Reflections from a Child Development Geek


Bet you didn’t know such a thing existed.  Yeah.  It does.  Welcome to my world.

Remember that movie, Babies, that came out a few years back?  It was a documentary that followed the lives of babies around the world.  Beautifully filmed, and wow, a documentary being marketed as a mainstream film that parents should take their kids to see and that actually grossed a million dollars and got great reviews?  That’s my kinda world.  Of course, I went to see it.  And I took my then 10 year old daughter.  It was good, and surely a whole lot better thing to plunk in the DVD player for your kids to watch than any of that…well…that other stuff.  You know what I mean.   If you never saw it, check it out.

But I’m not here to do movie reviews.  I’m here to tell you what I most vividly remember from the time that the film was about to come out, when previews were blasted across the internet and advertisements across the TV screen.   I remember the facebook post like it was yesterday.  A friend whom I had worked with while studying for my Ph.D. said it.  I can’t be absolutely positive of the wording, but it was pretty close to this:

Check out this film!   Porn for Child Development Geeks!!

I’m still laughing five years later.  Yup.  That’s me.  Let’s just say that my involvement in the academic study of child development, both undergraduate and graduate, is more than your average bear.  I’ve been around the sandbox.

Now, I’ve never been one to claim a charmed life in any regard, but I have to admit, I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my study of child development.  I have had spectacular teachers, which not only left me with a strong body of knowledge, but permanently etched upon my awareness the importance and potential of gifted educators.

There have been a lot of high points, but there are a couple that stand out.  The first of these took place during my very first year of my freshman year of college, back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth.  It took the form of a course that was known (amidst groans) as HD30A & B.  Catchy, eh?  Okay, the real title was (I think) Observation of the Young Child.  It was in two parts, covering two academic quarters.  In the first of these quarters, students had to choose a child in the campus lab school and do weekly observations, following different sorts of observation techniques each week.  These were detailed observations, and when I say detailed, I mean detailed–you have no idea.  In the thir (cough) years since, I have never seen any students taught the rigor of observation as thoroughly as we were.  And the second quarter?  Oh, man.  In the second quarter, students had to write what turned out to be an approximately 60 page case study of the child that we had observed, answering pages and pages of detailed questions, and providing citations (page, paragraph, line) from our transcribed observations for every  answer–and no, we could not go back into the lab school to observe something that we might have missed.   It had to be in our observations.   We knew that when we were doing the observations, even though we didn’t yet know what questions we had to answer–which probably explains why we were so terrified.  Oh, how we complained.  But we did it.  I still have my case study on my bookshelf.  (And remember.  No computers.  Typewriters.  Yup.  That’s right. Feel sorry for us, uphill both ways in the snow with no shoes.) 

A few of my friends who were with me in that circle of hell are undoubtedly reading this.  They remember.  Who could forget.  Well, let me tell you, my friends.  I’ve been doing this work now for mpmmpth years, and though I’m not one to boast, I have rarely encountered a teacher or student with the type of observation skills that we gained in that course, nor any academic program that requires something comparable.   It was awful.  And we learned so much, whether we knew it or not.

The second amazing experience arrived many years later, at Harvard Graduate School of Education.  So here’s the thing.  When I was an undergraduate, I took Statistics, because i thought I should.  I didn’t know why–it seemed like a good idea.  It was a disaster–I nearly failed.  Worst of all–grades aside–I left that course without a clue what statistics were about, what they meant, how to use them, any of that.

Now, I’m not Einstein, but I’m not stupid.  Make no mistake, getting a D in a university course sends a powerful message to a 19 year old about what sort of options remain open for a future career.  I would never be an academic–even in child development, I knew they needed to know math.  I would never do a lot of things that I had dreamed of doing.  In the immortal words of Tough Teen Talk Barbie, “Math class is TOUGH!”

One class.  One teacher.  It happens.    It shaped my choices for years to come.

And then, through a highly unpredictable series of events, I wound up at Harvard.  This was graduate school, and a lot of people seemed to think that taking a basic stats class would be a really good idea.  Ugh.  I’m not good at math.   But, you know, by then, I was marginally more of an adult, and I decided that I would suck it up and try my best.

What do you know.  It was fantastic.  And then I did the unbelievable.  I took the next stats class–the harder one that shall-not-be-named, the one that, at its very mention, made people’s eyes go wide and their feet start to shake in their shoes, the one that was taught by one of the most notoriously tough professors (and coincidentally one of the most gifted and creative social science statistics professors in the country.)  I loved that one too.  In that second class–the scary one–I learned more about how to be a critical consumer of information about child development and education…and everything else….than I had imagined possible.

So it turns out I’m great at math (at least this kind of math.)  I understand statistics–what they’re about, what they mean, how to use them, all of that.  Go figure.   But that isn’t what I took from the experience.  What I took from the experience was the immense power that we, as teachers, hold in our hands.  One student, one class, one experience, one person who isn’t being reached or catching on, and an entire life and career trajectory can be influenced.  What if I had found this out when I was 18 instead of well into my 30’s?

Yeah.  Really.  Teaching is an awesome responsibility.  I’ll never forget it.

Fast forward again, this time to 1995.  I had finished my work at Harvard, and I was working in research at Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop) in New York City for  a year.  Many good times were had and great friends made there, and yes, I did meet Elmo.  But again, one thing stands out….something which has echoed repeatedly over the years, and surfaced again this very day in a discussion I was having in an online education forum (yeah, hang around, I always get to the relevance of the post eventually.)

One day, at CTW, I had the  opportunity to sit in on a presentation about the extensive research process that goes into the development of a new Sesame Street character.   It was really interesting.  As I recall, the presentation focused on the development of Zoe, one of the very few female muppet characters (Sesame Street didn’t have a lead female muppet until it’s 37th season.)  One aspect of our tour through the development of Zoe stood out to me, still basking as I was in the hypercritical analytical mindset of the aforementioned stats course.  As part of their exhaustive development process,  CTW held focus groups to ask kids what they think of various features of a new character.  There was a whole room devoted to this process, a colorful carpeted room where little kids could gather and watch clips and give feedback and their input could be carefully recorded.   We were in that room.  And then it happened.  The senior person from the research department told us that (if I remember correctly) they were thinking of a whole range of features, but that the kids reportedly liked Zoe to wear jewelry, have a higher pitch voice, and that they wanted her to wear a tutu (which she almost always does, because Zoe is “obsessed with ballet.”)

Hmm.  Well, of course that’s what the kids want.  By the time children are three and four years old, they are heavily steeped in the highly stereotypical gender role expectations for our culture.   This is the age of endless princess play and refusal to wear anything but pink and purple (like THAT’S news.)  At that moment I was struck by a question that remains with me to this day:  When we ask young children to give their “opinions” in a culture and era that is so overwhelmingly media driven and overflowing with rigid gender role expectations, is what we receive in return the children’s actual opinions, or simply a parroting of our cultural standards?  As you might have guessed, I feel pretty strongly that it’s the latter.

So if that hunch is true, then what is the point of market research with children at all?   Wouldn’t it be just as effective to lean out the window, take a whiff of the latest toy and clothing fads for girls and boys or take a walk through “the pink aisle” at the toy store, and just go ahead and conform to those characteristics?   And of course, where is our responsibility, as adults in the education field, to learn new, less biased ways of asking children what they think, as well as going right ahead and providing alternative role models that reflect the values that we wish to actively promote, rather than simply reflecting the rigid (and often destructive) values of a larger society?

Aaaand…we arrive at today, and a wonderful discussion about early education inspired by the amazing work of the schools of Reggio Emilia.  This  conversation was focused on what we do, as early educators, when children determinedly pronounce, either to us or to their peers, that “pink is for girls, and blue is for boys” (or any other similarly random and rigid gender role expectation).  Keep in mind here that Reggio Emilia philosophies tend to be collaborative and child-led, following children’s interests and building curriculum upon their active inquiries and natural curiosities.  I frequently hear the same question asked by parents who are doing their best to raise their children in a less rigidly stereotypical way, only to find themselves blindsided when their children make these sorts of declarations–what’s a parent or teacher to do?

As I immersed myself both in discussion and thought about how I would address this issue in a highly respectful child-led early education setting, I felt whisked back to the carpeted focus room at CTW.   Here we have an environment in which we value children’s perspectives and interests, where we build upon what they want to know, what they may be struggling with, what engages them.  And simultaneously, we must always ask ourselves to what extent we are hearing our children’s original ideas and preferences vs hearing the dominant culture’s ideas and preferences filtered (or perhaps barely filtered at all) through their minds and coming out of their mouths.

“My daughter just loves Elsa and doesn’t want to play with anything else.  I’ve given her a whole range of toys, but that’s all she wants for her birthday…more Frozen stuff!”

“We’ve given our sons all sorts of toys, but all he wants to do is be a Ninja Turtle, jumping off the couch, climbing on tables, and swinging swords”

“I know that everyone says this gender role stuff is socially determined–I used to think that too, but then I had kids, and now I know it’s hard wired!”

Yes.  And no.  We must stop and question ourselves.  The nature and nurture argument is as old as the hills, and yet it remains valid.  Yes, there is evidence (which continues to be debated, it’s not definitive) that there are biological  predispositions that lead to sex differences in young children’s play (although it goes without saying that those predispositions do not mandate particular Disney characters or superheroes).  And yes, many of us make a concerted effort–from restricting screen time to persistently offering (or pushing?) gender-neutral toys–to shield our children from the gender role expectations of our culture.  At the same time, our children, from a very young age–even from birth–are astute observers and highly absorbent sponges, taking in the values and norms, both direct and subtle, of the dominant culture and media.  And, if we are to be brutally honest with ourselves, very few of us genuinely refrain entirely from reinforcing gender stereotypes with our children, even when we think we are doing a bang-up job.

I have often been accused of thinking too much.  About parenting.  About child development.  Okay, think signabout everything.   Guilty as charged.    Blame it on my parents.   I grew up in a household with one of those IBM “THINK” signs prominently sitting on the table where my parents both religiously clipped relevant articles from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.   If it is my fate to be among the the walking, talking, and writing  “THINK” signs of my profession and generation, I’m up for the job.

Child development geek, at your service.

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