Review: Ankylosaur Attack

August 15, 2011

It’s hopeless for me to write an unbiased review about the book Ankylosaur Attack. Primarily, because it’s written by one of my favorite skeptics, Daniel Loxton, but also because it features my favorite dinosaur, the durable battle-armored ankylosaurus.

For those who are unfamiliar with Daniel Loxton, he’s the author/editor of the Junior Skeptic column in the back of Skeptic magazine. Junior Skeptic really stands out as a brilliant, gorgeously illustrated introduction to the scientific analysis of fringe ideas such as psychics, fairies, and mythical monsters. I can’t imagine anyone else that I would trust to be as accurate about relaying scientific information to children as Daniel Loxton, and I certainly can’t imagine anyone else who could translate that accuracy into such clever illustrations.

Daniel Loxton is also the author of the truly awesome book Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came To Be, a primer for kids on the subject of natural selection. There was a bit of a pseudo-controversy surrounding Daniel’s advice to young readers that questions about religion be directed toward pastors and parents, but I firmly agree with Daniel that the topic deserved to be addressed in a respectful way. Often, non-believers shoot themselves in the foot by insinuating that atheism be the key to opening the door to science; that kind of hard-lined attitude makes people of faith feel unwelcome in the wonderful world of natural discovery and scientific knowledge. Kudos to Loxton for making science accessible to EVERYONE, as it should be.

Ankylosaur Attack is a deviation from Daniel Loxton’s previous books because it is prehistoric fiction. It offers the story of a young ankylosaur being attacked by a hungry t-rex looking for a snack. The rendered graphics are phenomenal and really help stimulate the imagination with attention to detail and lighting. The plot is simple enough for younger readers, but also helps stimulate discussion for older readers about defensive and offensive genetic traits that have evolved in dinosaurs. What do ankylosaurs and turtles have in common? If you were a predator how would you try to eat them? Isn’t awesome that this extinct animal had an armored back to defend against attacks and also a cannonball whip for a tail?

Ankylosaur Attack is the first of a series of prehistoric fiction. I look forward to the rest in the Tales of Prehistoric Life series.

As an added aside, in honor of our local museum’s life-sized model ankylosaur, I decided to donate a copy of Ankylosaur Attack to the dinosaur library at Cincinnati Museum Center. It was tempting to keep the book for my daughters (pictured above), but I thought that it would be better served as a resource for other kids visiting the museum. So, here’s a photo of the book at Cincinnati Museum Center’s dinosaur library. Hope the museum visitors enjoy it as much as my kids!

Chemical Chaos

August 2, 2011

Sometimes when I read a book I will find myself attracted to other books on the same topic. This time my latest readings have been on chemistry and the periodic table. The one that started it was The Disappearing Spoon, which is a history of chemistry, the hunt for elements and the creation of the periodic table (check out the extras, especially the videos). This romp into chemistry and the personalities involved is accessible to everyone, including students in upper elementary school. Read the rest of this entry »

Why I want my kids to fail

July 5, 2011

There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized… It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us.

Conan O’Brien – Dartmouth 2011 Commencement Address

It is strange that a comedian’s words would resonate with me so much, especially bringing to mind two recent child development books that I’ve read [1,2] and an episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit on self-esteem. But they are all windows into this same myth that plague’s many parents: that building a child’s self-esteem is your most critical job as a parent and to do so means sheltering your child from all forms of failure.

We see this insane focus on over-protecting our children’s self-esteem everywhere. Everyone at a tournament gets a trophy; kids are taught that everyone is a winner; and praise is heaped upon a child for every single accomplishment no matter how mundane. I hear principals say that every child is a genius. It is simply inadequate any more to say that everyone is a human being deserving of respect and love, and now we tell the lie that every child is remarkable in every way. However, kids are not stupid, and they know that when the word “genius” is used in this way, it simply becomes devoid of meaning anymore; it becomes cliché.

Somehow we have gone from “everyone needs to do their best”, to “everyone is the best”. And even more bizarrely, our children are told that the way to be the best is by never failing, or at least never admitting to it. These may not be words that are said directly, but they are the lessons learned. By focusing so much on the result and the accomplishments, rather than the effort, we reinforce in our children this conception that failure is to be avoided at all costs.

Research in child development has shown a couple of things in regards to this topic. First, it is not at all clear that there is a self-esteem crisis in our children nor that it is the root of most of their problems. If anything, this over focus on self-esteem has created a more narcissistic generation. Second, praise has been shown to have an inverse relationship to performance; the more you praise a child, the less they succeed.

The problem is that if we are constantly praised for our success, and not our effort, we start to tie up our identity and self-worth in the results. Failure, rather than becoming a lesson, becomes terrifying. If we are not the best or don’t always succeed, then it is something fundamentally wrong with who we are and our value as a person, or so we think. The fear of failure then becomes paralyzing in itself, and we miss the most important lessons in life, the hardest won: those of our failures.

The end effect is tragic. Being unable to overcome the fear of failure, we stop taking risks that would allow us to do truly great things. We take the safe path, and we never explore other areas of growth and opportunity that make us uncomfortable. Having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) myself, I have struggled hard with perfectionism. My identity was wrapped up in my perceived intelligence and specifically my mathematical abilities. Getting a 4.0 in 3 college degrees was not enough. It was not enough to have all A’s but I had to beat everyone else’s A in my classes to be satisfied. Most people look at my college career and naturally think that I took the hard path, but in reality it was the easy path. It’s not that I didn’t work hard or challenge myself in those classes. Math was the easy choice because it is where I knew I could succeed. I avoided general education and non-science/math courses as much as possible because it threatened my GPA. I was afraid of failure. As interested as I was in history, philosophy and other subjects, I never took more of those courses than required. I took my easy path. And as I look back on life, I see I have done that far too many times and missed many opportunities. Just now, in my mid-thirties, am I beginning to overcome the fear of failure.

So do I want my kids to be failures; of course not. However, to truly succeed and excel in life, you must have failures as well. I do not want to rob my children of the lessons that failure teaches or allow the fear of it to close doors of opportunity for them. Using these lessons of science and my own past failure to accept failure, I will teach my kids a new way. I will praise the effort, regardless of the outcomes. I will not sugarcoat their failures and mistakes, but instead I will make them face their failures head on and help them through it. I will not let them always take the easy or comfortable path. And in the end, I will help them to succeed at life by learning to fall gracefully along the way.

  1. Bronson, P., & Merryman, A. (2009). Nurtureshock: new thinking about children.
  2. Mercer, Jean A., A. (2009). Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings.

An Octopus’ Nursery Under the Sea

June 27, 2011

The big cover story last Sunday in my local paper was Local diver captures octopus birth on video. It had been covered earlier by the paper’s nature blog.

Please share these incredible videos with your children: Read the rest of this entry »

Podcast #48: TAM 9 and Michael Shermer

June 25, 2011

The latest Parenting Within Reason podcast can be downloaded here.

In the first part Colin has a conversation with Michael Blanford, JREF’s Director of Educational Programs, about the upcoming TAM 9 From Outer Space. Several of us connected to this website and the podcast will be attending, including myself.

Then Adam Slagell has a conversation with Michael Shermer, author and the founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine. It is a friendly conversation that touches on lots of subjects including parenting, cycling, books and more midst of what sounds like a busy restaurant.

Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings [Book Review]

April 13, 2011

Having enjoyed both NurtureShock and 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, I decided to read Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings. This book is essentially a collection of 50 short essays regarding common child development myths, many that parents are likely to of heard if not fallen for themselves. Essays are organized in to different sections based on the relevant developmental stage (e.g., prenatal, infant & toddler, preschooler, school age, and adolescent & teenage) of the myth.

This book is clearly written for undergraduate students, as a supplemental text to a child development or education course. It includes questions and exercises at the end of each section along with some references. Even though it is aimed at specific college upperclassmen, it is still very readable and relevant to parents. The author kindly avoids jargon that you might otherwise expect.

I did not find anything really surprising, except maybe that the “Back to Sleep” campaign against SIDS may not be effective, but this may be because I had just read the NurtureShock and 50 Great Myths of Pop Psychology. There was without a doubt some overlap with those books and other common debunkings in the skeptics community (e.g., the fact that vaccines do not cause autism). I think most people will still find at least a couple surprising chapters, and if not, it at least helps to reinforce some of these concepts. I think more than anything, it will comfort some of those parents that worry that they might not have done everything they could have for their child, for example, if they did not breast feed, put their kids to sleep on their backs or were unable to “bond” immediately after birth with their child for medical reasons. If nothing else, this book helps to reinforce the resiliency of children.

I think most regular readers here would enjoy this book and should check it out. My only complaint was that it was rather expensive and hard to find for a small paperback. It was even challenging to find in libraries, and there was no Kindle version. However, I suspect all of these issues are because it is really in the textbook market, which is a different beast than the rest of the publishing world.

Science Books and Chick-Fil-A

March 30, 2011

I’ve noticed that my daughter’s kindergarten class seems to be ignoring science in favor of literacy. Of course, with a nerd like me as a father, she’s been exposed to basic concepts, but it’s the principle of the matter that bothers me. Why aren’t these kids being introduced to the type of simple science found in Sid The Science Kid? It genuinely bothers me.

In an effort to rectify the problem, I offered to Sasha’s teacher that I would be happy to donate some science books to her classroom. We really like the “Let’s Read-And-Find-Out Science” books because they offer simple explanations to complex scientific topics. Many of them have clever content and beautiful illustrations, but they’re written and illustrated by different people so the individual quality can be a mixed bag.

One of my personal favorites is the beautifully illustrated “Why Do Leaves Change Color” by Betsy Maestro.

While I’m making recommendations, you might want to stop by Chick-Fil-A soon and buy a kid’s meal for your children. Unlike other fast food chains, Chick-Fil-A makes an extra effort to offer educational toys instead of useless plastic movie advertisements. They have a series of books out now called “Science Kids”. We came home with a book about “Birds” by Nicola Davies, but there are also ones on “Weather”, “Animal Homes”, “Planet Earth”, and “Polar Lands”.  This follows up their last prize give-away, which were games by “Think Fun”, a board game manufacturer that we have voluntarily endorsed in the past. So, well done Chick-Fil-A! Keep it up!

Exploring parental controls on your Mac

March 26, 2011

While there are things about Apple that really make me angry, such as most new App Store policies, there is one thing that they have always done right: interfaces. From the Apple IIe to the current IOS, Apple has always been ahead of the curve on user interfaces. Therefore, it should have been no surprise to me when I switched to Mac OS that they had given a lot of thought to parental controls and the interface needs of a child. Just to preëmpt objections from Windows users, yes I know that Windows 7 has many parental controls, but traditionally Windows users have relied upon third-party applications for parental controls (e.g., NetNanny, KidsDesk). Plus, I have to write about what I know and leave it to others to write about the controls available on Windows, Linux or your operating system of choice. Regardless of your OS, I encourage you to explore what is available to you.

If you are a Mac user and a parent, check out this video. There are so many cool things you can do, especially for little kids. First off, consider your applications. You really don’t want your pre-schooler or toddler to do much, except play a few specific games. No problem. You can disable certain apps, or better yet, just allow the few that are made for kids. Your little kids have trouble double-clicking to launch something. No problem; set it to work with single clicks. Are you tired of fixing the finder window after they make all their crazy settings changes? No problem, use the Simple Finder with a more child friendly interface. And if you want to get advanced, you can even lock the dock so they can’t drag icons off it just to hear that “poofing” sound of the icon disappearing. I even did this to my wife’s account because it became such a favorite pastime for our first child when discovering an unattended computer.

Another great feature is time limits. I define when the day starts and ends for the kids on school days and weekends. They can’t login after bedtime, and they are logged off if they are on when bedtime comes. Being a science-based parent who has seen research over and over showing how we should limit the screen time of little children, we decided that we only want our 5-year-old to have 30 minutes a day on the computer. I don’t want to track how long he has been on it, though. But I don’t have to, Mac OS does that. The best part is that it gives our child verbal and visual warnings when time is running out. There is no nagging him to log out. The computer does it, not Daddy, and there is no point in arguing and whining to the computer.

While you can filter web content with the OS controls or with another service like OpenDNS, I prefer to have a short white list of pre-approved websites for our kids. There are only 5 or 6 sites I want my preschooler to visit, and those are chosen by me and automatically bookmarked. If they want to go to an unapproved site in the future, it is simple enough for me to enter a password and temporarily allow it.

When my children get past the preschool age, I’ll probably take advantage of more features, like having white lists of pre-approved email and IM contacts. While none of these things will stop a budding young hacker, they are very effective for young children and probably most older kids. Whether you have a Mac or not, I strongly suggest checking out the parental controls available to you. It can at least make this one part of parenting a little easier.

The Wonderful World of Statistics

January 29, 2011

We as parents stumble along trying to make sense of the world as we make sure our kids grow up healthy and educated. One thing that we often encounter is the mysterious world of statistics. Read the rest of this entry »

Make Your Own Homeopathic Remedies … and Play Dough!

November 18, 2010

My fellow blogger, littlez2008, posted on how to respond on forums to those pushing homeopathy. So I suggested using the following recipe from a Usenet posting submitted by a “Naturally Cheap” person (who was actually me, but don’t tell anyone!). Just cut and paste into any discussion (you don’t need to tell the source, and you are quite welcome to also be “Naturally Cheap” anytime!): Read the rest of this entry »