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Book Review: The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik


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  • 1 Post By shen7

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August 15th, 2012, 04:56 PM
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The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik
The Philosophical Baby: What Children's Minds Tell Us About Truth, Love, and the Meaning of Life: Alison Gopnik: 9780312429843: Amazon.com: Books

This book is a discussion of the cognitive science of early childhood, written by a very prominent scientist of the field. She wrote a similar book in 2000 but this one is from 2010. She also brings in some philosophy and anecdotes and experiences from parenting her own 3 boys for context. It is on the wonky/academic side but intended for a general audience. She does not espouse any particular parenting system but explicitly focuses just on what we know of how little kids' minds work, which is a very deep and interesting subject in itself. Her main point is the one I found most mind-blowing, I will attempt to summarize it here but probably won't do as good a job as she does!

I used to work a lot with a certain type of statistics called Bayesian networks, which are about how different variables are known or assumed to connect to each other - you use observations of one variable to "update" or "condition" your understanding of the other, connected variables. A specific type of Bayesian network is a causal model - where the connections are cause-and-effect patterns. The idea is that you can sort of draw a picture of the pattern you are assuming, then test it with interventions or assess its predictive ability, and if necessary update or change it. These types of models are used in a variety of disciplines from epidemiology to artificial intelligence, for all types of complex systems.

The main insight is that babies are actually doing exactly what scientists are doing with causal models - testing, discarding invalid ones, assuming new ones. It takes great imagination and mental energy to do this, as adults we don't make new mental models so often, we are set in our ways and already know what we need to know to get around and do what we need to do. But babies are constantly imagining new possibilities, testing them, and learning. This may sound trite or obvious but somehow for me it was a big light bulb going off! I can almost SEE my little one doing this now and it explains so much of her inexplicable or annoying behavior. Like why she HAS TO HAVE the remote control - she probably has an idea that it can make a spaceship fly in the window if she pushes she right button, or something similarly fantastic - and of course it would be upsetting to be prevented from testing this hypothesis!

Gopnik does not relate any of this stuff explicitly to AP, but I found a lot of connections for myself. Like why bonding in infancy is so important - it is really teaching the baby what trust and love is, and the assumption that she is loved unconditionally and can expect her needs to be responded to are valid assumptions. This is sure to carry over to many aspects of life and relationships as she grows and builds up more complex models of the world. Also, allowing her the freedom to do her "experiments" and build up her exploratory tendencies and curiosity, more so than simply enforcing "good behavior" at all times. A lot of what appears to be "naughty" behavior (esp for very young toddlers like my LO) is just innocent learning, and understanding how that process works helps me be patient with her and understanding of her point of view. It gives some explanation behind why it is so good to create an "environment of Yes" and choose your battles and not be overly controlling with young kids. It helps encourage their intelligence! Especially if you want to raise a brilliant, free thinking scientist!

Anyway, although Gopnik is often a bit academic and jargon-y in her writing, she also has many very engaging discussions (like her discussion of imaginary friends!) and the science is very well supported and presented. I recommend this book to anyone interested in science-informed parenting or early childhood development and the mind!!!
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August 16th, 2012, 02:54 PM
Jule'sMomInOR's Avatar Mega Super Mommy
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Quote:
Originally Posted by shen7 View Post
Gopnik does not relate any of this stuff explicitly to AP, but I found a lot of connections for myself. Like why bonding in infancy is so important - it is really teaching the baby what trust and love is, and the assumption that she is loved unconditionally and can expect her needs to be responded to are valid assumptions. This is sure to carry over to many aspects of life and relationships as she grows and builds up more complex models of the world. Also, allowing her the freedom to do her "experiments" and build up her exploratory tendencies and curiosity, more so than simply enforcing "good behavior" at all times. A lot of what appears to be "naughty" behavior (esp for very young toddlers like my LO) is just innocent learning, and understanding how that process works helps me be patient with her and understanding of her point of view. It gives some explanation behind why it is so good to create an "environment of Yes" and choose your battles and not be overly controlling with young kids. It helps encourage their intelligence! Especially if you want to raise a brilliant, free thinking scientist!
I love this paragraph. It gets me so upset when people hit their toddler's hands for touching something they're not "supposed to". This is essentially shaving off IQ points from the poor things!

The book sounds really good. I have a really long list of books that I eventually want to read and I need to add this one.
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