Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Lion or the Zebra?

Today was Zuzu's visit to the psychology lab at a local university to participate in their study on two-year-olds and empathy.

grad student met us outside to give me a parking permit and (after I unloaded the kids and the student commented on how "neat" it is that I can snap Coco's car seat onto the jogging stroller--I dunno, I just found it amusing that she thought this was new technology or something) we headed up. 

The student was very sweet with Zuzu and let her hit the buttons on the elevator. I was, as usual, both proud of and bewildered by Zuzu's eagerness to make friends with strangers and forge ahead into new and strange places with just a quick glance to make sure I'm behind her. 

She did stop short inside the lab, where three smiling young women greeted her enthusiastically. While she'll run wild down an empty hallway in a strange buding, she does cross thresholds somewhat more cautiously, especially if she's walking into a crowd. Her fingers went into her mouth, which is her standard "I'm uncomfortable here" gesture. 

But I encouraged her to walk forward so I could get the stroller in the room and the grad students showed her the shelves of cool toys and asked about her doll, and in no time she was telling them about Baby Keya and playing with a clock puzzle.

I had to sign some consent forms (saying it was okay for them to videotape her) and meanwhile, Zuzu spotted a container of Duplo blocks on a shelf in their office and insisted on playing with those rather than any of the toys they had sitting out for her. Because of course.

The grad students obliged and once she felt comfortable (which, again, took no time at all because Zuzu warms up to people fast) it was time for us to go watch a puppet show.

I left the sleeping Coco in the care of a grad student and went into a little dark room where the puppet show was set up. Zuzu sat on my lap facing the black box stage.

The student running the experiment took a lot of care to explain to Zuzu that animals were going to come out of the curtain in the back, and they were going to come out slowly, and they were getting ready to come out, and was she ready? 

She repeated this a couple times. I thought she was overdoing the prep, but when the puppets emerged, Zuzu stiffened and grabbed ahold of me--it was kinda scary, considering she's never seen a puppet show before and the stuffed animals presumable looked like they were moving on their own. And being birthed by a black curtain.

But they were cute little animals--two lions and a zebra--and the girl running the experiment introduced them to Zuzu, who cheerfully responded, "Hi, guys!" and waved at them. (Because she's adorable friendly).

The skit was silent, so then we just watched as the two animals played with a Nerf ball. "They're playing catch!" Zuzu announced.

A lion tossed the ball to the zebra, who threw it back, but then (drama!) the lions just tossed the ball back and forth between themselves, even when the zebra danced and opened his hands for the ball. He covered his eyes with his hands when the lions ignored him. 

Normally, I would have been talking to Zuzh about this--"What does the zebra want? How does he feel?"--because I'm always interested to know how she reads body language and behavior, but I'd been instructed to stay silent.

When the show was over, the grad student asked me to close my eyes while they brought the zebra and one of the lion puppets back out from behind the curtain. Then they asked Zuzu to point at the one she wanted to play with. (I think I was supposed to close my eyes so I wouldn't try to sway her decision: Choose the poor little left out zebra!)

Not that she listens to me anyway.

Zuzu announced definitively, "I want to play with the lion!" And they had to ask her to point again, I guess to keep their experiment consistent? But she kept repeating, "I play with lion!"

I sort of cringe-giggled because, you know, naturally, I wanted her to choose the zebra and be the most compassionate and empathetic toddler ever observed. I also understood that she wants to play with the cool animal who had the ball, right?

Anyway, that was the end of the experiment. They thanked us and offered Zuzu a prize (she chose a snack cup and was slightly disappointed it was empty). Then Zuzu immediately asked to see the animal show again. (And continued to repeat this request for the next two hours after we'd gone to the library and then home--our library visit went smoothly, by the way, but I didn't attempt storytime).

They asked if I would fill out a volunteer form for Coco, and I asked (a little nervously) if Zuzu's response was typical for what they'd seen so far.

The student assured me that it was. In fact. Three-year-olds had tended to favor the zebra, which had been a bit of a surprise to them, but two-year-olds almost always chose the lion, which they expected (because he's the fun one with the ball, right?).

So that seems to say something interesting about when children begin to experience empathy and consider the interaction from the zebras point of view rather than their own. Amazing that just a few months makes these huge cognitive and emotional leaps--but I guess you can basically say that about at least the first five years of a kid's life!

At the library (Zuzu invited all the grad students to come with us, but they politely declined), I picked up a book called Parenting Without Power Struggles by Susan Stiffelman. I read about it somewhere. It's not about toddlers, but I really like her philosophy of preventing crappy behavior rather than reacting to it. She makes some really good points, but the one that's most applicable to where I am right now is the idea that s parent is the captain of the ship and kids feel safe when the captain is confident and in charge. Not in control of every little thing, but also not debating or negotiating. 

And the book validates something I do anyway (always good to know!), which is to talk about how Zuzu is feeling when she's mad, or agree with her when she wants something while also being firm about not letting her have it. 

For example, when she asks for pancakes for dinner (daily), I say, "You love pancakes, don't you? We will have pancakes again for breakfast tomorrow!" Basically this allows me to avoid saying, "No! No more pancakes!" (I still occasionally find myself saying, "Mercy, child! I said no pancakes! Let's talk about something else!" But you know. Nobody's perfect, and damn she's persistent.)

It is incredibly frustrating to get into an argument over pancakes (or, really, anything) with a toddler, so I liked the observation that you can't engage in a power struggle if only one person is pushing. (This actually works well with college students too: "I understand you're unhappy with this grade. How can I help you to improve on the next essay or exam?") I just have to not get defensive or short-tempered (which is easier said than done sometimes--whether I'm dealing with toddlers or college students).

Stiffelman also points out that kids have to be shown how to adapt to life not working out the way they want it to, and that doesn't happen through lectures, advice, or punishment, but through compassion, connection, gentle suggestion, and example. She also makes an argument about why the TV nanny's version of time out doesn't work, which I found interesting because I never liked that scenario but couldn't articulate why. Anyway, no one approach is perfect but I really like this parenting philosophy, and given the fact that Zuzu seems to be pretty strong-willed, I imagine this is a book I'd benefit from reading again in a few years.

All this child psychology stuff is pretty fascinating to me--I love thinking about how Zuzu's little brain works. My brother commented when he was here last weekend that conversations with her take some pretty random leaps, but I can usually follow her train of thought and understand her associations. It's so cool to watch her make sense of the world, a world in which she (like virtually every two-year-old, I'd imagine) is right at the center. It makes me want to do some more reading about toddlers' cognitive and emotional development. (Any suggestions?)

Also, I kind of want to redo this puppet show a year from now and see if Zuzu would change her mind about the lion and the zebra...


  1. Not exactly cognitive development but I have heard that 'Siblings without Rivalry' is a really good one for parenting books though your girls may be a little young. Feel free to read it for me and tell me what to do. ;)

  2. I wonder if this study would have been any different had all the puppets been lions. Or if the different animals influenced her decision. Definitely interesting. I wonder what Finn would pick and on a bigger scale what that could potentially say about his personality years from now.

  3. I wish I could remember the names of this series of documentaries that M and I watched years and years ago - they covered years and years of research and tests on infants and toddlers and preschoolers. Similar types of things - puppet shows, among other things. They were completely mesmerizing. I can't remember if we rented them, or taped them from PBS. I searched around but couldn't find them. I'll ask him and get back to you. Sounds like you'd totally dig watching them.

  4. Okay, so the thought I just can't get out of my head is if kids are not specifically selecting the animal that was domineering, but the animal they prefer as a whole. I'm fairly certain Benjamin would choose a lion over a zebra, despite the social experiment.

    Also, I feel like I've seen this identical study on 20/20 before.

    Either way, interesting! I love that Zuzu is already part of research.

  5. The Whole Brain Child. Super fascinating!!!