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Parenting lessons from a psych major

Calvin had an interview today with a psychology student at the university. We’re on their list of people who will obligingly come in and participate in developmental psych research projects for which Calvin is the perfect age. We’ve been called a handful of times and happily participated. Each session starts the same way, with a little play time together in the reception area, followed by Calvin and the researcher chatting in a comfortable interview room while I sit behind a one-way mirror in an observation room, surrounded by recording and sound equipment.

I have always found the process—the questions, and Calvin’s answers—fascinating. They’ve had a way of teaching me at least a little something about my son, myself, and our relationship to each other and the world.

Today's project had to do with children’s perceptions of choice. Calvin was shown images of a set of computer generated boys and given a description of a specific trait for each one. Sean, for instance, was “a very good reader”, while Max was “not very nice”, and so on. As the researcher passed through the set of about ten boys, each with his own unique trait, she asked Calvin why he thought the kid had that trait. I found myself alternately giggling and cringing throughout the conversation.

“Sam is very nice. Why is Sam very nice?”

“Because he wants to make friends.”

“Max is not very nice. Why is Max not very nice?”

“Because he doesn’t like the people around him.”

Most of Calvin’s answers about why Sam, Max, Charlie, or any of the others might have these traits had to do with their own actions. According to Calvin, for instance, Sean was a good reader because there were so many great books around that he really wanted to read. I loved that answer, and all the others he gave of his own accord.

On a second pass through all these characters, though, the researcher asked Calvin how choices may have impacted their traits. That second pass was a little iffier.

“Carl is very good at sports. Do you think Carl’s choices have anything to do with why Carl is very good at sports?”


“On a scale of one to ten, how much do you think Carl’s choices effect Carl being good at sports?”

“Ten, because he chooses to practice or not.”

In fact, Calvin thought choice greatly impacted all the children’s traits.

“Charlie is very tall. Do you think Charlie’s choices have anything to do with why Charlie is so tall?”


“On a scale of one to ten, how much do you think Charlie’s choices affect Charlie’s height?”

“Ten, because he eats healthy foods.”

Clearly we haven’t done enough work in the science department lately, I thought. A third pass through the characters was about how environment affects their characters, and a fourth pass was about genetics. That fourth pass was the spottiest of all.

“Charlie is very tall. Do you think Charlie’s genes have anything to do with why Charlie is so tall?”

“No. Zero. Not at all.”

In fact, as far as Calvin was concerned, genes had little to do with any of the boys’ traits. Time to touch on genetics in biology, eh?

Or maybe not. I asked the researcher about it after they were done, and she told me that almost all the kids had answered the height question similarly. Height, in most children’s mind, was directly linked not to genetic legacy, but to choice. Why? Because from birth we have reminded them to eat well so that they can grow up big and strong. It’s so ingrained in our parental culture almost all parents say it to their children at one time or another. On top of that, in our house we have been very purposeful about teaching choice and consequences, so why wouldn’t Calvin link the two—eat well, grow big and strong, it’s all a matter of good choices, right?

It's a fascinating consequence of accidental parenting, one without repercussions. Simply an "Aha!" moment. I hope they call us for another study soon because I can always learn from little lessons like these. I really like "Aha!" moments.

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