One of the best things about maternity leave is watching my daughter learn new things, almost daily. A few weeks ago she realized she could control her feet. This week she’s using her hands to grab at objects and starting to pull them in for further, mouth-based inspection. It really is exponential – the more she learns, the more she is able to figure out.
Children also learn a lot from what they hear. And they are apparently sensitive to the particulars at a surprisingly young age. Take, for example, the phrase “some birds fly” vs. the generic version “birds fly”. Psychologists have shown that halflings as young as two years old can tell the difference between these two phrases, and they can also use the generic version appropriately. What’s more, when adults use generic language in conversation with very young children, the children are able to infer new categories and make predictions about the world. This has been shown in experiments where psychologists talk about new, fictional categories (like Zarpies and Ziblets) with children. The results of these studies suggest that children are essentialists: i.e., they tend to carve up the world into categories, and view members of the same category as sharing a deeper, inherent nature. And these categories are easily transmitted through language.
This can have some unintended consequences. In her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, Alison Gopnik describes a study by Susan Gelman and colleagues where mothers and their children were given pictures of people doing stereotyped (a girl sewing) and non-stereotyped (a girl driving a truck) activities, and their conversations were recorded and quantified. It turns out that even mothers who were feminists used generic language most of the time. Moreover, there was a correlation between how often mothers used generic language and how often their children did.
Worst of all, moms used generics that reinforced the very stereotypes they were trying to combat. As Gopnik puts it:
Saying “Girls can drive trucks” still implies that girls all belong in the same category with the same deep, underlying essence.
I can’t help but wonder how this might affect our daughter as she grows up.
Although her book is not meant to be prescriptive, Gopnik does say that we probably can’t avoid this by careful wording – it just wouldn’t work to try to consciously control our language. Instead, the best antidote may be to have children observe many examples and talk to many different people.