The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell may seem like an odd book for parenting inspiration, but his chapter “The Stickiness Factor” covered some fascinating points worth calling out.
One object gets only one name
Have you had a child not understand that an oak is a kind of tree or an owl is a kind of bird? I’ve wondered about the bird one. My daughter didn’t seem to understand that owls and eagles are kinds of birds. There seemed to be a blank stare, like “mommy, you’re an idiot. That’s an owl, not a bird.”
This is because as children acquire language, there’s a principle of mutual exclusivity at play.
“…small children have difficulty believing that any one object can have two different names. The natural assumption of children, Markman argues, is that if an object or person is given a second label, then that label must refer to some secondary property or attribute of that object…. A child who learns the word elephant knows, with absolute certainty, that it is something different from a dog. Each new word makes the child’s knowledge of the world more precise. Without mutual exclusivity, by contrast, if a child thought that elephant could simply be another label for dog, then each new word would make the world seem more complicated. Mutual exclusivity also helps the child think clearly” (p.115)
Using this concept of mutual exclusivity (obviously the children don’t intentionally apply it), “a child who already knows ‘apple’ and ‘red’ hears someone refer to an apple as ’round.’… The child can eliminate the object (apple) and its color (red) as the meaning of ’round’ and try to analyze the object for some other property to label” (p.115).
It’s good to expose children to a wide range of words and concepts, but if they don’t seem to understand that a ‘dog’ is also a ‘canine’, don’t press the issue. They may not be ready to understand the dog with both words.
They understand plot and have advanced vocabulary… at least when they’re asleep
People used to think that preschool children couldn’t follow story very well, but that turned out not to be true.
“At three and four and five, children may not be able to follow complicated plots and subplots. But the narrative form, psychologists now believe, is absolutely central to them. ‘It’s the only way they have of organizing the world, of organizing experience'” (p.118). Children use story and narrative to understand the world around them.
This comes out in children’s sleep sometimes. If you hear them talking in their sleep, they may be remembering the day they just finished or the one coming up. In analyzing the records of a 2 year-old girl talking in her sleep, a researcher wrote:
“In general, her speech to herself is so much richer and more complex [than her speech to adults] that it has made all of us, as students of language development, begin to wonder whether the picture of language acquisition offered in the literature does not under-represent the actual patterns of the linguistic knowledge of the young child. For once the lights are out and her parents leave the room, Emily reveals a stunning mastery of language forms we would never have suspected from her [everyday] speech.” – p.119
This makes me want to secretly record in my daughter’s room in the hopes that she’s whispering in her sleep. It makes me rather ridiculously happy that children are developing in this way. They’ve pulled the wool over our eyes and are smarter than we give them credit for! Sneaky. Love it.
So children like story. So what?
So, they are capable of understanding more than just a few minutes of a television show and books. Expose them to stories early. Books with words and simple rhymes that don’t weave into a plot are fine, but even at 2 years old, give them plots that can both entertain them and lead them to making sense of the plots they find themselves in each day in this wide, beautiful, crappy world.
Why they can watch the same thing over and over
“If you think about the world of a preschooler, they are surrounded by stuff they don’t understand – things that are novel. So the driving force for a preschooler is not a search for novelty, like it is for older kids, it’s a search for understanding and predictability… For younger kids, repetition is really valuable. They demand it. When they see a show over and over again, they not only are understanding it better, which is a form of power, but just by predicting what is going to happen, I think they feel a real sense of affirmation and self-worth” (p.126).
Click! Now it makes sense why watching things over and over again is appealing. Power! Control! When you’re often the littlest one around and are treated like you may not know a lot, of course this would be appealing.
There is a limit to how much repetition they like, though. There is an end to all good things. If children are watching television, the show needs to be complex enough that it allows deeper levels of comprehension on later viewings. If it’s too simple, it’s boring, and the child will move on to something else. Mastery becomes boredom.
Activity: Guessing an animal with three clues
Part of the research that led to Blue’s Clues included three clues sprinkled throughout the show, and this leads to an easy guessing game you can play together.
Each clue needs to be a bit harder than the last. To be effective, the clues have to start out easy and then get progressively harder. If they’re too hard at the beginning, the clues aren’t ‘sticky’ in the sense of engaging the child and encouraging him or her to think.
By starting out very broad, children are encouraged to think of a wide range of answers.
Sample game: Name the animal that I’m thinking of. (This could also be an object)
Clue 1: It’s black and white. (very broad, should get children thinking visually of many animals.
Clue 2: Can be found on ice. (a bit harder than the last hint and restricts the possible animals)
Clue 3: It waddles. (Acting this out can help the children who don’t get the answer right away)
I played this game with my daughter while she was getting ready for bed. I started with the penguin clues that were described in the book, and then I branched out to other animals because she was enjoying it so much. Some of the hints we may want to say are too hard, like where the animal lives (like in Africa or Australia, places that have names rather than ‘a hot place’ or ‘in a snowy place’).
This simple game was an easy way to play together without props or being active physically, and my daughter’s eyes lit up at being engaged this way, which thrilled me so much. She wanted to share her ideas and thoughts with me. I could read her body language when my clues were too hard and adjusted or gave away silly other hints like how the animal moves.
I did not start reading this book because I thought it may have helpful parenting information. I read it because I was browsing in the library and thought it looked interesting. Whatever your interests are, follow them and let your mind explore. You never know where you’ll find inspiration or enlightenment, from science fiction, graphic novels, romance, magazines, and more.