For the last five years, I’ve been letting psychology graduate students experiment on my children. That, of course, sounds much worse than the reality that I take them to participate in experiments at the University of Colorado lab that probes early language development in toddlers. Still, I have a lingering unease when it comes to these sessions.
Ever since they were about 12 months old, I’ve been carting my kids down to the lab–just a couple of shoddy office rooms filled with a table, chairs, video camera, and old filing cabinets. Not a boiling beaker or electrode in sight. The kids play various “games” sorting toys into categories, or indicating where they expect a toy to be hidden. But as a former scientist and a science writer, my inner skeptic questions the validity of some of these experimental set-ups.
In one game for instance, the kids would be shown a made-up object, allowed to play with it, and told its made-up name. The grad student would hand my daughter an object that looked like a giant chessboard pawn covered in a bright yellow dish-scrubbie mesh and say, “Sally, do you see the Glurg? Look at the Glurg!” The 15-month-old Sally would stare at the Glurg and the doctoral candidate like only a toddler can: “Are you for real? I’m neither impressed nor bored here.”
Then a whole tray of made-up objects with novel shapes, bright primary colors and funky textures of feathers, bumps and glitter would be presented on a cafeteria tray. “Sally, can you show me the Glurg?” Sally’s chubby, stubby little hand would pass her something from the tray–sometimes the same shape as the original Glurg, most times not. “Good! Thank you!” the student would sing-song. “Are there any more Glurgs?” Sally, sensing the expectation would dutifully clear the entire tray of objects until it was empty.
The first time this happened, my heart sank a bit. My child is not a word-learning prodigy who can absorb a new vocabulary concept in 30 seconds after all. But as I left that day, the experiment rumbled around, agitating in my own brain. Any parent knows that children at this age do not learn words after one brief mention. I must have repeated “banana” at least 20, 30 or 50 times over weeks before Sally associated the word with that particular breakfast fruit.
My bewilderment grew the more I thought about it. How could this possibly be a legitimate test of language development? Then I became paranoid. Maybe the ‘experiment’ was just a ruse and the real test was probing the parenting habits of adults who would sign their children up for such tests. After all, the language lab was part of the psychology department and we all remember those infamous Yale subjects who ‘zapped’ the living daylights out of fellow students.
The next time I took her in for a session, I was acutely aware of the video camera recording both of our actions. Was I subconsciously trying to give her the ‘right’ answer? Was I praising her too much? Too little? Was I suppose to help her or not? As a former scientist, I assumed I should simply sit there neutrally so as not to influence the results. But maybe I’m the result being measured and not my daughter’s ability to find the Dolme.
A couple of years later, my son Ryan would repeat the same exact performance with the Dolmes and the Glurgs. At 18-months, his vocabulary lagged far, far behind his sister’s at the same age, like those tired, distracted bowed legs of his on a dayhike. But, he too followed the same pattern of clearing the tray with a hopeful, questioning look on his face: “How about this one? Would you like this one, too? Okay, how about this thing?” It cracked me up to see the identical, universal response of toddlers wanting to please the adult in charge. Again, I doubted the scientific rigidity.
In fact, at the end of Ryan’s participation, I had to ask the young researcher about it. “Do most kids do that, hand everything on the tray back to you?” She laughed, “Well, yes and no. Most kids are shy and so they hand everything back to their parent instead.” I felt a little spark of pride in my socially advanced children.
The experiment, of course, was meant to test which attributes a child associates with a new word first–shape, color, or texture? So it didn’t really matter what they handed back or how many they handed back–it was that first attribute and the descending order of attributes that was being measured. I’m still unsure whether any 18-month-old could make such quick associations at all. I was, however, reassured that my parenting was not under the microscope. (Well at least not theirs: my own high-powered lenses of self-inspection are another topic for another time).
These experiments also let me track and appreciate how brain development and language acquisition is hurtling along in these short months that make up the second year of life. When my son started going to the language lab, he had literally only said five words in his life and maybe only one–“NO!”–was actually understandable.
Like every parent, I worried he was ‘behind’ the developmental curve, plotted to represent some nonexistent average child’s abilities. But by now, I wasn’t going to sweat it in the language lab. For one set of experiments, the student had me fill out a ten-page-long questionnaire on the words that Ryan actually says out loud. I ticked off 10 boxes (I was being generous). We were given a book about Piggy, that introduced pictures of mostly new words–pickle, oven, lamp, bucket. “Where can Piggy take a nap? On a bucket? No, that’s silly!” It went on for 20 or so pages like this. We were told to read it at least once a day for the next two weeks and return.
In the next visit, I again ticked off any new boxes of words Ryan had picked up. There were a handful, but my boy was still at this point a better nonverbal communicator. Pointing and grunting or squealing is quite effective it turns out when you have an older sister. He was then ‘quizzed’ on the pictures in the book, with the student presenting three choices and asking Ryan, “Can you show Piggy the pickle?” To my delight he got about 85% of them right. Then, she flipped through the book pictures and asked Ryan, “What is this?” prompting him to say the word. He said the first syllables of the ones he already knew, like peanut butter and pickle, but not lamp or oven.
Our Piggy book was confiscated and we were instructed to return in four weeks. In between, life got hectic and I forgot all about the experiment. A last-minute work opportunity came up and I found myself flying across country with the two kids to visit my family for Easter. The kids hunted eggs with their cousins and did crafts with their Nana. When we returned, a call reminded me of our appointment. As I ticked off about 50 more boxes on the vocabulary list, I did a mental calculation of the last week. Ryan was adding multiple words per day that he said out loud. He aced both flash card tests.
In six weeks, he had gone from almost nonverbal to a parrot, repeating everything anyone said to him (a game that greatly amuses his sister, now 5, “Ryan, say Pancake!” “Can pake!”). It’s a well-worn cliche that children at this age are like sponges. But that’s not a just simile–sponges soak up a certain amount of water and become saturated. Children’s brains at these ages are insatiably absorbing every last drop of experience in sight, constantly assimilating information and then expanding their ability to take in even more. I think this is why they sleep like the dead at this age, as their synapses gel. It also keeps me on my toes (teetering mostly) making sure those experiences are all bright, positive, and non-curse-word-filled ones.
At two, my son talks about as much as my daughter did when she turned one. So although the thought of submitting my children before the throne of science still gives me pause, I’m also grateful for the comfort and fascination these experiments have provided. It’s a relief to know that inside those little towheads–the one bobbing to “Moves Like Jagger” and the one shaking his incessant ‘no’–their brains are coming along nicely.
Kendall Powell is a biomedical writer based near Denver. She is a contributor to The Science Writers’ Handbook and her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Nature among other places. Find her @KendallSciWrite or on the web.
Photos courtesy Shutterstock.com and K. Powell