Thursday, December 3, 2009

Kids and Kuriosity

"A child's never-ending "whys" aren't meant to exasperate parents, scientists say. Rather, the kiddy queries are genuine attempts at getting at the truth, and tots respond better to some answers than others."
I'm so glad scientists have been able to join us on planet Earth.

Still, I do wonder why parents are exasperated by tot's questions. It seems counter-productive to bar your own child from your knowledge.

The reason questions exasperate people is because it is a form of challenge, like a staring contest. Being challenged for the sake of challenge, especially when you're busy, is exasperating. Small children cannot credibly challenge you, which should, in theory, short-circuit the exasperation mechanism, just like how some people find threats from children, no matter how strident, adorable instead of scary. ("I'm gunna punch you till you fall down!" *Scowl*)

The other reason for exasperation is to avoid acknowledging that the askee doesn't have the answer. I think this is in play, as children are excellent epistemologists and can find logical holes without trying. Humans are born to use the Socratic method on their parents. Parents don't usually respond well.

But even this I find puzzling, as I can't find a reason to not just tell the kid you don't know.

There's no apparent reason question-asking should be annoying, and yet....

"Past research from the early to mid 1900s on child development had suggested that young children were only aware of temporal relationships between two events and couldn't differentiate cause from effect until about 7 or 8 years of age. More recent work has suggested otherwise, that as early as age 3 children get causality."

Never forget that scientists often use their skills to act as stupid as possible. Anyone with kids will immediately think, "They must have not had children!" and be able to cite chapter and verse on their kids getting causality. This is a mistake; they likely did have children. I'd guess the story goes as thus: at home, their personal observations aren't science and thus poor evidence, but their personal observations during a study at work are scientific, and thus good evidence.

(This gets ironic if you read the comments on the other study just linked. I can easily understand the source of the above misperception.)

If I were a journalist I would say it's "frightening" that people like this are in charge of the education system. Calling the status quo frightening seems off. It's certainly depressing, though.

You may note that the science is getting better. Indeed it is, but nobody ever thinks to wait 20-50 years to properly verify a scientific finding before acting on it, despite the massive number of errors, like this one, freely admitted. (Or, you know, find a faster verification method, like logic.)

Incidentally, children as young as zero understand causality, you just don't yet know how to produce a statistically significant study showing this. Causality is innate the human brain - and to many nonhuman brains, for that matter.
"Lacking from such studies are kids' reactions to the information they get to their causal questions. "
A scientist failed at study design? Shocking. You'd almost think that universities don't demand courses on epistemology of their Ph.Ds.

I have no reason to believe the above quote is accurate. It certainly isn't precise. However, if it is right: told you so. You might wonder if the scientists have kids, I wonder if they have brains. They must be using them for something else.

Are the current crop of scientists less determined to be stupid, or are they just playing to my preconceptions better, being closer to my age? Ahh, questions....

"Results showed kids were more than twice as likely to re-ask their question after a non-explanation compared with a real answer. And when they did get an explanation, which was about 37 percent of the time, they were more than four times as likely to reply with a follow-up inquiry as if they had received a non-explanatory response."

First let me re-write that last part. "Kids ask [presumably meaningful] follow up questions to meaningful answers four times as often as to non-answers." I think that's what they're trying to say, but I'm not exactly sure how you ask a follow-up question to a non-answer unless you already know the answer. Given the ignorance on display, I also have to mention kids aren't sophisticated enough to ask questions they already know the answer to, and regardless have far too many questions to which they don't know the answer to bother with the former.

Incidentally, I wonder why parents hate their kids so much. Answer about a third of their questions? Do you want them to be educated, or not?

So, when they were highly curious and receptive, you answered about a third of their questions, and then you wonder why they don't listen to you as a teenager? Sorry bub, it's too late by then, you've already told them they can't rely on you for information.

How do you react if someone who won't answer your queries suddenly turns around and starts trying to dictate how you act?

At least there's no institution that supposedly gets paid based on its ability to teach parents to parent well, so lapses aren't anybody's fault, per se.
"Preliminary results from a separate new study of Frazier's suggest there is such a thing as too much information in a response. "It seems like kids might have an optimal level of detail they're interested in," Frazier said."
Again, I welcome you to planet Earth, journalists'-representation-of-Frazier. On Earth, you see, we pitch answers to children at their level of understanding. What do you do on your own planet?

For an example of the education system (shockingly) getting it right, when teaching addition, we don't start with the Peano axioms. We start with apples, and how if you have two apples in one basket and three in another, you have five total. Similarly, when teaching exponents, we don't do the full definition that allows x0 to be obviously one, but instead say, "exponents are repeated multiplication (which is repeated addition)." These statements are not fully correct, but kids understand when we later tell them that the simple things they learned earlier were not complete.

Plus, if they get into the habit of asking their parents and guardians when they're curious, if one notices a hole in their understanding, they'll ask you about it. Which makes me wonder whether odd behaviours like watering plants with coke could be largely prevented by answering questions consistently.

From a comment;
"Maybe when their whys get you riled up it becomes a game, but it's initially to learn."
If you allow your children to get one over on you, they enjoy it, and it starts Pavlovian conditioning. (Small children do not consciously plan these things.) That's why it's important to figure out why the questions are exasperating, and use the knowledge to short-circuit the exasperation.

As a bonus, letting your kids exasperate you can help you do this, because if you watch yourself carefully during the exasperation, you can figure out why it exasperates you. Often, this knowledge alone will alleviate the condition, without actually needing to act on it in any intentional way, albeit I've yet to try it on this particular example, and regardless my experience may or not mirror yours in particulars. At the very least, it will help you to understand when to stop the question flow - and to do it consciously and openly, before you actually become exasperated. If you want to do this, remember to stop a few questions short, because when you say, "That's enough questions for now," they will ask "Why?" and it would be nice if you could give them an answer.

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