works, so challenge them.

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Should you tell your child s/he is gifted?

Earlier I’d posted a few resources for parents of gifted children.  When your child is about to be enrolled in a “gifted” / “accelerated” / “honors” / “academically talented” program, should you tell your child s/he is gifted?  The Chicago Tribune had an article today about this subject.  They interviewed Liz Perelstein, founder and president of School Choice International:

“I don’t see any need for labeling them,” she says. “Let them know all kids have strengths and weaknesses… This is an opportunity for them to stretch their minds and be with other kids who have the same interests — the school’s way of catering to their needs and curiosity, just like schools do for athletes or musicians.”

Perelstein continues, noting that “gifted” may be too strong a term to use for many kids.

“There’s gifted and there’s gifted,” says Liz… Children who score well on a standardized test, therefore gaining entry into an accelerated program at school, are no doubt bright, Perelstein says. But they are not, most likely, gifted…
Truly gifted children… “tend to feel different from their peers,” she says. “They don’t have the same interests, they have little to talk about with their peers, they often have difficulty in social relationships. I think it’s a good thing for parents to tell kids like that the reason they feel different is because they’re gifted, not because something is wrong with them…”

“Gifted children ask questions, where smart children are often more focused on answering questions. Gifted children have an insatiable quest for knowledge. They have passions for things really early and want to know everything about them. Sometimes parents don’t recognize the signs of giftedness, but they do emerge quite early.”

What you can do.

Perelstein suggested a few things you can do for your kid (she focuses on the truly “gifted” case)

1. Give your smart child books about Einstein and other famous intellectuals.  This would help the child understand how s/he is different while providing role models for your child, to alleviate the confusion of peer pressure.

2. If you do tell your child s/he is gifted, make sure the child knows all kids have strengths and weaknesses, and some of them are different from academic strengths.

3. Realize that this could be an opportunity to help your child understand why s/he is different from other students, and look at the conversation as easing your child’s pain.   As Perelstein says, “it’s not so much about giving them a label, because what are they going to do with that?” she says. “It’s about easing their pain, because kids measure themselves so much against their peers. School is often very hard for them because they have nothing to talk to other kids about and teachers often treat them like they’re annoying.”

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Breastfeeding *linked* to fewer behavioral problems

A recent study has found that breastfeeding is linked to fewer behavioral problems in children.  I stress linked because there’s no causative finding.

The findings suggest that, at least in term children, longer duration of breast feeding is associated with fewer parent-rated behavioural problems in children aged 5 years.

Among term children, for example, those who were breast-fed for at least four months had a 29% chance of having an abnormal “behavior score”, compared with 35% for those who had not been breast fed for that long.  From the abstract, the study appears to have been observational, since it was based on interviews and questionnaires.  Therefore any causative relationship (whether or not it exists) is not established by the study, since there could be many cofounders, such as religion or income.

What you can do.

Because there were no causative findings, probably the best thing you can do is find people who breastfeed and emulate their lives as closely as possible (I say this slightly tongue-in-cheek).  Short of that, it’s hard to recommend much else.

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Goat brains may be okay, after all, as food for kids

Informante had an article today about a singular brain food for kids in Namibia.  So if you’re a kid wanting to eat goat brains, it sounds like it might be okay after all!

A myth given to Oshiwambo-speaking children is that “goats’ brains cannot be devoured by youngsters for fear they will become stupid resonates”.  On the contrary, parents tell this to their children because they’re simply not willing to share the delicious fare:

It is once those very children are grown enough to eat the brain of a goat that they realise that the popular phrase was not uttered because adults were concerned about raising smart children, but rather that adults selfishly did not want to share their goat head, a well-known delicacy, with anyone.

What you can do.

If you’re a parent, you might want to find a better hiding spot for your goat brains.  From a paranoid perspective, I’d also be wary of mad cow disease, which has been found in goats.  If you’re a kid, you should take your parents’ advice on goat brains with a grain of salt, unless they bring up mad-cow disease.

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Teaching finance to your youngsters

A few weeks ago, the New York Times had an article about teaching your kids basic financial knowledge.

The article discusses various efforts, especially in light of the financial crisis, to teach young kids about financial knowledge.  It also references a few resources, including a book called Pretty Penny and Sesame Street episodes.  In Pretty Penny, a preschooler must decide how to price items for a shop she sets up.  In Sesame Street, Elmo aims to save money while giving up things he likes, like ice cream.  In From the article:

There is no definitive proof that any of this will make a lasting impact… But the beauty of watching young children absorb these lessons and answering their questions is that it can make you more aware of the financial examples you set. Every shopping trip and holiday gift can become a teaching moment about hard choices, patience and generosity.

The article also mentions the importance of deferred gratification, including a reference to the Marshmallow Tests, on which I had posted a few weeks ago.

But only Sesame has Elmo, and millions of children are very likely to try to mimic his behavior. In the video, he’s trying to save $5 to buy a “stupendous” ball from a street vendor. At one point, he turns down ice cream so he doesn’t lose ground on reaching his ultimate goal.

This moment goes by in a flash, but it is a crucial one. It isn’t easy for a child (Elmo is perpetually 3 1/2 years old) to give up something pleasurable in the moment in exchange for something bigger and better later on.

The ideas being taught to kids in these materials boil down to a few basics: Save, Spend, Share, and Earn.

What you can do:

As the article noted, there’s not a definitive proof that this education will make a lasting impact.

Try these exercises.

  1. Set up a lemonade stand, a garage sale, or an ebay sale with your little one, getting help on setting prices and even bargaining.
  2. Set up deferred gratification experiments with your child.  For example, the next time you’re at a bookstore cafe with your kid (you do take your kid to bookstores, right?), point out a cookie.  Say, “that cookie looks tasty, doesn’t it?  Tell you what.  I’ll get you a cookie now, or next week we’ll come back and I’ll buy you two cookies.”  If your child asks for it now, try *really* hard with rational arguments to change his mind.  If he insists on having a cookie now, do it, but remind him next week that he won’t get his two cookies (and don’t buy him any cookies).  But be sure to follow through with your promise if he does defer.

However, it doesn’t hurt to teach kids about some of these simple ideas.  Some of my favorites are: deferred gratification for saving; earning; and sharing.

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Book review: Brain Rules for Baby

Brain Rules for Baby is a recent book by John Medina, the NYT bestselling author of Brain Rules.  The book provides science-backed tips for raising smart babies, and it has received 5/5 stars on  I’ll summarize some of the Amazon reviews, along with a separate, recent review, here.

The book provides the down-to-Earth science of raising smart babies.  While you shouldn’t expect to find any groundbreaking new research in the book, it’s probably good for the vast majority of people who like science but not enough to stay on the cutting edge (besides, the author wanted to present research that has been both peer reviewed and experimentally repeated).  Also — very importantly — it’s engaging.  Its table-of-contents is pretty descriptive, and you can get a summary of some of the main tips here.  At the very end I link to a summary of the book’s main points.

Because 5-star reviews are a no-brainer, I think it’s actually worth considering the least-positive of the Amazon reviews first.  The least-positive of the 33 reviews was the only one with three stars:

Valerie Avella (Tampa, FL) – See all my reviews
There are many books out on the market akin to “Brain Rules for Baby”, and I found this book to be rather pedestrian in its approach. For example, the author pulls many of his teaching points from an Internet site where parents write about their woes. Most of the concepts taught in the book are not new and are found in other books, which I found to be better referenced, written with scientific examples, and generally more interesting. I preferred “Nurtureshock” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, and “What’s Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life” by Lise Eliot.

By the way, those two books mentioned by the review both have 4.5/5 stars on Amazon, and have considerably more reviews than BRfB.  A four star rating of BRfB was this:

Jean Marrapodi “Jean Marrapodi” (Providence, RI United States) – See all my reviews

… I saw John Medina at a conference and was incredibly impressed with him… he wrote a book that helps [parents] be better parents, which will in turn, help their child mature and increase in intelligence. It’s the kind of book that’s great for parents of their first child who want to do things “right”; filled with the warm advice of a grandparent or wise pediatrician. I would have appreciated this 30 years ago when my children were toddlers, and suspect young parents today will too.

And that separate, recent review summarizes the book as well:

I like that he jumps straight into debunking the myths at the start of the book.. [such as] “to boost their brain power, children need French lessons by age three and a room filled with ‘brain-friendly’ toys and a library of educational DVDs”.

…To sum up his book, Medina has a chapter called Practical Tips in which he outlines his recommendations through pregnancy, relationship, smart baby, happy baby and moral baby.

…Is he saying anything new? Not really… However, he does present scientific and research-backed reasons to do what most of us already know we need to do, dished out in easy to understand, practical, usable nuggets.

What you can do:

At the very least, look at this summary of the book’s main points.  Consider this and some of the other books mentioned by the reviewers, and potentially add one or more to your wishlist.

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Looking for BabyIQ blog contributors

We are currently seeking outstanding contributors for this blog. Contributors will be able to contribute as frequently as they’d like, ideally once a week to once a day or more. (While I am interested in writing entries on a regular basis, this is still a very part-time activity for me.)

Ideal candidates will be interested in clinical psychology, childhood development, cognitive development, childhood education, and related fields. PhD students and established researchers are especially encouraged to apply, although anyone with a passion in raising smartypants is also invited to apply.  You will typically contribute on a volunteer (i.e., unpaid) basis.  As such, your posts remain your intellectual property.  Note that I’m not making money off of this, but if we ever decide to advertise, there would of course be revenue-sharing.

Contributing is a great way to help thousands of young families while filling out your curriculum vitae.  If you are interested in contributing, please send your credentials to sean [dot] gerrish [at]

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Stress in the womb and baby IQ

A 2009 study from researchers at Imperial College London shows that mothers under higher levels of stress put their babies at risk for developmental issues, including a lower level of cognitive development, or “baby IQ”, at 18 months.  From the Imperial College London press release of the study:

Visitors to the Exhibition will have the chance to play a game that shows how a mother’s stress can increase the heart rate of her unborn baby… when the mother is stressed, the placenta becomes less protective and the mother’s cortisol may have an effect on the fetus.

The Imperial researchers’ work has shown that maternal stress and anxiety can alter the development of the baby’s brain. This in turn can result in a greater risk of emotional problems such as anxiety or depression, behavioural problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and being considerably slower at learning. Some studies have even suggested that it may increase the likelihood of later violent or criminal behaviour. Their findings have suggested that the effects of stress during pregnancy can last many years, including into adolescence.

Professor Vivette Glover, lead researcher behind the exhibit from the Institute of Reproductive and Developmental Biology at Imperial College London, said: “We all know that if a mother smokes or drinks a lot of alcohol while pregnant it can affect her fetus. Our work has shown that other more subtle factors, such as her emotional state, can also have long -term effects on her child…

The researchers say expectant mothers should relax…

The researchers say that the stress hormone cortisol may be one way in which the fetus is affected by the mother’s anxiety during pregnancy. Usually the placenta protects the unborn baby from the mother’s cortisol, by producing an enzyme that breaks the hormone down. When the mother is very stressed, this enzyme works less well and lets her cortisol through the placenta. By studying the amount of cortisol in the amniotic fluid, the Imperial researchers’ latest study suggests that the higher the level of cortisol in the womb, the lower the toddler’s cognitive development or “baby IQ” at 18 months.

What you can do. As the study authors suggest, expectant mothers should just relax, and fathers should help them do this.

I suspect that a pre-maternity leave — or at least decreasing work-related responsibilities before maternity leave — also may alleviate some of this stress.

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Technology and child creativity in writing

Technology may have a detrimental effect on children’s creativity, according to the Pilot Pen Australia Creativity Report by psychologist Kimberley O’Brien (details are from an article in Xinhua Net).  There are at least two areas worthy of note in the report: confidence in handwritten tasks decreases, and creativity in computer-aided composition is lower.

First, dependence on tools such as grammar and spell-checkers can affect children’s confidence in handwritten tasks:

…the report suggested that students are becoming scared of handwritten tasks as there is no spelling or grammar check tool to pick up their mistakes as they go along.

“Children who develop this kind of dependency on computer software are less likely to write using a pen and paper given that they will feel a vulnerability to failure,” the report said.

But computer composition also has an effect on creativity:

It said using software that immediately tells children to correct errors like spelling and grammar could disrupts their thought patterns and stunts their ideas, and children who hand write are able to produce almost twice as many ideas as those using computer technology to write a creative story.

The report… found handwritten essays were completed significantly faster and contained a higher standard of sentence structure, grammar, punctuation, cohesion, ideas development and organization than those completed using keyboards.

A further study found students in Years two, four and six produced up to twice as many ideas writing on pen and paper as those on computers.

O’Brien suggested that the results might be due to writers feeling pressured to edit as they go.

What you can do

O’Brien notes that children are most likely to develop handwriting skills between the ages of 8 and 10.  One of the best things you can do is simply to ensure children meet community standards for legible handwriting.  (O’Brien does not suggest that computers should be removed entirely from a curriculum, although it’s evident that the ability to write without computer assistance is also helpful).

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