Is Your Child “Likeable”?

Of course you like your child. But what do their peers think? It turns out their “likeability” may be an important, yet overlooked, factor that can portend later success.

A number of longitudinal studies have come to this conclusion. Kids who are considered to be likeable in childhood – as rated by their peers – are more likely to have better adult outcomes. They achieve more academic success, a higher occupational status, and experience less psychological problems.

What exactly is likeability? Researchers look at a few key abilities, especially in the early school years:

  • Can a child make friends easily?
  • Do other kids like playing with a child?

Keep in mind that likeability shouldn’t be equated with being the “most popular.” We are talking about kids who, across the board, are perceived by other kids as someone they like to be around (or, put another way, don’t mind being around). Importantly, the most telling picture comes from peer ratings gathered in school, rather than a child’s self-perceptions. The kids who spend their day hanging out with your kid can form an aggregate perception that offers a pretty good indicator of social skills that are predictive of later adaptive functioning.

What skills should you foster to help your child be likeable? There are few things to keep in mind:

  • Kids need to know how to let others “hold the floor” – constantly interrupting, blurting out, and talking only about themselves undermines likeability
  • Kids need to know how to play cooperatively – how to take turns, work together, and listen to other points of view
  • Kids should know how to be gracious – they should share in others’ joy and be a good sport
  • Kids should know how to bring themselves to their interactions with others – being overly withdrawn is not an asset with peers
  • Kids should know how to be positive – having enthusiasm is much more appealing than being the naysayer

This is a short list of some of the good social skills every kid can have. While it’s a reality that kids have very different personalities, the fact is all these different personalities can still be expressed using fundamental social skills. Other people like to be around people who have these attributes. Likeability goes a long way, in the short and long term of life.

Manners & Responsibility: 3 Manners All Kids Should Know
Manners & Responsibility: 3 Manners All Kids Should Know
Manners & Responsibility: 3 Manners All Kids Should Know

Kids Having Fun via Shutterstock.com

 

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Birth Order and Success: Implications for Parenting

Yet another study has suggested that birth order predicts adult success. This time the analyses are based on data collected by the dating website PlentyOfFish (POF). Researches at POF examined data trends among 7.6 million singles (in the US and Canada, between the ages of 25-45) using their services – so even though this is not inherently a representative sample (by epidemiological standards) it is still a very large sampling of adults and worthy of consideration. To this point, POF offers analyses on relationship success as well as the more standard benchmarks of education and income. Here we’ll summarize the study findings, caveats of the research, and implications for parenting … and speak briefly to the relative status of singletons.

STUDY FINDINGS

The primary findings are as follows:

FIRST BORN CHILDREN HAVE ADVANTAGES: According to Sarah Gooding, Media Spokesperson, PlentyOfFish, “This PlentyOfFish study suggests that firstborns are more likely to succeed in life – in the areas of education, income and love. For example, the firstborn male of four is 13% more likely to find a relationship compared to the average male user from the study.”

MIDDLE BORN CHILDREN ARE LEAST LIKELY TO FIND RELATIONSHIP SUCCESS: Here relationship success was defined as leaving the POF site in a relationship. Gooding summarizes the findings as follows: “Regardless of family size, middle children are the least likely to find a relationship.”

YOUNGEST CHILDREN EXPERIENCE DISADVANTAGES: They are less likely to pursue higher education and (perhaps as a result) tend to make less money. Gooding explains: “As the family size increases, the likelihood that the youngest of the family will pursue higher education or make an income over $75K/year decreases. Our study found in a family with two children, the youngest is 3% more likely to pursue a PhD. In a family of three children, the youngest is 13% less likely to pursue a PhD, and this trend continues in a family of four children where the youngest is 17% less likely to pursue a PhD.”

GENDER MAY MATTER: Birth order effects were more pronounced for males in the POF study, as discussed by Gooding: “Our findings suggest that the female youngest of two is more likely than their male counterparts to pursue higher education. The females youngest of two is up to 9% more likely to pursue a Masters degree or PhD. In comparison, the male youngest of two is only up to 3% more likely to pursue a Masters or PhD.”

What You Need to Know About Birth Order
What You Need to Know About Birth Order
What You Need to Know About Birth Order

THE CAVEATS

Let’s start with the obvious. We have all heard that correlation does not imply causation. If you takes Stats 101, you’ll be taught this principle and come away thinking survey research doesn’t “prove” anything. While that’s true in the technical sense, the fact is we rely on survey data to reveal naturalistic associations that have some real-world meaning (as opposed to experimental designs which may artificially control a lot of variables and hence suffer from a lack of “ecological validity” – meaning direct application to the naturalistic, uncontrolled world we live in). So, yes, this study relies simply on statistical associations, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to abstract some meaningful principles from them.

I’ve also already stated that this is not a representative sample – so it’s been duly noted (twice here!) that this offers a somewhat skewed sampling perspective. Again, though, this does not mean that the data aren’t interesting, especially given the size of the sample (and the fact that a fair number of adults use online dating services).

What I’d like to bring attention to is the good and bad of working with very large samples like the one gathered by POF. The “good” is pretty clear – the larger the sample, the more confidence we have in the statistical parameters. It’s better to sample around 8 million people and draw statistical inferences than it is to sample around 8 people. You get tighter statistical estimates which increase the “statistical” confidence in those estimates.

But there is something of a down side of large sampling, if a statistical principle is ignored. Because of this statistical confidence, it’s easier to find a statistically significant result – which simply indicates that there is an effect (e.g., a correlation that is not “zero”) rather than signifying the magnitude of that effect. Thus significance should not be confused with the size of the statistical effect – very small effects can be significant when looking at large data sets.

That’s why it’s important to look at the effect size of studies like this one. I’d (informally) characterize the effects here as “modest” in the statistical sense, which would be consistent with lots of other studies on birth order. Birth order seems to have a systematic effect on adult education, income, and (especially in this study) one indicator of relationship success. But it’s important to keep in mind that this effect is modest – meaning that lots of other factors come into play. Put another way, don’t be surprised if your own informal sampling of people you know indicates that there are some youngest siblings who achieved the highest level of education in their family, and some middle children who had the most relationship success, and some first born children who don’t make a lot of money and aren’t in a relationship. It’s the overall patterning in the population studied that comes into play in large studies like the one conducted by POF.

IMPLICATIONS FOR PARENTING

Full disclosure: I’ve never been especially interested in birth order effects (and I’ve been doing research on siblings for, well, a lot of years now). I’ve always felt that birth order was background noise – with a little signal – that got way too much attention in the popular press as compared to the actual processes that go into parenting multiple children. But I’m softening a little bit, in part because birth order effects get replicated, but more so because there is better thinking about them now in terms of parenting.

The most clear cut implication for parenting is that younger children, especially in larger families, may not be getting the same kind of focused parenting that their older siblings received. We know that parents will say that by the time the last one comes around, they are more relaxed with him or her compared to the older siblings. Some of that reflects experience as a parent. But it’s important to keep in mind that the bar shouldn’t be lowered in the case of academic standards – research using national data bases suggest that, in terms of academics, parents may spend less time monitoring their youngest child’s homework, which may account for some of the scholastic effects of birth order.

What about middle children and relationships? One speculation can be offered – and bear in mind it is indeed conjecture. We often hear of the Middle Child Syndrome – being stuck in the middle of the presumed favorites, the oldest and the youngest. Perhaps there is something in this relationship dynamic that impacts (to a degree) the ability of middle children to find success in relationships. Again, this is simply an idea to think about – and perhaps one worthy of more dedicated research.

SINGLETONS

One last point. Only children also seemed to be less inclined to be successful in the POF study. Morgan Cabot, Research Analyst, PlentyOfFish, offers the following summary and interpretation: “Our findings suggest that single children are much less likely to pursue higher education and earn an income over $50K/year. This finding was the most surprising as the general assumption is that single children receive more attention and financial support from their parents, making it easier for them to succeed in life. There are likely many factors influencing these results. One theory is that the very fact that single children don’t have a sibling (to set an example for or to compete with) leads to a lower drive to succeed in the areas of education and income.”

Perhaps the best takeaway in terms of parenting an only child is the same one that applies to youngest siblings: make sure the bar is set high enough in terms of expectations about achievement.

What You Need to Know About Your Only Child
What You Need to Know About Your Only Child
What You Need to Know About Your Only Child

Family Portrait via Shutterstock.com

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Genes and Autism: New Challenges Ahead

A new twin study of autism suggests that while genetics clearly play a key role , environmental factors are influential too – and in fact may be as important important.

This work – which involved analysis of twins in a large national database in Sweden – partially replicates a recent twin study of autism with US twins sample published in 2011. The only difference is the US study found evidence of “shared environmental” influences on autism – environmental factors that partially explain the similarity of twins (or siblings) independent of genetics. But in both cases, the heritability estimate (a statistical, not biological, metric) suggests that the sum effect of genes on autism is less than estimated in the past.

Overall, the implication is that we need to ramp up efforts to examine environmental contributions to autism – without diluting genetic research. This is easier said than done in a climate in which research funding continues to retract. The reduction of funding makes it harder to pursue the complex issues that require sorting out. Here’s a sampling of issues requiring further intensive investigation:

  • It is likely that there is no one “cause” of autism, such that there may be subtypes that are more strongly effected by genes than others. Testing out this idea would require very large samples – which requires substantial funding.
  • Isolating multiple genes that have “small effects” rather than finding one “disease gene” is still a tricky proposition (akin to looking for multiple needles in a haystack). Researchers continue to evolve biological and statistical approaches to achieve this – but again this work is costly.
  • The same complexities characterize efforts to isolate environmental contributors to autism. Bear in mind that the twin studies don’t identify the sources of the environmental effect – rather, they provide evidence suggesting that environmental factors are critically important and should not be ignored. Again – funding is needed for this.

As the estimated rate of autism continues to climb, and the science keeps telling us that the causes are varied and complex, we need to embrace the idea that funding is critical. Yet we continue to hear that funding for autism research is limited at the national level. Private organizations like Autism Speaks are making great strides but the effort required necessitates a national commitment to increase funding for research on autism. Disseminating that perspective to law makers is one way to try to provide the level of support necessary to examine the roots of a disease that affects more and more children each year.

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Early Signs of Autism
Early Signs of Autism
Early Signs of Autism

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Medicating Young Toddlers For ADHD: A Disturbing New Trend

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have provided new data suggesting that it is becoming common to not only diagnosis attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in 2- and 3-year-olds – but also to prescribe medication to these toddlers. As reported in the New York Times, data collected by the CDC suggested an estimate that 10,000 young toddlers are being given stimulant medication. And, of course, it could be more and the number could be growing.

There are many problems with diagnosing and medicating young toddlers for ADHD. Here are three primary issues:

ADHD is difficult to diagnosis – even in older children. While comprehensive, multidisciplinary clinical teams can offer productive diagnostic assessments of school aged children, ADHD is still difficult to diagnosis with certainty. It’s clear from prior analyses and studies that many school aged children are being given diagnoses of ADHD without such careful clinical evaluation and put on medications that they may not need. Given this, the idea that ADHD can be reliably diagnosed in 2- and 3-year-olds is shaky, to say the least – or simply not advisable.

The effects of stimulant medications in young toddlers have not been studied. Stimulant medications require careful clinical monitoring in school-aged children. It is controversial to administer them to 4- and 5-year olds. Prescribing them to 2- and 3-year-olds is not within the clinical boundaries. There is a reason that drugs are studied and approved for specific conditions and age groups. We don’t know the side effects of stimulants on young toddlers or how they influence the developing brain.

Behavioral management of toddlers is important but can be achieved without medication. Young toddlers need to be socialized. They need to have some structure and learn boundaries. They need to know how to modify their behavior in different settings. These are developmental goals, not the stuff of psychiatric diagnosis. If parents are having difficulties with young toddlers – and as we know, they can be rambunctious, as they should be – it’s certainly worth thinking about getting some advice or even learning behavioral management techniques that can be especially effective with some youngsters. The idea that this process may be circumvented by inappropriate clinical diagnosis and drug treatment is very troubling – especially since there is good evidence that behavioral techniques work and no evidence supporting the use of stimulant medication in young toddlers.

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Life with ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder
Life with ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder
Life with ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder

ADHD via Shutterstock.com

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Why the Arts Matter in Early Education

At the recent Mom 2.0 Summit, I heard from a lot of moms who described recent debates – at their children’s schools – about the role of the arts in early education. In particular, during a series of roundtable workshops and discussions led by Elmer’s Products, Inc, numerous stories were shared about schools that are reducing – or cutting completely – time for the arts (particularly the visual arts and crafting ) in order to focus exclusively on “academics” (meaning reading and mathematics). As a developmental researcher, this practice is disconcerting to me, as it reflects a fundamentally flawed perspective on cognitive development in the early, formative years of life.

We’ve known for decades the value of hands-on activities in early childhood. Arts and crafts, as typically practiced in preschool and the early formal school years, have always been recognized as a primary way of promoting the all-important fine motor skills that provide a primary mechanism for cognitive exploration and learning (hence the value of literal “hands-on learning”). Current research has begun to uncover even more benefits. Thus, a central component of these many conversations at Mom 2.0 focused on an emerging paradoxical situation in education: as the research evidence supporting involvement in the arts increases, the opportunities for young children to engage in the arts may be declining.

The argument for “academics rather than arts” is simple – the primary goal of education is to accelerate the development of formal scholastic skills like reading, writing, and mathematics. Of course, children’s cognitive capacities extend far beyond these core “academic” abilities. Initiatives like STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, mathematics) provide compelling frameworks that integrate the arts with science and mathematics. Developmental researchers have begun to articulate how the arts, in the early years, support the development of core cognitive skills (skills that are applicable to a wide range of academic subjects). For example, research conducted in partnership with Elmer’s Let’s Bond initiative identified, via survey of experts in child development, three such processes fostered by participation in arts and crafts:

  • Visual-spatial skills (e.g., pattern recognition, detection of sequences, spatial rotation)
  • Fine motor support for school readiness (e.g., motor manipulation of writing instruments)
  • Executive functioning abilities (e.g., working memory, selective attention)

Educational research Jennifer S. Groff has provided a compelling theoretical model and rationale for the primary role that the visual arts play in development and education in an influential paper published in the Harvard Educational Review. Consider this summation from the abstract of that paper:

Emerging research on the brain’s cognitive processing systems had led Groff to put forth a new theory of mind, whole-mindedness. Here she presents the evidence and construct for this frame of mind, how it sits in relation to multiple intelligences theory, and how it might redefine the justification for arts education in schools, particularly in our digitally and visually rich world.

The point about our “digitally and visually rich world” deserves a bit of expansion. Groff argues that visual information processing – those core brain processes engaged by the visual arts – are a primary cognitive skill set and primary mechanism for how children learn. As our world becomes more visually driven, we are beginning to understand in greater depth just how important these abilities are for learning and cognitive development. Promoting these critical abilities via the arts do not come at the sacrifice of developing traditional “academic” skills. Rather, the arts not only offer support for later verbal and mathematical fluency, but also provide essential platforms for enhancing and fostering core cognitive skills that are essential for today’s young children.

Kindergarten Craft Activity via Shutterstock.com

 

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