Grandparents Influence Behavior Above and Beyond Parents

Reflecting on 2011 end of year holidays I was reminded again how fortunate we are that our kids have grandparents  who are willing, able, and available  to babysit or simply to help out. We appreciate the fact that their presence makes our lives infinitely easier. What we didn’t know is how influential they can be on the behavior of our kids.

That realization came recently when I came across a study released from the Brigham Young University Department of Family Life, located in Provo, Utah, which examined the role grandparents play in the development of children. The research by Professors Jeremy Yorgason and Laura Padilla-Walker (aided by student Jami Jackson) shows grandparents have an effect on children’s social behaviors. The research was published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence, using data collected from the Flourishing Families Project — an ongoing study from the past five years that involves 500 families from the northwest area of the U.S. and includes information on individuals from all different races and backgrounds. To look at the influence of grandparents, 408 grandchildren ages 10-14 were interviewed about their relationship with their grandparents. A year later, those grandchildren were contacted again to assess their emotional development. A summary of the study states:

“It indicates when grandparents are involved in their grandchildren’s daily lives, the children are more social and more involved in school. They are also more likely to show care and compassion for people outside their immediate circle of friends and family.This relationship is stronger in single-parent households and is also stronger in situations where the grandparents do not live with the child.”

The researchers believe that one possible reason for this correlation is that having regular contact with an adult outside of immediate family develops pro-social skills – a measure of how much kids are able to think outside themselves - essential for social development. Frequent contact with an adult other than a child’s immediate family helps adolescents to develop key emotional skills that are fundamental to positive social development. Another reason could be because nonresidential grandparents are less likely to take on a parent-like role, so they are more likely to focus their efforts on fostering positive development, rather than discipline.

Our kids have grandparents who live within a half hours drive from them. However, the distance doesn’t have to be a deciding factor in this relationship. Although the study didn’t look at distance between grandparents and grandchildren, Yorgason said that even grandparents living far away can have a positive influence.

Image source:  Stuart Miles /
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Are you letting your child play with gender neutral toys?

No gender allowed at preschool; ‘Him’ and ‘her’ nixed to keep boys and girls equal. This was the title of an article published earlier this year by the Associated Press. In it, the AP staff writer describes a Swedish preschool called “Egalia”.

Where staff avoid using words like “him” or “her” and address the 33 kids as “friends” rather than girls and boys. From the color and placement of toys to the choice of books, every detail has been carefully planned to make sure the children don’t fall into gender stereotypes.{It] is among the most radical examples of Sweden’s efforts to engineer equality between the sexes from childhood onward. Breaking down gender roles is a core mission in the national curriculum for preschools, underpinned by the theory that even in highly egalitarian-minded Sweden, society gives boys an unfair edge. Some parents worry things have gone too far. An obsession with obliterating gender roles, they say, could make the children confused and ill-prepared to face the world outside kindergarten. 

Nearly all the children’s books deal with homosexual couples, single parents or adopted children. There are no “Snow White,” “Cinderella” or other classic fairy tales seen as cementing stereotypes. Egalia places a special emphasis on fostering an environment tolerant of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. From a bookcase, [the school director] pulls out a story about two male giraffes who are sad to be childless – until they come across an abandoned crocodile egg.

Critics point out that “different gender roles aren’t problematic as long as they are equally valued”. Proponents argue that by creating a gender neutral environment in a sense, you are setting the groundwork for the way kids think. Recently someone pointed out to me that, for example, 90% of the children’s books have male main characters, even when they are animals. Another common example is that most people will refer to stuffed animals or any animal they see as a “he”. For some reason that’s the way we have been programmed. That is not to say that by having male characters in books, boys are somehow better than girls, it’s that kids need to be able to see themselves in the characters they admire. It’s important for girls to see girls and women in books doing things that they would want to do. 

So I do believe that gender neutral language and play is important. And there is also research that backs up this notion. For example, Judith Elaine Blakemore, professor of psychology and associate dean at Indiana University−Purdue University in Fort Wayne, Indiana has shown that toys rated as most likely to be educational and to develop children’s physical, cognitive, and artistic skills are typically categorized as gender neutral or moderately masculine (on a 5-point scale ranging fro strongly feminine to strongly masculine). Examples of neutral toys are Vinnie the Pooh, Elmo, a Doctor’s kit, gardening tools, play-doc, etc. (for a taxonomy of toys categorized by gender type see Characteristics of Boys’ and Girls’ Toys). In other words, strongly gender-typed toys appear to be less supportive of optimal development than neutral or moderately gender-typed toys.

Is this a topic that’s worth more discussion? How is this issue, if at all, being addressed at your child’s school today?

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Knowing About This Decision Making Bias Will Not Change How You Parent

Will I let my kids walk to school alone? Highly unlikely. We live in a small town where the statistics show that there is no violent crime. Yet I know that I will not be able to be ‘reasonable’ and make a fact-based decision when it comes to the safety of my kids.

As parents we all make decisions that are not based on statistical evidence. Regardless of what the research and evidence tells us most of us will be over protective. In this we are influenced by what has been described as the Availability Heuristic – a type of decision bias highlighted in the works of Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky as the tendency to judge the importance or frequency of an event based on how easily the event is brought to mind. For example, if we hear constantly about a certain type of danger (such as abduction while walking to school on their own) to our children in the news we will begin to believe that it’s a frequently occurring event. It is in the interest of news organization to sensationalize such events, no matter how infrequent they are. The facts usually contradict our beliefs, but there’s nothing we can do about it when making decisions about the safety of our kids.

The observation about the availability bias and its connection to parenting was made recently by Sam McNerney, author of the Why We Reason blog, in his recent blog post. He writes “Can you really criticize overprotective parents? They are, after all, only trying to ensure the safety of their children. But sometimes the numbers tell a different story. “ Here are some factoids from the post:

  • Only about 100 people are abducted by a stranger every year, half of whom are eventually murdered. Factoring in that there are 50 million children in the United States, the annual homicide rate via abduction comes out to be one in a million. In other words, “if you wanted your child to be kidnapped and held overnight by a stranger, you’d have to leave the child outside and unattended for 750,000 years.
  • More than twice as many children are hit by cars driven by parents taking their children to school as by other kinds of traffic. That is, every time a parent drives their children to school the chances that a child gets killed increases.
  • After the 9-11 attacks, 1,500 people died in car accidents because they chose to drive fearing that their plane might be hijacked. Add that up over the course of a few years and you’ll find that “the number of people who died by avoiding air travels was six times the number of people who died in the airplanes on September 11.
  • You are eight times more likely to die from walking home drunk than driving home drunk.
  • The chances of getting murdered from hitchhiking is virtually zero.
  • Owning a pool is astronomically more dangerous that owning a gun.

So, check out the rest of McNerney’s blog post although I doubt this information will do anything to change your parenting style. As a side note, I just started reading Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking Fast and Slow. In my opinion a must read for anyone interested in decision sciences, analytics, and decision management.

Image Source: Stuart Miles /
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12 Ways to Mess Up Your Kids

In her article on The Doctor Will See You Now article Alice G. Walton summarizes research and viewpoints from child psychologists, child psychiatrist, and pediatricians on parental behavior to away “to help your child develop into a happy, confident, and well-rounded little person.” The DO NOT parenting list includes:


  1.  Threaten to leave your kids behind.
  2. Lie to your child.
  3. Ignore your own bad behavior.
  4. Assume that what worked for your first – or for you – will work for your second.
  5. Have a panic attack because your child broke a rule.
  6. Think your baby shouldn’t be babied (and related Push your child to gain independence: the earlier, the better).
  7. Punish or scold your child when she acts out, hits, or throws things.
  8. Try to be your child’s friend rather than his parent.
  9. Fill your cupboards with junk food and skip family meals.
  10. Don’t walk; drive everywhere.
  11. Think you bear sole responsibility – or NO responsibility – for your child’s development.
  12. Assume there is one way to be a good parent.

How many of these have you done? I’m certainly guilty of at least a couple of the listed ways of misguided parenting. The researchers quoted in the article bring up some good examples for each of the listed items. Most of this advice seems obvious, but as it often happens, without explicit acknowledgment of such behavior, it’s unlikely to change. So, I encourage you to read the full article. It has already helped me be more aware of how I interact with my kids in certain situations.

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Brightest Stall, Low Achievers Gain

A recent Wall Street Journal article focuses on the lack of support and resources for high achieving students. Stephany Banchero writes “A national focus on the lowest-achieving students has helped boost their academic performance, but it has left the country’s brightest young minds behind, prompting calls to rethink how schools teach top kids.” It seems that the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which put intense focus on the lowest achievers is at the same time having an adverse effect on high achievers. Obviously, the two groups shouldn’t be pitted against each other and ‘investment’ in one should not come at the expense of the other.

A report by the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) calls for policy changes that don’t require additional spending, such as holding schools accountable for the scores of the top-fliers, training teachers to work with top-performing children, and making it easier for top-performing children to skip grades.

Here are some data points from the NAGC report:

  1. Only 10% of U.S. students scored in the top-tier on the math and science portions of the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, an international exam, behind many other developed countries, including South Korea, Finland and Canada.
  2. Only 31 states require schools to identify gifted and talented children.
  3. Twenty-six states mandate targeted services for top achievers and 23 set aside funding for such students.
  4. Only eight states have policies that let smart kids skip grades, while the remaining leave it up to local school districts to decide.
  5. Ten states prohibit students from entering Kindergarten early, and 24 leave such decisions to local districts.
  6. 23 states have no policies on academic acceleration strategies.
  7. Eight states prohibit middle school students from enrolling in high school courses at the same time, and 24 states leave those decisions to districts.
  8. A Wall Street Journal analysis of national elementary and high school reading, writing, math and social studies exams shows dramatic progress for the lowest achievers over the last two decades, especially after No Child Left Behind [that's great].
  9. The scores of the brightest students have, for the most part, inched up marginally or stalled during the same time period.


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Jamie Oliver’s TED Prize wish: Teach every child about food

“My wish is for you to help a strong sustainable movement to educate every child about food. To inspire families to cook again and to empower people everywhere to fight obesity”
- Jamie Oliver (a chef, a celebrity, a young father, a food revolutionary)

An inspiring, passionate, shocking – a ‘must-see’ TED speech about the need to educate our children about food.

  • 2/3 of people in the U.S. are statistically overweight or obese
  • On average current generation of children will have a shorter life span than their parents due to ill effects of food they eat
  • Highest causes of death in the U.S. are diet related diseases not the front-page news stories of homicides, natural disasters, accidents (it’s also a global problem)
  • Obesity costs Americans 10% of our national health care bill – $150 billion per year (much more than smoking). This amount is forecast to double in the next 10 years.

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Interactive Play With Blocks Found to Facilitate Development of Spatial Vocabulary

Source: Science News

I always thought there was something more to playing with blocks than simply the resulting creations of building, vehicles, figures, and every other kind of object stemming from the imagination of kids of all ages. Now, in a study published in Mind, Brain and Education, researchers at Temple’s Infant Lab found there are some very real benefits to playing with blocks. The researchers found that when playing with blocks under interactive conditions, children hear the kind of language that helps them think about space. Spatial skills are important for success in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)  disciplines. ”This study gives parents news they can use. It shows that, rather than leaving kids alone with a preassembled activity, interactive play that draws out conversation is best at facilitating spatial development,” sail Nora Newcombe, co-director of Temple’s Infant Lab.

So there are benefits to young kids, but I wonder if there are also benefits to adults. I certainly take every opportunity to use my son’s Lego blocks – naturally under the guise of helping him. Apparently I’m on of many. According to the Wall Street Journal article For Some Grown-Ups, Playing With Legos Is a Serious Business, not only are there thousands of AFOLs (Adult Fan of Lego) worldwide, some of them make money building Lego sculptures. For me this activity is akin to what some may experience in yoga – focused, concentrated time where the mind does not wonder beyond the task at hand. It also happens to be fun family time and as I just learned facilitates the development of my child’s spatial vocabulary.

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Performance Management for Teachers

Bill and Melinda Gates write about the need to evaluate teacher performance in this Wall Street Journal article ‘Grading Teachers.’ According to a survey conducted by Scholastic and the Gates’ foundation, teachers are willing to be evaluated in a comprehensive way. Gates’ argue that nobody has been able to identify what makes for a great teacher. To change that, they have been working with over 3,000 teachers on a project called Measures of Effective Teaching (MET). The goal of the research is to figure out what makes teaching work and what measure may be predictive of student success. There is a saying that ‘you can’t manage what you can’t measure’, but that is exactly what’s going on. Current measures, such as an example from the article that says that 98% of school teachers are rated as “satisfactory”, are completely meaningless.

Teach for America is another organization that is researching means to quantify what makes a great teacher as was reported in the Jan/Feb 2010 issue of The Atlantic magazine.

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Is Montessori Training Innovators?

 In his blog post Andrew McAfee (principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business in the MIT Sloan School of Management) points out that Larry Page, Sergei Brin, Jeff Bezos, Jimmy Wales, Peter Drucker, Julia Child, David Blaine, and Sean “P. Diddy” Combs were all students in Montessori schools. He describes the principles behind the Montessori method of education and provides examples from his own experience in a Montessori school. Obviously, the type of education is not the only factor that determines if someone becomes an innovator – nature and all aspects of nurture matter. However, McAfee cites research that “indicates that Montessori methods work even for disadvantaged kids who Are randomly selected to attend.” More research is needed about this education method, but in the meantime more public schools have began to embrace it.

Related Links:
1. High school outcomes for students in a public Montessori program
2. The Official International Montessori Site

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