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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABCs and PhDs: Personal experiments
February 18, 2009 - 8:08am

In my last semester as a graduate student, I TA’ed a human behavioral biology course. As it turned out, I was newly pregnant with my first baby, and the course wowed me, especially as the professor reviewed the cognitive development literature, describing a series of amazing experiments carried out in the last 30 years on infants and children. It was an eye opening tour of the evidence that argues against babies being born blank slates, of development of concepts of self and others, of development of understanding of the physical world (e.g. gravity), and other fascinating topics. I came out of each class excitedly thinking, “When my baby is born, I have to try those experiments myself!”

And in fact, after wrapping up writing my thesis I postponed a postdoc (indefinitely) and between changing diapers (etc) I delved into the developmental psychology literature. As best I could I adapted simple experiments that didn’t require fancy equipment to try with my infant daughter on the living room floor. How amazing to find ways to “ask” my daughter questions such as “Can you recognize your mirror image?” and “How long is your memory at 3 months?” Of course, she grew and changed so fast, and I missed out on exploring many hidden developmental milestones, so I kept them in mind, and when I had my second baby I got a second chance to try other experiments. (If only to keep having more chances, but alas, we stopped at two). Addicted, I borrowed my friends’ babies, and my collection of little experiments grew into a book project that I hope to publish one day soon for other parents who might like to explore in this way.

There is a history of researchers who have carefully studied their children’s development – the best known parent/researcher being Piaget who carefully observed his three children, and his observations formed the basis for many of his ideas that later became important to the field of cognitive development. But really, what parent doesn’t, to some extent, try little experiments to satisfy their own curiosity of what’s going on in this mysterious little mind, even if it is something like: “let’s see if little Midge will enjoy pudding”.

Recently, Caroline Grant (Mama, PhD co-editor) forwarded me a NYT article that interviewed several scientist parents who share my enthusiasm for jumping at that fleeting, rare, amazing, personal opportunity to explore, first hand, the fascinations of their child’s development. What struck me most about this article was its sensationalistic focus on protocol: the “over the topness” of some of the researcher’s ways to examine their children (one of them, for example, wired his entire home with video cameras to capture as much as he could of his baby’s existence), the impracticalities of using one’s own relatives (children, no less) in a scientific study, and the potential dangers of some experiments. Certainly, these are fair enough points and ethics boards have a lot to say about them. But a far more interesting angle to the story, in my (admittedly biased) mind, is that parenthood is a path of discovery in all sorts of ways, and these scientists have the exuberance and excitement to explore, in a unique way, what makes their little being tick, even if what they find out is not recorded in a published paper. And as long as they protect the safety and welfare of their child, I welcome their enthusiasm to understanding their part of the universe. In my experience, these little beings become more and more interesting mysteries the more you learn about them.


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