Developmental psychologist Susan Engel offers an antidote to the anxiety that seems to pervade parenting today.
By Ali Benjamin
Rosie was a handful by every measure. Bossy and stormy, the 4-year-old, who soaked up adult phrases like a sponge, would thrash about the house and scream things at her mother like, “You are not the boss of me! I hate you! You don’t love me, and you never have! Don’t tell me what to do! I am the boss of myself!”
Susan Engel was a witness to that very tirade just moments after arriving for a visit with Rosie’s mother. The anguished mom looked at Engel, a developmental psychologist at Williams, and asked, “Is she going to be this way forever?”
The short answer, according to Engel’s latest book, Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become, is: probably. But likely not in the way Rosie’s mom feared. Over time, the little girl’s assertiveness, her intelligence and her attention to the dynamics of others’ interactions (which for Rosie resulted in an uncanny ability to push people’s buttons) would almost certainly serve her very well.
Moreover, Engel says, there’s not much Rosie’s mom—or any parent, for that matter—can do to change who a child is or who she will ultimately become.
“An awful lot of what we debate about parenting doesn’t actually matter in terms of who the child becomes,” says Engel. “It matters much more who the child is, at his or her core, and who the parents
are, and the quality of the relationship that exists between the two.”
Engel’s message is reassuring for parents feeling overwhelmed by the seemingly constant flurry of advice, research and headlines telling them how to raise a perfect, and perfectly happy, child. It’s also a message grounded in 30 years of research that Engel has conducted in living rooms, in classrooms and on playgrounds across the country, often with the help of Williams students.
Since her earliest days as a researcher, Engel has preferred naturalistic fieldwork—observing how children behave in real-world settings—to tidy laboratory experiments. Much of her work, published in peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of Child Psychology, American Education Research Journal and Cognitive Development, involved recording hundreds of hours of conversations among children and their families and teachers over the years. She painstakingly coded key aspects of the way those conversations unfolded and used them to identify patterns in how children process their worlds. Her early findings led to an improved understanding of the fluidity with which young children move between reality and fantasy—what Engel calls “what is and what if.”
Her first book, The Stories Children Tell: Making Sense of the Narratives of Childhood (1995), showed how children develop their senses of self through storytelling. She called on parents and schools to encourage a diverse range of narrative style and voices, even at the expense of grammatical correctness. And her research inspired others to study how children’s narratives correlated with later cognitive processes.
Four years later, she published Context is Everything, a meditation on the development and accuracy of memory, one of human beings’ most complex mental processes. The book, which begins with a simple conversation between mother and child, draws from empirical research, literature, history and personal experience to show how memory itself is a creative, nonlinear and potent tool for understanding ourselves and the world.
Meanwhile, Engel was growing increasingly concerned about what she saw as a gap between academic researchers and families. Her third book, 2005’s Real Kids, argued that laboratory studies, by their nature, could not capture the full complexity of any child. “What is missed,” she argued, “is an understanding of the rich and complex inner life of the child—not simply what they can do under some given conditions, but how they feel, what they think and what they are inclined to do under the noisy conditions of real life.”
Though she intended the book to appeal to parents as much as to scholars and clinicians, she admits now that Real Kids didn’t resonate as much as she’d hoped with a mainstream audience. “What an academic thinks of as an engaging style often isn’t,” she says. “Trying to straddle those two different worlds is much harder than people think.”
Still, Engel, who directs the Program in Teaching at Williams, began reaching out to a wider audience by writing regular op-eds for The New York Times. Her essays have highlighted ways in which developmental psychology could inform responses to bullying, teacher preparation and education policy. One controversial column, “Playing to Learn,” published in February 2010, lit up the blogosphere with its recommendations to the Obama administration for how to improve K-12 education. A successful school, Engel argued, would eliminate “tedious hours learning isolated mathematical formulas or memorizing sheets of science facts that are unlikely to matter much in the long run” to give students extended time for play, storytelling, writing “things that have actual meaning to them” and sustained conversations with teachers.
She continued to present her research at academic conferences and publish in peer-reviewed journals, but she also began speaking at primary and secondary schools whenever she could. Out in the “real world,” it seemed, families were being overwhelmed by opinions and information that in her estimation were often useless and sometimes even downright harmful.
“Everyone wants to earn an A-plus in parenting,” Engel says. “But that’s not how parenting works, and it’s not how kids work. … People’s intuitions about child-rearing are so powerful, but they’re not always accurate. It can be difficult to let go of what they believe.”
Like many parents, Rachel Barenblat ’96 knows these parenting pressures first-hand. A wellrespected, recently ordained rabbi who leads Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams, Mass., she also has a successful writing career, publishing four chapbooks of poetry and, in January, her first booklength collection. Her blog, Velveteen Rabbi (velveteenrabbi.blogs.com), was named by Time as one of the top 25 in the blogosphere in 2008.
But when it came to her son Drew, now almost 2, Barenblat says she was lost. In the months after his birth, he cried a lot—far more than her friends’ babies seemed to cry. Everyone had a suggestion: He needed medication for reflux; he needed to be swaddled; he needed more attention; he needed less attention.
Barenblat recalls wondering: “Were the hours of colicky crying just about his digestion, or were they worrisome indicators of his future? Did we make the right choices about how to get him to sleep? Were we finding the right balance between holding him close and letting him discover the world on his own?”
Every decision, she recalls, seemed to hold weighty implications for her son.
It was precisely for parents like Barenblat that Engel wrote Red Flags or Red Herrings, her first book with a mainstream press. Published in February by Simon & Schuster, it generated a flurry of media attention as a rebuttal to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Yale law professor Amy Chua’s best-selling memoir of her extraordinary efforts “not to raise a soft, entitled child.”
At the core of Engel’s book is a simple idea: Every child is born with a series of fairly immutable traits that remain constant over the course of his or her lifetime, regardless of home or school environment. It’s unlikely that any parent, however loving or involved, can fundamentally change whether a child is dreamy or driven, shy or gregarious, optimistic or anxious. Nor can a parent influence whether a child has a temper or calm demeanor, what captures his interest or even her basic IQ.
Focusing on what she considers to be parents’ biggest concerns—happiness, intelligence, friendships, love, success and morality—Engel blends stories of children (her own and those she’s encountered throughout her career) with solid, empirical research on child development. The selected bibliography includes 20 pages of studies, newspaper articles and books, more than 100 sources in all.
When writing Red Flags or Red Herrings, Engel resisted simple “do-and-don’t” lists, choosing instead to highlight research and observations of real-world children. Here are some insights from her work:On Intelligence: “Whether your child is smart or not, she’s likely to stay that way. … But how adults respond to her can make it easy for her intellect to find avenues of expression. This can lead her down a path of intellectual realization or can put roadblocks in her way that make her feel, and then behave, less intelligently than she might be capable of.”
On Friendships: “If she is part of a group some of the time or has made a good friend, she is probably going to be fine. … If … your child is seriously lonely or constantly left out of the social scene at school … try to create situations in which she can make new friends. … [And] be aware that life in groups is tough for her.”
On Goodness: “Testing authority, satisfying one’s own needs, seeking pleasure and putting oneself ahead of others are all natural and healthy characteristics of early childhood. …
Set a good example by doing good in obvious ways, … thinking out loud about how others feel and sacrificing your own pleasure for someone else’s. … You can pull a somewhat
selfish child toward goodness. … Good children usually stay that way.”
On Success: “Ability without motivation and conscientiousness rarely takes a child far. … When she struggles with something, commend her effort and remark on her improvement,
rather than whether she is good at it or not. … Making sure that your child has a chance to work hard at things she loves is the best tool you can give her for carving future success.”
On Love: “If your child finds you to be emotionally reliable and consistent when she is little, if you and she like being with each other, if what begins as a bond becomes rapport,
her romantic future is off to a good start. … A loving reciprocal relationship with a primary parent is as close to a love potion as you can get.”
On Happiness: “Happiness comes in many shades, and to some extent, we are all born with our happiness thermometers set at different points. … Children can get through really tough times. A generally happy child can weather terrible sadness or frustration.”
As much as the science, though, it’s the reassuring tone of Red Flags or Red Herrings—Barenblat calls it “gentle,” and George Stephanopoulos, speaking on Good Morning America, called the book “a great relief”—that resonated with clinicians, academicians and mainstream readers alike.
“It’s much easier to sell a book by scaring the daylights out of parents and cashing in on their all-too-easy-to-exploit vulnerability,” says acclaimed psychiatrist and author Edward Hallowell, director of the Hallowell Centers in New York City and Sudbury, Mass. “Susan does the opposite. She reports the truth, that most red flags are indeed red herrings, that most kids are indeed pretty wonderful, as are most parents, and that too many experts are more alarmists than practitioners of a healing art.”
While the bottom line of Red Flags or Red Herrings is that “there is only so much you can change about your child,” Engel is quick to add that there are attributes parents and teachers can influence in subtle but powerful ways. One of these is curiosity, the subject of her next book.
One of the first empirical studies of curiosity took place in 1960, when Daniel Berlyne demonstrated that subjects were better able to answer questions inherently interesting to them. As subsequent research has borne out, “We know that curiosity is the single most important characteristic that spurs learning,” Engel says. “When kids want to know the answer, they learn the material more deeply, they remember the answer longer, and they can do more with the information.”
At a very young age most children demonstrate they have many of the tools they need to study their worlds. Even an 18-month-old, Engel says, is “a one-man experimental laboratory.” But something happens to their curious minds as they get older.
Research shows that at home a preschooler will ask an average of 25 to 50 questions each hour. But several years ago, when Engel and her students recorded the day-to-day activities in area kindergarten and fifth-grade classrooms, they found a significant drop in the number of questions asked. An entire class of 22 kindergartners might ask only two per hour. By fifth grade, several hours might pass before a single question is raised.
During a talk she gave on campus in July as part of the inaugural Williams Thinking series, Engel discussed how this research and her own observations indicate that “there’s so much pressure on teachers to teach lessons that there’s no time to deviate and allow kids to follow their hunches.”
The good news, she says, is that subtle messages from adults can encourage children to wonder and experiment more. One study she conducted a few years ago with Maddie Labella ’09 that involved children studying science found that students who saw an adult deviate slightly from written instructions were more interested in the materials than those working with an adult who followed the instructions exactly.
Another study, published with Kellie Randall ’07 in the March 2009 American Educational Research Journal, found that teachers responded to subtle cues in the same way as their students. Teachers who were told the goal was to “help the student learn about science” encouraged student inquiry and exploration significantly more than teachers who were told the goal was to “help a student finish a worksheet.”
During a sabbatical from Williams last year, Engel saw these findings play out in the classrooms of a local public school district, where she was embedded as the director of teaching and learning. She returns to campus this fall “overflowing with stories” that she hopes will help her students to bridge the gap between theory and practice. The experience also renewed her commitment to working on research that has an impact on the lives of children.
“There’s no perfect experiment on child-rearing,” she says. “Parenting is confusing, and parents today are under an awful lot of pressure to get it all right. But some of what people tell them to do actually matters; some doesn’t. That’s what I’m interested in sifting through in my work.
“I hope,” she adds, “it will help parents relax a little and enjoy their children a little more.” —Ali Benjamin is a freelance writer based in Williamstown.