Category Archives: Infants

He Said, She Said

Parents seem to talk constantly.  Yesterday, I was in a relatively full elevator in very tall building with a mom and her approximately 15-month-old daughter.  The mom talked to the daughter the entire trip up the elevator.

Mom: “Is the door closing?”

Daughter: “Yeah.”

Mom: “That lady has a pretty hat, doesn’t she”

Daughter: “Yeah. Hat.”

Mom: “Do you want a hat like that?”

Daughter: “Yeah.”

Mom: “The elevator is going up, up, up.”

Daughter: “Yeah. Up.”

Mom: “The door is opening”

Daughter: “Yeah.”

Mom: “Time to get out”

Daughter: “Yeah.  Out.”

Many parents begin talking to their children before they are even born and they just keep right on talking… forever! And while many teenagers think that their parents talk entirely too much, all of this talking is actually very good for development.

According to Lev Vygotsky- a psychologist from the early 1900’s- social interaction and scaffolding are particularly important for children’s cognitive development.  Vygotsky is probably best known for two terms “zone of proximal development” and “scaffolding”.    According to Vygotsky, the “zone of proximal development” is a period in which a child can almost but not completely perform a task independently. But with the help of someone more advanced or knowledgable, like a parent, the child can complete the task.  For example, the little girl on the elevator was just learning to speak.  She clearly had a few words and she was beginning to engage in conversation with her mom.  Her mother was clearly working within her child’s zone of proximal development by asking her questions using words that the child knew and some words that the child could say or repeat, like “hat”, “up” and “out”.  The little girls’ mother was scaffolding her daughters language learning.  Like the scaffolding that is used to help workers to reach higher up when they build a building, this mother was supporting the child’s learning by prompting her with questions that had answers that she knew the child had the words to answer but that were slightly challenging and helped her daughter grow and continue to practice and develop her language.

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“Oh, like Baby Einstein?”

I seem to be travelling a lot these days and whenever I travel I end up meeting people.  Just the other day when I was “travelling” home from work (also known as commuting) a guy was waiting for the train and asked me if I was a graduate student.  I explained that  I finished graduate school and our conversation continued, as it frequently does, with me explaining that I wrote my dissertation on how toddlers learn from media.  “Oh, like Baby Einstein?” the man on the train platform asked.  Yes, like how kids learn from Baby Einstein (but I really looked at how toddlers learn from Elmo).  It’s funny, a version of this conversation has happened with almost every person I have sat next to over the past 5 years.  I’ve been on planes home from Singapore, buses to New York City, ferries to Cape Cod, and even on a motorcycle in Cambodia.  It seems that no matter where I am, when I tell people what I study almost everyone can relate and almost everyone has a question or an anecdote about their kid watching TV or their friend’s kid who doesn’t.  And just about every single person asks a variation of the same question.  “Well, what about ‘baby videos’?  Should I be showing them to my kid?”

This question, and answering it every time, played an active role in my starting this website.  Originally I was thinking of calling this website, “ThingsI’mAskedOnAPlane.com”  And to be honest, I’m sure a lot of what will drive this blog will be based on the great questions that parents, nannies, teachers, researchers, uncles, and grandpas have asked in the past.

So What about baby videos? Well, like almost everything in our lives that we want a “yes/no” answer to, the answer to the question is, “we still are not exactly sure”.  But the good news is we are getting there.  And the short answer is baby videos and media products for babies are probably a lot like cookies – you don’t want to only feed your kids cookies, but a cookie every once in a while is not going to kill them either.

So what do we know?

First, we do know that for preschool-aged children quality educational television, like Sesame Street,  Dora the Explorer, and Blue’s Clues have been associated with positive outcomes for children (both during the preschool years and even through high school!).  This is discussed in Malcolm Galdwell’s book Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference as well as in multiple academic journal articles.

The question that has arisen since the creation of Baby Einstein and Teletubbies in the late 1990’s is: What is the impact of “baby videos” on our babies?

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) (yes, this is the group that tells your pediatricians what they should be telling you) recommended about a decade ago  (in 1999) that children under age 2 not watch any screen media and children older than 2 should be limited to 2 hours of screen time a day.  Just this fall the AAP updated their recommendation but  maintained that parents should still try to avoid TV and video viewing for children under 2.

Social Scientists are also very interested in this question and have now conducted dozens of studies in order to understand how/if infants and toddlers can learn from a screen like their preschool-aged siblings. I could write forever about these findings (or I could just upload my dissertation) but I won’t, I’ll keep it as brief as possible.  Early research found that children under age 2 learned better when an adult demonstrated an activity in front of the child in “real-life” than when they saw a video-taped version of the exact same demonstration.  Other studies have found that younger infants (around age 6 months) might actually learn equally well from an adult in real life as from a video, but that as they get older they need to see the video repeatedly in order to learn the task as well as they learn from an adult in real life.    More recent research is beginning to understand what types of factors may help young children learn from video and screen presentations.  Factors like seeing the video repeatedly, slowing down the presentation of the material, making the videos feel like they are interactive (sort of the way that Dora from Dora the Explorer stops and speaks to the audience), and using familiar characters to perform the tasks on the screen (like a mother or Elmo), seem to help young children learn material from a screen.

Unfortunately, most of the research that demonstrates ways in which young kids can learn from screens never makes it to the public.  The newspapers and reporters love to grab on to scary titles about media: “TV Really Might Cause Autism” “It’s Official: TV Linked to Attention Deficit”  Recently Time Magazine came out with a great article discussing the actual study that was reported in the “TV Really Might Cause Autism” article.  Time Magazine discussed that among other problems with the study TV watching was never measured in the study!

So my advice, is to make sure you think twice when you read any news article reporting about a research study.  Ask your pediatrician about media use with your young babies and do some research on your own as well.  There are great scientific and child development resources on the Internet these days that can help you to understand what the science says.  Also, Lisa Guernsey did a lot of the work for parents and came out with a great book called Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Effects Children from Birth to Age Five and summarizes the research that has been done in this area. Finally, remember that sitting with your child and talking about whatever you are doing, whether you are playing with blocks or watching Sesame Street is a good way to help your child get the most out of each and every one of their experiences.

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Practice Babies

Just the other day NPR’s All Things Considered talked about a new book by Lisa Grunwald called The Irresistible Henry House. Her novel, which I’m now dying to read, is about the home economics programs that were offered at colleges in the early 1900’s.  Considering my post  yesterday about the importance of teaching parents to parent, are “Practice Babies” the solution I was looking for?  Should one of the General Education requirement for college be “Practice Parenting”?  You know what, yes, I think it should be.  But, if I was going to offer this class there are a few things I would change from the 1950’s model presented in this NPR article. 🙂

About the article: In the 1950’s there were more than 40 colleges that offered programs where college students learned mothering skills.  Babies from local orphanages would be lent to the school so that students could practice caring for them.  The programs varied by college but basically one mother would be in charge of caring for the baby for a certain period of time (either a few hours or a few days at a time!).  Once that student/mom’s shift, or “class” was over, the baby was handed off to be cared for by the next student. (More details about these “Practice Babies” Programs can be found here; about Cornell’s Practice Apartments and Practice babies, here; Time Magazine 1954 article about Resident Baby, here ).

Well, if I wanted Driver’s Ed for Parenting, these programs are offering just what I wanted- mothering skills classes and “on the road” experience caring for a real baby!!!  Luckily, we are now in the 21st century and instead of loaner babies, parenting classes and practice parenting experiences are now being offered in some high schools with computerized baby dolls (phew!).  At Monroe High School in Monroe, WI, a course is offered called “Baby Think It Over” in which students are given a programmable baby doll to care for.  I think this programs and computerized babies are great first steps in recognizing how hard it is to care for a baby and to get some practice, however, I hope these courses (both the ones in the 1950’s and the ones today) provide students with information about what to expect from your baby as it grows and develops.  How should you talk to a baby? What toys are helpful for cognitive development? What do you do when your baby is crying all night long and can’t seem to be soothed? Is reading your child important and if so why?  Should your baby be watching “Baby videos” like Baby Einstein? Is music good for children? What developmental milestones should  you expect and when should you worry about delays in development?

Maybe Practice Babies are not the way to go, but Practice Parenting could be- but lets take advantage of the digital age and use the computerized babies please!

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Parenting Ed

In Massachusetts, and many other states,  you have to complete a Driver’s Education Course to get your License (See DMV website). As part of the course you have to attend  30 hours of classroom instruction, 12 hours behind the wheel, and 6 hours of observation from the backseat while another student driver takes your life in their hands.  In addition, you have to spend 40 hours practicing with your parent.  All of this to drive a motor vehicle from  your home to the grocery store.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand the value of Driver’s Ed  You are operating a motor vehicle out on the streets where there are other people in cars, pedestrians, and young children running after soccer balls into the streets.  It’s not just your life that is in danger when you are driving, it’s the lives of your friends, family, and people you have never met and their friends and families.   I don’t question Driver’s Ed, but what I wonder is how can we be so concerned about properly operating motor vehicles and not have the same preemptive sense to require something similar of parents before they have a child? Why isn’t there a “Parenting Ed” requirement?  I mean, as a parent it’s not just you out there “on the road”.  As a parent you are impacting the life of your child and the lives of the other children and people that your child interacts with.  Shouldn’t parents be at least as informed about basic health and child development objectives when they bring a child into this world as they are about using arm signals to make a right hand turn when they decide to drive their Honda to the mall?

I started this website because I wanted to help parents and kids.  I believe that everyone can be a good parent and everyone should be a good parent, but I don’t believe that everyone is naturally born ready to parent well. I believe that no one learns to drive a car in the classroom of Driver’s Ed, but having that background information before you get thrown into a high-stress potentially dangerous situation can be life saving.  Understanding background information about child development and parenting practices is important to help parents react when the realities and challenges of parenthood come at full force.   So, I’m using this website  as an opportunity to reach out to parents who may want to learn more about child development.  I’m starting my own online Parenting Ed: Child Development Basics.  Hope you enjoy!

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Filed under Elementary School Age, Infants, Preschoolers, Toddlers