Cogsci-toddler is not colorblind

Cogsci-toddler is very interested in black people. We live in a famously Latino neighborhood (East LA!) and he attends a diverse church/preschool but even so, there are fewer black children/adults than Latinos/Asians/whites. Right around the time cogsci-toddler turned three, construction started in the lot right next to our house and the investors/foreman were black and many of the construction workers/contractors were also black. Cogsci-toddler would say, “Hi black guy!” with enthusiasm.

But it’s not just cogsci-toddler that notices race. Here’s an excerpt of an excerpt from NurtureShock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (reprinted in Newsweek):

When the kids turned 3, Katz showed them photographs of other children and asked them to choose whom they’d like to have as friends. Of the white children, 86 percent picked children of their own race. When the kids were 5 and 6, Katz gave these children a small deck of cards, with drawings of people on them. Katz told the children to sort the cards into two piles any way they wanted. Only 16 percent of the kids used gender to split the piles. But 68 percent of the kids used race to split the cards, without any prompting. In reporting her findings, Katz concluded: “I think it is fair to say that at no point in the study did the children exhibit the Rousseau type of color-blindness that many adults expect.”

Phyllis Katz, who basically wrote the book on how racial and gender attitudes develop in young children, once wrote that parents (and teachers) often hold two strong beliefs about racial attitudes in children: (1) that kids are color-blind and (2) they won’t become racist if they are not explicitly taught to be racist. Katz has done huge longitudinal studies of black and white children (see Katz, 2002; Katz & Barrett, 1997; Katz & Downey, 2002; Katz & Kofkin, 1997; Kofkin, Katz, & Downey, 1995; Walsh, Katz, & Downey, 1991) that showed that both of these beliefs are dead wrong. For white children in the preschool years, they grow in their own group bias in general and this preference is stronger in children without cross-race friends. For black children, they decrease in their own-group preference. This occurs even when the parents have quite liberal views about race (Katz & Kofkin, 1997).

Anyway, knowing that cogsci-toddler was interested in race (rather — he was particularly interested in black people), I turned to my friendly neighborhood library for help on how to talk to him about race.

I realize most library books that we checked out about race (Shades of PeopleI’m Your Peanut Butter Big Brother, Skin You Live In) were not that helpful! (If you have suggestions about a good kids’ book on race, leave it in the comments!) A lot of these books default to talking about skin color in food terms! For example from the Skin You Live In:

“Your pumpkin pie slice skin,
your caramel corn nice skin;
your toffee wrapped,
ginger snapped
cinnamon spice skin!
Your butterscotch gold skin,
your lemon tart bold skin;
your mountain high apple pie,
cookie dough rolled skin!”

This may be exacerbating a tendency for non-black children to say stuff like this to black children: “Uhm, is your skin brown because you drink so much chocolate milk?” (from Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?). YAR.

And I’m not sure that these food-based coloring descriptions satisfy cogsci-toddler’s fascination with different colored skin. I doubt he’s looking for metaphorical language to describe other shades of brown.

Interestingly, we have found other not-strictly-about-race books that helped us have conversations about race. I like Mama Says: A Book of Love for Mothers and Sons which helped us talk about culture and language in relation to how people look. There is even a subtle moment in this book that depicts a mother who tells her African-American son to be brave as he goes off to an integrated school walking past irate protestors. We also like A Fine Dessert: Four Centuries, Four Families, One Delicious Treat which we initially checked out because cogsci-toddler likes cooking. The book depicts a family where the girls serve and only the men/boys eat at the table, a slave family cooking for a white family, and a modern family where the boy and his dad download a recipe from the internet and serve this dessert (spoiler alert: it’s blackberry fool) to a multiracial dinner party. Through this book we talk about cooking, history/time (which is super abstract!), technology, gender, and race.

But I wish there was a really good children’s book that talked directly about race! So in my next post, I’m going to put up a draft of what I would write if I had to write a preschool book about race! Stay tuned…

I haven't had time to make blackberry fool with my boys yet but here's a photo of them chowing down on blackberries...

I haven’t had time to make blackberry fool with my boys yet but here’s a photo of them chowing down on blackberries…


A low (but delicious) bar for creativity

How do you know if your child is being creative?

Frequently, my children seem random but not necessarily creative. And admittedly, part of creativity is just trying out some stuff and seeing what sticks. But the vast majority of what my children do is trying out stuff (e.g., throwing toothbrushes in toilets, making odd sounds, trying to blow bubbles with water) and none of it “sticks.”

Cogsci-toddler always has an interest-of-the-moment. He went through a cactus phase, a mannequin phase, a sea anemone phase… this summer, he has been into italian cypress trees and baking. So we’ve been pointing out cypress trees in our neighborhood and baking banana bread (thanks to trader joe’s mix!) and parsnip muffins.

At the beginning of summer cogsci-toddler started a new preschool (the Anna Bing Arnold Children’s Center at CalStateLA) and we had a little orientation/get-to-know you session with the teacher. Here’s an excerpt from their conversation:

teacher: What do you like to do?

cogsci-toddler: I like to bake!

teacher: What do you like to bake?

cogsci-toddler: M&M bread!

And at that moment, I was like (quietly in my head), “Hey! We’ve never made such a thing! But… hm… that’s a good idea!” I was so proud of Amos for inventing a whole “new” recipe. Granted I googled zucchini bread recipes and then we just added the M&Ms before baking, but that is probably how great chefs begin — by tweaking other recipes.

Ratio by Michael Ruhlman writes about how knowing the proper ratio (the fundamental ratio of the essential ingredients) basically unlocks an infinite number of variations. I like to think of recipes as equations… you can swap out ingredients that have the same “value” or function and get a new kind of experience… When people do that, we call that “being creative”! Melissa Clark of the NYTimes food section made lemon bars by swapping out some of butter for olive oil. Or what about Chef Roy Choi of Kogi truck fame who swapped out carne asada for some galbi and skyrocketed to culinary greatness?

I’m pretty sure Amos is not going to get a food truck or anything so if you want some of his M&M bread, you’re going to have to make it yourself!

amos cooking IMG_0916 IMG_0917

Cogsci-toddler’s M&M Bread (makes 12 muffins)

  • 1 1/2 c flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 c vegetable oil
  • 1/2 c sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 c grated zucchini
  • 1/2 c chopped nuts (walnuts, pecans, etc)
  • mini-m&ms for top (we like to put 5-8 per muffin, depends on how consistent your child is, mine starts off with a lot per muffin…)

(Recipe adapted from this one.)

Preheat oven to 350F.

Mix all dry ingredients in one bowl (flour, salt, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon). Mix all wet ingredients in another bowl (eggs, oil, sugar, vanilla). Then mix together with zucchini and nuts until just combined. Spoon into muffin tin and top with M&Ms. Bake for 25 min.

Note that the M&M colors might bleed. I suspect part of what we see is due to cogsci-toddler’s excessive fondling of the M&Ms before placing them on the cupcakes.

How to ignore your child(ren) well

This has been a very enjoyable summer. As I emerge from the fog of no longer having an infant, I’ve gotten back into blogging, baking, and reading great books from our library (yay for the 100 book check out limit!).

I have this intuition that it is perfectly fine to ignore my peacefully playing children while I read a book. I don’t get to do this too often but every few days, while they play with each other or their own books, blocks, toys, I just ignore them. Sure, I’m only a few feet from them so I look up from my book if someone is crying or it seems like something has gone wrong but for the most part I just read. And imagine the tableau (my children frolicking around me as I read about Poor Economics) — doesn’t it seem serene and ideal somehow?

But now swap out that book for a phone and the image changes. I usually ignore my phone if I am on kid-duty and I feel an obligation to focus on my kids. Somehow, when I envision my kids playing and me on a phone/tablet/laptop, somehow I don’t feel at peace any more. Even if I am reading, something has changed.

Do you feel the same?

brothers! (note the slightly pained expression on Nathan's face)

brothers! (note the slightly pained expression on Nathan’s face)

I know there are probably a few factors that make me think the book-ignoring is better than smartphone-ignoring. Here are some obvious ones: First, my kids will probably express less interest in my book than my phone. They believe they can use my phone in the same sophisticated (ha!) manner in which I can. Second, I want to model reading books for them more than I want to model using smartphones.

But it feels like there is more to it than that. Somehow it feels like I’m more present with them if there is just paper separating me from them. My friend offered a compelling thought experiment. Imagine a couple reading next to each other on a couch versus on their individual smartphones… doesn’t it somehow feel like the reading couple is “closer” somehow?

If anyone can offer any possible explanations, I’m very interested! Unfortunately I probably won’t be checking out your comments while I’m with my kids… I’ll be reading physical books instead!

Kickstart word learning with google images

There is a lot involved in learning words! We assume that when someone “knows a word” they (1) comprehend its meaning, (2) could use/produce the word, and (3) use it appropriately. When babies says their first words, we are so proud because we assume they have conquered (1) and (2).

But as babies continue to use these first words, observers quickly realize they might not be doing (3) which then brings (1) back into question. Cogsci-baby #2 has always loved dogs and makes it clear that he would like to see our neighbor’s dog as soon as he wakes up in the morning. “Mung-mung” (the sound a dog makes in Korean is often how Korean babies say dog early on) was one of the first words cogsci-baby2 said (~10 mo) but he often overgeneralized this word. He used to refer to cats, bears, deer, oxen, and foxes as “mung-mung” with little concern for accuracy. Even though overgeneralization is technically incorrect, it’s actually a wonderful behavior because it suggests that he is trying to communicate with words despite his limited vocabulary! By golly, he’s not going to let the fact that he doesn’t know more than 5 words get in the way of connecting with people!

Overgeneralization speaks to one of the classic philosophical questions in language acquisition: how do we demonstrate to babies exactly what a word means when all we do is point to stuff and say “hey that’s a ____!” The philosopher W.V. Quine (1960) pointed out this “indeterminacy of reference” with a now famous example. Imagine we were looking at this scene (below) and we did not speak the same language. And then I pointed to this scene and shouted, “Gavagai!”


In Quine’s original “gavagai” example he had used a rabbit in a field but fish in a tank scenes have basically the same problem.

What could I possibly mean? Most English-speaking adults would assume that gavagai meant “fish” but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. I could have been trying to communicate any number of ideas (e.g., “look over there!”, “swimming!”, “a reef!”, “vertebrates!”, “dinner!”, “beautiful!”). But culturally we differ in the way that we describe scenes. Shown the same animation of a scene, Japanese students are much more likely to describe it holistically and describe the background (“a coral reef”) than American students who are more likely to mention only the foregrounded creatures (“fish”) (Masuda & Nisbett, 2001).

nathan watching fish

So when I pointed into a tank at the aquarium and said “fish!” how did Nathan eventually figure out what I meant? I could have meant “glass!”, “pay attention!”, “tank!”, “swimming!”, “coral reef!” Amazingly babies everywhere overcome this indeterminacy issue and come to use words appropriately.

Some philosophers/psychologists (e.g., Noam Chomsky) are so convinced of this indeterminacy of reference problem that they conclude that language must be innateAs for me, I’ve never quite bought the nativist hypothesis; the conclusion seems a little premature. Most of the non-nativists believe that somehow, in the richness of life, this indeterminacy problem is tractable even though we may not have all the answers. There are lots and lots of theories about how this process occurs.

But here is one potential mechanism: even though you may not understand “gavagai” the first time I use it, if I always say “gavagai” whenever we pass any tank (even when there are no fish), you could rule out fish. If I always say “gavagai” whenever I point at something, you could rule out tankThis isn’t the only mechanism but learning across time, across situations, and across examples gives language learners a leg up.

So I bring you my newest idea to use technology to kick start accurate word learning. Because Quine is right about the indeterminacy of learning the meaning of a word from one image. But Quine never had google images.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 5.41.02 PM

It may be hard to know what the sounds “fish” refer to with one image of a fish… but what about a bunch of simultaneous separate images that all include fish in their various incarnations?! It helps constrain the reference! It’s not a full fix — after all there are non-fish that have the same perceptual components of fish (e.g., dolphins, orcas) — but it’s a step in the right direction!

Complete Nathan productive vocabulary (16.5 months): more*, eat*, all done*, milk*, apple, rice^, bread^, fruit, up, mama, grandpa^, dada, Elmo, fish, hippo^, dog^, bird, no, little, go, fly^, hat, ball, cat, water*^, bottle^, please, bye, amen, open, pouch, sleep^.

Comparison, Complete Amos productive vocabulary (16.5 months): more*, all done*, milk*, up, go, mama, dada, shoe, fruit, please, bye, ball, open, amen, down, boro (Japanese cookie), dog^.

*baby sign, ^Korean

Toddlernomics: Introducing our Token Economy

So first, thank you to Freakonomics for allowing us to start using “-nomics” as a suffix.

I want to tell you the story of our token economy. So a few months ago, cogsci-hubby and I decided we would allow cogsci-toddler to watch about 30 minutes of television (aka amazon prime) or 3 youtube videos a day. To help him keep track of how many videos he saw, I introduced tokens, green mahjong chips. I initially introduced these tokens just so that he would know how many videos he could watch in a concrete sort of way. But it’s been this wonderful opportunity to help him learn all sorts of things! Like subtraction! Like the value of 0! Like the function of counting!

So here’s Amos telling you about “5-3=2.”
(Just a note, Amos started off with 5 green tokens in this video. Also, Daniel Tiger is a PBS/inspired by Mr. Rogers show that is very popular with the toddler set. It’s 30 minutes long hence the 3 token charge.)

And here’s Amos also telling you about “2-1=1.”
(Amos loves food videos on New York Times… that’s why he wants to watch an NYTimes video… he’s not into politics or anything like that, haha.)

And finally, here is Amos demonstrating to you his knowledge of cardinality, that the purpose of counting/numbers is to know how many in a set (you can refresh your memory of the other principles of counting here), AND 0! We present to you, “1-1=0.” (This surprised me, I didn’t expect him to know this. Who taught him 0?)

So some of you might say, hey! that’s not REALLY subtraction! he’s just looking down at his tokens to see how many he has left! True. But how do you think we begin to understand subtraction in the first place?

In George Lakoff & Rafael Nunez’s seminal book Where Mathematics Comes From: How The Embodied Mind Brings Mathematics Into Being they argue precisely that these abstract ideas (like subtraction) stem from early experiences with concrete objects and interactions with the physical world. One theoretical perspective (haha, brought to you by me and my friends!) argues that abstract thinking is often supported (at least initially) by mentally simulating or re-imagining these physical experiences.

Regardless of whether this is “true” subtraction or not, it is an established token economy subject to real market forces! Let’s see if Amos will act like rationally and selfishly like homo economicus! I can report to you about the ups and downs of our economy! Stay tuned for more about saving (or the lack there of), delay of gratification (or the lack there of), larceny (unfortunately the presence of), demand-supply, base-5, division, and MORE! WOOHOO!

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What are the conditions that foster good parenting?

I’ve been sick the last week with a pretty severe cold… and what I realize is that I am married to a very good man. Basically, there were like 3-4 days when I was just sleeping in bed for most of the time that I would normally have been doing child care and cogsci-husband just took care of everything. Kids were fed, played with, bathed, slept. What a dreamboat!

And I realize, although sickness is not one of the conditions that fosters good parenting, a good marriage probably is one of the important supports that underlie good parenting. My theory is this: the conditions that foster good parenting probably contribute to overall marriage bandwidth.

Bandwidth (which I’m stealing directly from the book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan, and Eldar Shafir) is a classic idea from cognitive science that says basically you have a limited amount of cognitive resources (space, energies, etc) that you bring to a task. If you are using up your bandwidth worrying about a test, you won’t do as well on the test because you are using up some of your bandwidth on ideas that you are not being tested on. That’s why writing out anxieties before a test helps people do better on a test. You’re relieving some of that bandwidth by dumping out those thoughts on paper.

This brings me back to my theory: you need a lot of bandwidth to be a “good parent.” After all, when a 3-year-old is arguing with you about how he “already went pee” (he is talking about how he went pee YESTERDAY), it is difficult to seriously think of ways to help him understand that he needs to pee on a regular basis or else he will wet his pants. In my more sick and less patient moments, I just want to drag him to the toilet instead of patiently explaining to him how the process of generating pee works and why he needs to actively prevent accidents.

Having a great partner gives your family unit like twice the amount of bandwidth! After all, I may be DONE, wiped out, ready to give up… but then cogsci-husband can swoop in with a remedy, distraction, or both! Cogsci-husband might be near the end of his rope, but then I can come in with a little more rope!

And all this just reminds me of some advice a friend gave us when we started having kids… invest in a house cleaner. This will be good upfront investment and will save you the pain of having to pay for marriage counseling if you have troubles later on! PLUS a professionally cleaned house to boot! But here’s why I think this works — part of your bandwidth is taken up by information/activities that come with keeping a house relatively sanitary. When you get your house cleaned, that bandwidth gets freed up! And you can use that to act in a more loving way to your spouse, kids, clients, etc.

So my (highly simplistic) theory goes something like this: these services and external resources contribute to your overall bandwidth. Having more bandwidth leads to good parenting. A good marriage also contributes to good bandwidth (and although this is not depicted in the model) the flow goes in the other direction as well, a lot of bandwidth also contributes to a better marriage. And good bandwidth contributes to a whole host of other things besides good parenting (e.g., better mental health, better work, etc) which then feeds back upon this system.


Image by David Landy (

Of course I’m leaving out a lot of basic things like values (how does a person decide to want to be loving anyway), information, character, etc. And I don’t mean to insinuate that bandwidth is the only thing that contributes to good marriage/parenting. And these inputs (i.e., good marriage, cleaning services, money) are not requirements towards good parenting. This theory is really about factors that could (but do not necessarily) contribute the logistical odds and ends of a family’s life.

But anyway all this started because I’m just really thankful to my dear hubby for increasing the bandwidth in my life. And I’m thankful to our cleaning ladies.

By the way, our church friends have this great cleaning service. Check’em out! Increase your bandwidth! Mariella’s Friends

**UPDATE: Big thanks to David Landy for peer reviewing this blog post and providing an update to the bandwidth model.

trailer/survey for blog series: could my child become a stupid american?

The job of any parent is to worry. Are my kids eating too much? Too little? Are they sleeping enough? Are they happy? Are they jerks?

I want to ask you (whether you are an empirical parent or just a theoretical one who might have a child one day): Have you ever worried that your child might grow up to be a “stupid American”?

Can I have it all?

For a while, every working mom I knew was abuzz about this Atlantic Monthly article:

Why Women Still Can’t Have It All by ANNE-MARIE SLAUGHTER

Funny enough, the job she essentially “settles” on is an academic job. Also, my take away from this article was this: Awwww crap! Are you telling me that I need to continue to parent when my son is a teenager?

Based on an accidental case study (n=1!) of “having it all,” here are my incredibly unscientific findings: If you are an only child, move into a duplex with your retired parents. If you are not an only child, same advice + make sure your siblings have jobs that are incredibly far away.

Thank you to mimi and halbi (modified Korean forms for grandma and grandpa) for making the cogsci family life possible! Also honorable mention to bachan and Auntie Gail, even though you don’t live next door, you enrich our lives tremendously!

What mommy giveth, mommy can taketh away

Cogsci-toddler, like all toddlers, can be quite cantankerous. He might be holding some duplos in his car seat and then melts down because he dropped them. He sleeps by himself fine almost every night but one day will cry like a madman because he wants Mommy to “stay twenty minutes.” He goes nuts because we won’t let him have the whole tupperware full of grapes (to touch and mangle) but only give him a smaller bowl of grapes (to eat).

I think cogsci-hubby and I have settled on a discipline style that is largely about trying to help cogsci-toddler calm himself down, explaining why we are doing something, and giving him tips on what to do instead of just screaming/crying. We might tell him, “Instead of screaming, just say, ‘I don’t like it.'” He still screams an inordinate amount of the time…

But I realize there is an extra layer of discipline that I subconsciously do based on a very famous theory in behavioral economics. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll first explain what I do, then give you the theory behind it.

So when cogsci-toddler is in a jovial state, I often give him (within reason) all kinds of things he asks for: kid music in the car, opening all the cans of playdoh, as many cactus books as his heart desires. But when he starts whining, I take it away.

So Amos Kitani, meet Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, Nobel prize winning psychologists.

Their fundamental insight was that people (toddlers included) are not rational. If people were rational, someone who loses $1 would lose the same amount of satisfaction that a person who gains $1 would gain in satisfaction. Another way of saying this is that people dislike losing $1 MORE than they like gaining $1. Behavioral economics summarizes this principle like this: losses loom larger than gains. 


See the absolute amount of the value change from a loss of a set amount is greater than the absolute value change from the gain of that same amount. The image is from:

When applied to Amos and now Nathan, sometimes we have to drive in traffic (we live in LA), and they both hate it. So they whine. What we could do is play some kid songs for them when they start to whine in hopes that they will quit. Instead we play kid songs first, as soon as we get in the car. And when they start to whine — I turn it off. When they stop whining, I turn the music back on again. Why? BECAUSES LOSSES LOOM LARGER THAN GAINS! In this case, losing the Korean children’s songs (including such hits as “handsome tomato” and “one tadpole“) feels like a greater loss of happiness than gaining those same songs would add happiness. And my theory is that if it hurts more, it is a more effective consequence that would shape behavior.

On the other hand, if I offered them music once they began whining, they would derive less happiness from that, relatively speaking of course.

So now we have pretty much solved the car ride thing but my beloved boy is also extraordinarily immoral and materialistic and contrarian. If only behavioral economics could help me with those parts of child rearing…


My mom-friend (and fellow professor) just started a powerful blog. Check out her amazeballs first post: