Monday, April 13, 2009

Well Baby

We're all feeling a lot better here. I am unfortunately still prone to coughing fits, and when the one brought on by my attempt to unload the dishwasher combined with my lingering evening "morning sickness" to actually make me throw up for the first time in this pregnancy... well, I took the hint and decided to retire to the sofa with my laptop.

Right now, Pumpkin is having her snack with Daddy and demonstrating the new rhyme she's learning at day care: I'm a little teapot. She can do most of the rhyme with very little prompting. It is unbelievably cute. (Yes, grandparents, et al., we'll get this on video at some point.) She's also telling her Daddy that he should "be happy!" He's trying to extend that to "don't worry, be happy", because he loves the 80s.

Earlier today, we took her to the doctor for her 2 year well baby check up. It seemed like a bit of a misnamed appointment, since the entire family is still suffering a bit from colds, but Pumpkin still did great. She took her own shoes off for her height and weight check. She stuck her tongue out as requested, and let the doctor check her ears and listen to her heart without struggle. She also impressed the doctor with her words and phrases- her language skills have really taken off lately.

The doctor gave us a picture book for Pumpkin, as part of some campaign someone is running to encourage parents to read to their children. It is a worthy goal. It is very easy to forget just what a privileged upbringing Pumpkin is getting. She has shelves full of books and parents who are always happy (OK, at least willing) to read to her. She, in fact, has pretty much anything she needs. She's lucky that way.

The fact that other kids aren't as lucky as Pumpkin has been on my mind lately, due to a recent Economist article on the impact of childhood stress on later life. The Economist article is summarizing a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Evans and Schamberg. The PNAS stuy concludes that childhood stress correlates with reduced working memory later in life (working memory is an important component of intelligence), and strongly implies that a causal link is likely. This is far from my field of expertise, but I wasn't completely convinced by the PNAS study that the working memory reduction was caused by the stress. It certainly seems like a strong, plausible hypothesis, though, given everything we know about the effects of chronic stress (the summary of these are far beyond what I have the energy for tonight- check out Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, by Robert Sapolsky for a good book on the subject).

However, I certainly don't think that the conclusion the Economist article reaches is supported by the evidence. The article concludes by referencing studies that have shown that social position is related to stress (the lower your status, the more stress you have in general), and extrapolating:

"So, it may not be necessary to look any further than their place in the pecking order to explain what Dr Evans and Dr Schamberg have discovered in their research into the children of the poor. The Bible says, “the poor you will always have with you.” Dr Evans and Dr Schamberg may have provided an important part of the explanation why."

I think this lets those of us who are higher on the "pecking order" off the hook far too easily. Leaving aside the fact that wealth is not perfectly correlated with status, there is no reason to assume that the stress-related effects seen by Evans and Schamberg are entirely due to low status. There are many other sources of stress in a poor person's life. Not having enough to eat is stressful. Being too cold because your family can't pay the heating bills is stressful. Having parents who are stressed and worried about meeting the family's basic needs is no doubt stressful. Being sick and unable to go to the doctor for treatment because your family does not have adequate health insurance is probably pretty stressful, too. All of these things could be at least partially addressed by programs to alleviate the effects of poverty. We do not know if such programs will help to break the cycle of poverty, but we certainly cannot conclude from this study that there is no point in trying.


  1. Very interesting post. Your story about getting a book from the doctor reminds me of something from Freakonomics: on the causality / correlation front, the authors noted that sending books to poor kids didn't confer on them the advantages expected. Turns out 'books in the house' means educated parents, and educated parents tend to be smarter / more prosperous.

    So unless you actually address the prosperity / smarts gap, free books from the doctor doesn't do much good for a disadvantaged kid.

  2. @Mimi- I remember that bit of Freakonomics, too. I have a similar reason for not caring too much about the numeric ratings we started giving schools thanks to No Child Left Behind. I think those ratings mostly tell you how wealthy/educated the neighborhood is. One of the other tidbits that stuck with me from Freakonomics is that the best single predictor of a kid's academic success is the education level of the mother.

    Still, I have to think that having a book is better than not having one, even if it doesn't make the huge difference people once hoped it would.

    Of course, I'd rather we do something more substantial to help the kids living in poverty. Like work to help their parents get out of poverty. Or make sure that everyone has enough to eat and a place to live. Those things are a lot harder to organize than a program that gives out books, though.

  3. I love it when encourage their children to read. I myself am a childrens writer You should Check out my book The Adventures of Kid Humpty Dumpty. It tells what his life was like before he took his fall. You can get it at


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