Even Toddlers Care What Others Think

By the time toddlers are forming two-word sentences, they are already aware that they may be judged by others, behavior that previously wasn’t believed to emerge until years later, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.

“Our research suggests that by 24 months old, children understand that their behavior can be positively or negatively evaluated by others,” said lead researcher Sara Valencia Botto, MA, of Emory University, in a study published in the journal Developmental Psychology.

Previous research has documented this behavior to be clearly evident in 4- to 5-year-olds but this study suggests it may emerge much sooner, according to Botto.

Botto and her colleagues conducted four experiments involving 144 children between the ages of 14 and 24 months using a robot toy.

In the first experiment, the researchers demonstrated in front of a toddler how to use the buttons on a remote to operate the robot and then either observed the child with a neutral expression or turned away and pretended to read a magazine.

When the child was being watched, he or she displayed more inhibition and embarrassment when hitting the buttons on the remote than when the observer was not paying attention, according to the researchers.

A second experiment added positive and negative feedback. This time, the researcher used two remotes during the demonstration to the child. When using the first remote, the researcher smiled and said, “Wow! Isn’t that great?” and when using the second remote, she frowned and said, “Uh-oh! Oops, oh no!” When it was the child’s turn to hit the buttons on his or her own, the researcher either watched the child or looked away at the magazine.

“The children pressed the positive remote significantly more while being watched and used the negative remote more when not being watched,” Botto said. “This behavior is like older children who behave well and do good things while others are watching and misbehave when no one is paying attention.”

The third experiment served as the control. In it, the researcher gave a neutral response of, “Oh, wow!” when demonstrating how to use the two remotes and again, alternated between observing the child or looking away. Results showed that the children no longer chose one remote over the other depending on the attentiveness of the experimenter.

“This shows us that in experiment two, the children were paying very close attention to the positive and negative reactions of the researcher before making a decision of which remote to use,” Botto said.

The last experiment involved two researchers sitting side by side, using one remote. One experimenter pressed a remote, smiled and said, “Yay! The toy moved!” while the second experimenter pressed the same remote, frowned and said, “Yuck! The toy moved!” Once the child had the opportunity to operate the remote, the researchers alternated either watching or turning their back to the child.

The children were much more inclined to press the remote when the positive experimenter was watching, according to the study.

Across all four experiments, the researchers saw no difference in responses based on the gender of the child.

“Our study offers strong support for the idea that very young children are much more attuned to their surroundings and others’ responses than previously thought,” said study co-author Philippe Rochat, PhD, of Emory University. “This is an important milestone in our understanding of human social cognition and development. Further research needs to be done to examine if even younger children – those under 14 months – could be sensitive to the judgments of others.”

“Our concern for reputation is something that defines us as human. We spend resources on make-up and designer brands, are terrified to talk in front of an audience and conform to many of society’s standards because we are concerned with how others will evaluate us,” Botto said. “We believe our findings get us closer to comprehending when and how we become less or more sensitive to other people’s evaluation, and it reinforces the idea that children are usually smarter than we might think.”

Discussing Current Events with Students and Children: If, When, and How?

Photo Credit: @Reuters

The unfortunate reality for children growing up right now is the prevalence of senseless tragedies. I myself, even as a grown adult, struggle time and time again to make sense of the catastrophic violence that pervades our day-to-day. For my students, I cannot fathom the panicked bewilderment and anxious uncertainties that events such as the Las Vegas attack bring to their frightened, yet curious, minds.

During these formative years, how can we mediate the thin line between informing and frightening our students and children? If we decide that information is power, how do we present such heart-rending topics to young people in a way that equips them to do better for the world? Conversely, if we instead choose to shelter our innocent young people by preserving their naïveté, how can we expect to bring up the next generation to be culturally responsive and informed citizens?

When considering conversations with young people involving tragic current events, such as this week’s Las Vegas mass shooting, adults must be extremely cautious. From the educator’s perspective, I am personally conflicted about my exact role as the adult in the classroom when it comes to conversations of a sensitive nature. Even as a middle school teacher, where my students assert themselves as “informed” or “aware” community members, I find it irresponsible of me to take on the role of informant for other people’s children.

Yes, our students are privy to infinite amounts of and avenues for any and all information, thanks in great part to the 1:1 ratio of school-aged children to smartphones. However, I firmly believe that the family (parents and guardians) know that child best. Therefore, as a teacher, my obligation begins and ends with parental consent. I can, and have, encouraged curious students to speak specifically with their parents about current events and the questions they have regarding those events.

Additionally, as an English teacher, I have provided students with criteria for credible sources, smart searches, and strategies to detect bias and objectivity. But that is where my responsibility ends. This is not because I don’t want to hear their opinions or thoughts on the world’s happenings, but rather because it is not my place to open such an emotional or sensitive topic up to discussion.

Suggestions for parents regarding if, when, and how to broach these types of discussions with your children vary from family to family. Obviously, you know your children better than anyone else. Parents are also in control of the extent of info to which children are exposed. Parents are the gatekeepers of information, charged with filtering, limiting, and explaining the events that you deem appropriate for your children.

If families decide to discuss emotionally-charged current events, such as terrorism or mass acts of violence with their school-aged children, parents should consider multiple factors, including age, social and emotional maturity, and peer influence. Let your children do the talking first. Take the temperature of their background knowledge on the topic before you begin.

Ask if they have heard or seen anything about the specific news story. It is likely that, if your child has a smartphone, she has some level of prior knowledge. Between social media and other communicative platforms, preteens and teenagers are presented with a deluge of news stories, photos, and videos.

Once you’ve gauged their level of prior knowledge, plan to direct the conversation with the goal to inform on a broad scope—do not necessarily delve into specific details, as details rarely serve to comfort or answer questions. A curious teen will inevitably stumble upon more details, but remind your teen to check the validity of the source before forming opinions or drawing conclusions.

Furthermore, be prepared to some answer questions, while leaving other questions unanswered. Especially with unanswerable questions like “how?” it is more than okay to respond with “I don’t know” or “we may never know.” Find some security in the fact that a senseless act will never make sense—and share that important realization with your teen.

Finally, encourage your teen to focus on the heroic deeds of bystanders, first responders, survivors, etc. Tragedies cannot be explained or reconciled, but the focus of the aftermath should always center on taking measures to lift up, help out, and affect change for the better. Always!

Understanding the Impact of Paternal Incarceration on Children’s Schooling

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Anna R. Haskins Photo Credit: Twitter @sealvarado_

Parents play an important role in their children’s lives, and parental involvement in elementary schooling especially affects children’s welfare. An impressive body of scholarship suggests that children’s health, development, and economic fortunes suffer in many ways if their parents serve time in jail or prison. Because the number of school-aged children in the United States with currently or formerly incarcerated parents sits at record levels, there is a clear need to better understand how mass incarceration furthers inequality and exclusion across generations. This includes unravelling the precise links among families, schools, and the criminal justice system.

Schools are conduit institutions that offer access to resources and avenues of economic mobility and social integration. In addition, schools do surveillance by keeping formal records and making direct connections to other public agencies – including the police. Formerly incarcerated parents may be wary of such school functions, making them reluctant to engage fully with their children’s schools. Our new study indicates that paternal incarceration is indeed a unique marker of disadvantage. Both incarcerated fathers and children’s primary caregivers have reduced involvement in children’s education at home and at school– and fears about surveillance held by previously incarcerated fathers help to explain this reduced involvement.

Why Parent Involvement in Schooling Matters

Parental involvement in schooling encompasses actions fathers, mothers, and other primary caregivers take at home or at school to promote their children’s learning and convey educational expectations. Home-based involvement includes efforts such as helping with homework, reading with children, communicating expectations, and providing access to books and educational materials. School-based involvement can include visiting the school for conferences or events, participating in parent-teacher organizations, chaperoning field trips, and communicating with teachers and administrators.

Parental involvement is known to boost children’s academic achievement and reduce the likelihood that pupils will drop out or have behavioral problems. Such involvement strengthens ties to school and enhances parents’ ability to advocate for their child, providing access to information networks integral to children’s success. By contrast, parents with lower levels of involvement – or who avoid schools altogether – reduce their children’s access to resources, information, and avenues of social integration. And such parents may convey feelings of institutional distrust.

Understanding the Impact of Paternal Incarceration on School Involvement

Assuming that fathers sent to prison or jail previously had some level of involvement with their children’s schools, scholars have theorized about reasons why they might withdraw from further involvements after release:

  • Work by the sociologist Sarah Brayne on “system avoidance” suggests that people who have been involved in the criminal justice system purposely avoid later engagement with surveilling institutions. Fathers who have served time may thus choose to refrain from activities that require interaction with the school, such as volunteering or attending parent-teacher conferences.
  • Criminal justice professor Sarah Lageson has explored how many parents “opt-out” of meaningful interactions with community institutions because of stigma or fear of having their online criminal records discovered by teachers, school officials, other parents, or their own children. Opting-out can occur preemptively because parents feel they will be barred from schooling activities such as volunteering – given that extensive background clearances are required in some states – or because previously incarcerated parents worry about stigma or embarrassment. In fact, opting-out can occur even if charges were minor or ultimately dismissed because online criminal records loom large in our digital world.

Larger Implications and Possible Remedies

Paternal incarceration, coupled with increased institutional surveillance, leads to lower levels of parental involvement in children’s schooling. This, in turn, undercuts children’s educational success and families’ ability to build trust with schools. As the number of young school-aged children with incarcerated parents grows, there may be strong, lasting, and negative consequences from this vicious cycle.

The long-term prospects of children with current and formally incarcerated parents are likely tightly linked to the children’s schooling, yet teachers often interpret parental involvement as a sign of the value parents place in their child’s educational success. However, a father’s avoidance of his child’s school may not flow from lack of caring, but from fear of stigma or adverse consequences from his previous record. Similar processes can influence the behavior of other marginalized populations, such as undocumented parents who worry about apprehension when interacting with their children’s schools.

Clearly, the country needs social policies that take into account the varied ways families, schools, and the criminal justice system interact. Untangling the secondary harmful effects of parental incarceration – including harms to children’s schooling – is necessary to prevent reproducing inequalities from one generation to the next. Research that helps educators and policymakers better understand issues that arise for children and families where a father has served time can help in the design of supportive measures.

Research so far suggests that involvement by previously incarcerated fathers in their children’s schooling can be encouraged to the degree that parents come to understand schools as safe spaces. To the degree possible, schools need to avoid seeming like one more surveilling institution to families that have already experienced the stress of an imprisoned parent. Doing everything possible to increase parental involvement by the formerly incarcerated is important because such steps are likely to strengthen family-school partnerships and improve the chances for educational success for a growing segment of all American children.

Passion of Parents in Youth Sports

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Parents really love to involve their kids in competitive sports.  Sometimes too much.

Sports is an ingrained part of the American landscape. It is so much a part of our daily lives that most people cannot imagine life without watching or playing on a daily basis.

A passion for sports is instilled in most kids from an early age. In my family, it was not so much. My mother took me out of baseball in kindergarten because the practices were too late at night. From that, my mother later extrapolated that it was somehow her fault that I didn’t become any good at baseball and, therefore, could not make millions of dollars. For her comfort, it can be noted that I never turned out good at any other sport either and made not a single cent as an athlete.

The Anomaly and The Norm

The anomaly of my situation was that my mother didn’t encourage my participation in sports. It is quite normal that parents want their kids participating in sports. They encourage it. Indeed, that translates into a majority of kids participating. A detailed article on data of youth sports, shows that 75% of boys and 69% of girls play.

For a larger estimate, thirty to forty-five million kids are involved in some sport and parents’ push to have their kids involved seems fueled by at least a little bit of grandeur and hope for the future. There are any number of articles already written about the nature of crazed parents pushing their kids to excel on the field.

Sometimes, parents and coaches push kids too far.

While encouragement and praise are natural coaching strategies, and excelling at the craft is mostly the point, there are still a lot of physical and psychological development concerns. Just the right balance needs to be considered from a coaching standpoint. That coaching should probably concern a more diverse life beyond sports, which considers health and well-being.

There are great ambitions that children and elders have and a good deal of growth that comes from athletic experiences. The encouragement is a positive, but the desire and success are the child’s own and can only be measured by their own standards. There is certainly a lot at stake. However, a wise gambler would know that the odds of failure far outweigh the opportunity for success.

My situation was also the norm because no kids are likely to grow up to make any money from sports, much less millions. Even the kids that grow up into excellent athletes also need a lot of fortuitous bounces to get anywhere in the business.

An NCAA chart outlines a picture of the chances that any given child will make it big. To be sure, it’s extremely hard to make it in sports. Most kids that play youth sports never end up playing high school sports. Then, very few high school athletes go on to play in college and very few of those make it professionally.

As the chart shows, with over 1,000,000 participants, football is by far the most common high school sport. Of those, 6.5% go on to play college football. Of those, 1.6% get drafted by an NFL team. For the best odds, baseball and hockey players are considerably better bets to make it to professional ranks than basketball, soccer and football. Still, the chances are pretty miniscule. About half of one percent of high school baseball players get drafted by major league teams. And most draft picks never see a major league field much less a multimillion dollar contract.

What is the cost?

There is a cost to every decision in life, particularly those that don’t pan out into big paydays. So, what are some of those risks?

A portrait of one slice of the American life shows a family who invests most of their time and resources in their kids’ athletics, driving the billion dollar youth sports industry, just for the hope that they become one of the five to ten percent that will go on to play varsity sports. At best, the parents are hopeful their children will learn great lessons from their experiences.

It is certainly true that people learn well from adversity. With only one winner, it would appear there is a lot of adversity in competitive sports. That may be a great learning experience, but are the kids having fun?  In one report, 84% wish they had more fun and 31% wish adults weren’t watching and putting pressure on them. This all seems to lead to the 70% attrition rate.

That’s not even the dark side. The top end of the spectrum isn’t terribly rosy, but what about the opposite end?

About three million children go to the emergency room every year from playing sports. Another five million are treated for minor injuries. So, while it is about a .01% chance any given child will wind up with a decent payday from sports, there is pretty close to a 100% chance they will get hurt.

The emergency room is not a great place to end up for kids in sports.

In October, a NYC teenager died after a collision in a soccer game. Eleven kids died playing high school football in 2015. While death and disability is fairly rare, they are no less than the odds of making it big. Moreover, minor injuries are not exactly minor.  

Concussions are easy to sustain and common among young athletes. They result in poor academic performance, attendance and the overall ability to learn. The younger a person is, the greater the issues surrounding head injuries. Also, the lifetime consequences of chronic pain result in treatments which create an entirely different array of problems, for example juvenile arthritis affects over 300,000 children. The magnitude of a future life of headaches and chiropractic visits is best realized by medical professionals. If nothing else, there are many more jobs created in the medical and insurance fields by more people getting and staying hurt.

There are endless untold complications from playing youth sports that go along with the billions of dollars spent on keeping kids playing.

Hedging Bets

I don’t mean to bash sports. There is no doubt to the growth opportunities. At the same time, I would argue that most of those lessons can be learned in other avenues, but there still is a redeeming value to sports. The idea of victory gives people hope and the execution of a game plan brings excitement.

The concept of sports doesn’t necessarily have to include the traditional big money sports. Light exercise is even better than high energy or contact sports. Combining exercise with academics helps students learn. For healing sake, many sport-like games can take the place of sports. For example, foosball is a great tool used in rehabilitation for injuries.

The point really comes down to, parents need to understand that not everyone can make it big in the same industry already flooded with talent. Moreover, kids take time to develop. Rushing into a sport they are not ready for can only risk injury and hinder development in other age appropriate areas. Somehow, many parents lose sight of the realities and try to live their own lost dreams vicariously through their children’s success.

Kids need to grow up according to their own dreams and desires. Success only comes from a person’s own initiative. It’s a hard balance. The younger start a person gets in life, the better they will typically be at something. On the other hand, it takes time to discover true interests.

Diversity always seems to be the key. The more options a kid has, the better.  

All the evidence in the world suggests kids that play sports have the best chance for success and the least chance for injuries when playing multiple sports. Likewise, a kid’s most well-roundedness will come not from being entirely immersed in sports, but also other outlets. I shudder to think however, what most parents who push their kids in athletics would think of them going into stage acting. The glory and bragging rights just wouldn’t be the same for those parents.

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