Preschoolers Are Partially Explained by Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point

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.

The Tipping Point by Malcolm GladwellOne 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.

sleeping childThis 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.


Read, dangit

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.

Book Review: The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley

The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way by Amanda Ripley was interesting to read but was a bit frustrating in its meandering exploration of student experiences from around the world and the U.S. If you’re looking to read books from the parenting angle, just read Appendix I, but otherwise, skip this. It’s interesting from more of an academic bent without offering a lot of clear, concise guidance for parents’ immediate needs.

Appendix One, “How to Spot a World-Class Education,” offers quick guidance for parents who may be looking for an educational environment like a daycare or school. You can actually read most of that here online. It’s only a few pages long, so even reading it in the bookstore or library without buying/checking it out should work if you can spare a few minutes.

Since the book focuses on following the actual experiences of several students, schools, and teachers, it wanders a bit, telling the stories rather than focusing on conveying points and supporting with evidence. Telling the stories is all well and good, but it’s easy to finish a chapter or section and wonder what the main takeaway was if you’re trying to learn how to actually make kids (your own children or students) smarter.

This is not a how-to guide but an exploration of the styles of teaching and what seems to work and not work. Some schools are wealthy and aren’t performing as well as less wealthy schools. There are discussions of whether paying a lot for tutors really works and teacher compensation strategies that seem to work.

Even as the book offers up some suggestions for how our educational system could be improved, there is a lack of much data and more reliance on individuals’ stories for support. I find that questionable for guiding policy discussion since it only presents a partial picture in many ways.

A short (<3 minute) video about the book captures some of the points from the book as well.

Developing ‘Robot Brain’: The Disease, Cause, Prevention & More

Side note: I revel in weirdness sometimes, so, let’s just have some fun and see where this takes us…

The Disease: Robot Brain

I recently traveled to see extended family, and during the course of it, I developed “Robot Brain.” I tell you this cautionary tale in the hopes that you may avoid it.

I realized very early into the trip that I was thinking very differently than I do on a normal, day-to-day basis. I’m not saying that I’m a genius everyday, but I can at least have a decent (sarcastic/lewd/snarky, but it’s coherent English) conversation. Usually. Some days are better than others.

On this trip, I turned into a robot capable only of functional thinking; part of my brain seemed to go into hibernation, only to wake up once I returned to my normal routine back at home.

Had my brain permanently died off while I was traveling? Felt that way but fortunately the effects lasted less time than our most recent election’s damage might yield.

So, what was this dreaded mind number, this muddler of mind and killer of complexity? What were its causes and when might we expect to encounter it again?!

Cause: Robot Brain Sets in When High-Level Functioning Declines

During the trip, I was a mother traveling with a young toddler.

My official title and role: Toddler Wrangler. Level 4.

So, no, I wasn’t going to be reading in-depth scientific literature while driving to the airport or while on the swerving bus, clutching my child to keep her flying from her seat on the way from the parking to the terminal.

Nor was going to read Emily Dickinson’s poetry (fascinating and complex, requiring high-level thinking) while frantically trying to get through security and surviving the wait near the gate before boarding a flight that turned out to be not that bad actually but I-just-want-to-get-through-this-so-please-don’t-cry,-Gwen.-Let’s-play-for-the-entire-two-hours-yay.

And I was not even going to be analyzing the news beyond the skimpy headlines (wtf is up with Russia right now btw?)  when I had to endure all of this travel awesomeness on the return way home, during which my daughter had had enough of all the excitement and stress of travel and broke down into tears and several tantrums.

Somehow my brain was not focused so much on higher level thinking so much as doing something to address immediate problems during the trip. How silly of me, right?

Yeah, right.

Locating the Source of the Source (the sub-cause. cause we needed to go there): Why Does Functioning Decline?

This trip was about survival during the going and coming back. But, why did this kind of thinking extend to the portion of the trip in between?

I can count on one hand how many times someone asked me during the trip how I was doing, in the general sense. There were several young children running around the house during this period and more than a dozen people total in the house. The need to just survive and keep the children from killing themselves and others was so strong that I didn’t even want to think to myself very much in very complex ways.

Part of the reasons the brain shut down in this way was to wrangle children, including but not limited to my own, but it was also to keep the peace during the holidays with family members who may not see each other but a few times a year. Do others do this, consciously or unconsciously? I’m convinced that it happens to a degree.

Effects: If Robot Brain Persists, Effects May Be Permanent

What if that state is more enduring than just a short time like during the holidays? What if a person is in this state for longer than just a few days?

The onset of this condition was a little relaxing, and I didn’t realize how far I’d slipped at first. I was more willing to go along with the crowd and follow the leaders in the group.

If this had persisted, maybe I would have lost the drive to do much, to explore, to question, to wonder, to be my own person and pursue individual development wherever the road takes me!

Or, maybe I would have been happier as a drone.

Prevention: Reject Robot Brain. Actively Engage. Rinse. Repeat If Necessary.

The first thing I did when I returned home was to jumpstart my brain by going out and having conversations with adults who didn’t need me to just run after a toddler or prep food but who wanted me to actively engage in the conversation and have a voice, an opinion.

If you do not have people like this in your life, find them. Go to a bar and hope that people don’t think you’re totally nuts. At least chat up a bartender. They’re interested in tips and will chitchat with anything with a wallet, the sluts.

Side Problems Associated with, but Not Caused by, Robot Brain

As bad as holiday fights can be, I wonder if the potential of them occurring may still be preferable if people are thinking for themselves, asking each other questions, and recognizing the individuality of others around.

At least at the holiday gathering this year that I attended, there was little conversation beyond surface-level chitchat, and honestly, that was unfortunate for the adults. The children at least had a fantastic time, but I feel that something important was missed for deeply engaging with other human beings by not trying to set aside time to ask personal questions and to give opportunities for more give and take.

Robot Brain: Looking Ahead

(ha. a-‘head.’ pun. maybe ‘parental humor’ has set in as well. No cure for that, I’m afraid.)

Robot brain was a temporary condition which required stimulating treatment with complex, or at least adult-level, conversation and engagement. I returned to full functionality this time. But what happens if there is a recurrence? What if the evil of avoidance does produce more people unwilling or unable to engage with each other on a meaningful level? Stay tuned…

Sensing the Holidays: Smell, Touch, Hearing, Taste & Sight

Best wishes to every for a happy holiday season. If 2016 was as sh*t for you as it was for me, hopefully 2017 will be even a tad bit better. *fingers crossed for us all*

The holidays can be overwhelming with the chaos, noise, things to do, etc etc etc more more and ‘oh yeah there’s this one little extra item’. BUT, if you can focus on your physical senses even for a moment here and there, maybe you can catch a glimpse of peace and calm or least a moment to let your heart slow down its frantic beating. I cannot possibly be the only one feeling like I’ve been training for a marathon by the end of each day.

So, what are the senses again? It’s been awhile since grade school hammered in what they are.


Smell and memory are so closely interwoven that it can be difficult to separate the two. Recognize that the two play with one another and recognize where they bleed together and why, for you. Your experiences are like no other single human being’s, and while we may have similarities to others based on age or geography, we think and experience the world very differently.

Walking into a parent’s house and immediately remembering fond childhood experiences just by smelling the house, the cooking, even the crazy cleaning or beauty products that seem to cling to the very walls.

Candles slowly releasing a scent that you picked out for a reason, to share with others and specifically with the intent of sharing, of bringing people together, of welcoming visitors into the intimacy of your home.

Wreaths and garland that you chose not just for how lovely they look but also for the soft scent that they cast in the air. How close do you have to be to smell them subtly and then if you go close enough to inhale, can you imagine yourself somewhere else, in the woods or Narnia or beyond?

Firewood burning often takes people home in their memories.

Are the cookies baking made each year out of love for a relative or because a recipe was seen in a magazine? If you look below the surface for the cause, you may find an emotional struggle or message from the person baking those items, whether it’s one of love, insecurity, or something else entirely.

Even some books allow us to smell as part of the experience of reading, like The Sweet Smell of Christmas, which has scratch and sniff areas that are great for children as young as even a year old.


Wreaths and garland. A bit of nature brought into the home. Soft or bristly? Fake or real?

Holding the hands of little ones. My body relaxes when I hold my daughter, and I feel like the scene in The Grinch where his heart grows several sizes. Even holding the hands of strangers can connect us emotionally or mentally with other humans, solidifying that whole “caring” and “giving a shit” thing that this time of year is so often about.

Soft blankets and snuggles. Testy teenagers may gripe about snuggles other parts of the year, but around the holidays, they may slip back into a childhood realm and not only tolerate hanging out with us but also snuggling. Everyone needs physical touch, even our pets and the grouches we may find in holiday events. Hug ’em.

Read holiday books and draw ’em close. Like bait for snuggles. Little Santa by Jon Agee has an interesting perspective on how Santa may have spent part of his childhood.

Don’t touch the candles. That’s bad.

The unfamiliar couch or chair in another person’s home.


The hum of the heat or refrigerator running. It can be like white noise in a calming way.

Voices down the hall as visitors unpack their belongings after just arriving. You did it. You made the preparations for their arrival, and now you can enjoy the calm moment. As a host, you made someone feel welcome.

The pitter patter of little feet that are too excited to stay in bed. My daughter has spent several nights peering out the window looking for Santa to come and give her a ride in his sleigh. Those were not nights to get mad and strictly try to enforce a bedtime. Those were moments to let the gift of magic from a young child penetrate my heart and mind in the Christmas spirit.


Cookies from a coworker or neighbor don’t have to be fancy to be delicious from the good intentions in their giving.

Cider, hot chocolate, and all the other holiday drinks that you may not treat yourself to the rest of the year. Savor the flavor. Don’t think of New Year’s resolutions just yet.

The air has a taste sometimes depending on where you are. The taste of cold and snow on the way when out walking the dogs.


As simple as focusing on elements in a book and trying to locate a specific item, like Waldo, can bring back our mental focus and provide momentary relaxation.

This season provides sight overload sometimes. Instead of trying to see everything, focus on a single color or watch a tree for a longer time than normal. Change the pace of watching or what you’re watching for. If you were to tell a stranger about what you’re seeing, how could you describe it?

A plant in the corner that keeps going just fine despite moving from one state to another more than a year ago.

A sleigh that I got for my daughter’s Christmas books, and while I only use it this time of year, it has so many memories of my own childhood.

A sleeping dog who snuggles gently as I work.

The calendar in the corner of my computer counting down the last days of 2016. Thank. Goodness. There were good memories from this year, but I really hope 2017 is better.


Best wishes for everyone to have a happy holiday season no matter what you’re celebrating right now, even if it’s just a few moments to yourself and your own mind!

The Season of Creating Memories

When my daughter remembers this holiday season, I don’t want her to remember that her mother was stressed out or tired. I want her to remember having fun decorating a Christmas tree, snuggling on the couch while reading holiday stories, and just having fun. This is a great time of the year for creating fantastic memories and relishing the company of others.

Trip: Aquarium

I took my daughter on an adventure that she absolutely loved. There’s an aquarium in Camden, New Jersey, a few hours from us.

During my daughter’s afternoon nap one afternoon, I drove us to a hotel not far from the aquarium. We splashed in the hotel pool, played on the pullout sofa, had a fun dinner in the hotel, and generally had a great time even just staying in the hotel. With little kids, these little experiences can be fantastic and fun without being overwhelming for the child or the parent.

The next morning, my daughter had a good deal of fun experiencing the pleasures of a hotel buffet breakfast, and then we drove to the aquarium. We spent almost three hours there, including time eating lunch.

My daughter loved the aquarium and the power of seeing what she wanted to, wandering from one exhibit to the next, doubling back, going somewhere else, etc. It was a bit dizzying sometimes, but I let her decide what to see. If I had demanded that we go in a straight line from A to Z, we both would have been unhappy by the end of the day, arguing and tugging against each other. We went several times to the shark touch station, the penguins, the hippos, and the octopus.

We even brought home a toy penguin that grows when submerged in water.

20161126_102619I didn’t think she was paying a lot of attention in some ways at the aquarium. At one tank, there was a turtle with fish cleaning its shell, so I described what was going on. She listened well enough to tell one of our friends about it several days later!

As small as this trip may have seemed to me, it meant a lot to my daughter. She started crying when she realized we were almost home and our adventure ‘over.’ That was really reassuring to me because it was in some ways it was difficult for me to tell if she was having much fun or just tolerating my taking her on a crazy trip. For days she enjoyed telling people about our adventure and all the things we did and saw. This warmed my heart so much. We’ve since discussed other adventures we might have in the future as a result of this one going so well.

If you’re able to take short trips like this, they can make for great bonding experiences.

Activity: Holiday Strands


This simple craft can grow each year by attaching the previous years’ to the end. I bought the following materials at a craft store:

The strand came apart? Totally fixable! And next years strand can be attached just as easily.
  • Paper tents that I stretched out like a garland to keep growing (example item)
  • Embellishments that focused on the season, Thanksgiving at the time. One benefit of buying embellishments is that they’re sticky, so you don’t have to use glue, avoiding a potential mess.

You can also choose free materials that can be found, although for these you’ll need to use glue or tape:

  • Acorns
  • Leaves or pine needles
  • Sticks, especially with leaves or acorns still attached
  • Pinecones pieces
  • Candy from Halloween buckets or otherwise themed for the holiday or season

This craft can be tailored to any season. I tried this just after Thanksgiving, and I’ll likely try another one with my daughter closer to Christmas. While we may have a lot of Christmas decorations around this time of year, it’s harder to find decorations for some of the others that we still want to observe. Crafts like this make it easy to have children focus on the holiday at least for a few minutes.

Plus it’s easy. Yay for easy crafts.