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Book Review: Mad Science

By Hillary Levey Friedman

hilaryfriedmanBefore I became a parent, I got the most useful child-rearing advice I’ve ever received. While I was interviewing parents for my book Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, one mother told me, “Raising kids is a big experiment and I won’t know till later [if I did it right].” Thinking of child-rearing as a giant science experiment felt reassuring to me—kids are smart, they teach you things, and you can constantly generate hypotheses and test them out.

Shaun Gallagher’s recent book, Experimenting with Babies: 50 Amazing Science Projects You Can Perform on Your Kids,  takes this idea to the next level. Gallagher describes 50 different activities you can do with your child, from infancy through 24 months, to explore cognitive and emotional development, motor skills, and more. Each of these “experiments” is based on published studies (listed at the end of the book), some of which are based on new technology and others with insights that have stood the test of time. Gallagher presents them in easily digestible form—even for sleep-deprived parents of infants—listing the age range, complexity, research area, hypothesis, and takeaway for each. Not surprisingly as your child ages the experiments become more complex.

I am definitely part of the target audience for Experimenting with Babies; my toddler has participated in about 25 experiments at baby labs in the Boston area (which you can see in action here)—though not at any of the labs Gallagher lists on page 96.

As someone interested in baby experiments what struck me is that Experimenting with Babies is really a book about child development, though in a sign of our times of anxious parenting Gallagher has to issue a disclaimer that if your child doesn’t “measure up” you shouldn’t panic. In fact, this book would likely be interesting to those who aren’t parents but who are interested in human evolution and psychology.

For instance, I was most intrigued by the findings of Experiment 16, “Spider Sense.” In a 2007 study researchers found that babies aged 4-5 months gaze significantly longer at an image of a spider than at a scrambled image of a spider (24 seconds versus 16 or 17 seconds) most likely because “being able to recognize a spider, identify it as a threat, and keep away from it is a skill that increases one’s chance of survival.” Others don’t teach kids to recognize or fear spiders, it’s an evolutionary trait, evident at just a few months of life. This is just one of the many things babies do instinctively, proving they are amazing creatures no matter how much classical music we play them, or not (though if you are trying to create the next Mozart, note that Experiment 22, “A Capella Strikes a Chord,” shows that music without instrumentation is best for the 5-11 month crowd).

Of course not all of the experiments are equally as interesting or useful. Take Experiment 19, “Stress Busting,” which shows that your child is less stressed when you interact with him/her. This seems pretty obvious. While Experimenting with Babies is clearly presented and researched it would have been useful at some point, perhaps in a conclusion which I felt the book needed to tie everything together, to discuss whether or not all baby experiments and research are equally as good. Even a mention of how many children were included in each study would have been helpful. But the special boxes and the extensive website affiliated with the book are great additions chockfull of information.

Thanks to Experimenting with Babies I can now add to my list of useful parenting advice. When describing Experiment 44, “A Questioning Look,” Gallagher asserts: “You are your baby’s Google.” Your child has innate skills and knowledge, and s/he will keep developing over time, but in the end while your child is experimenting you are their go-to search engine. Be there for your child and experiment—and while you are at it be sure to get some cute snapshots, like this one of my own young experimenter in action.

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is a sociologist and writer. You can learn more about her work at She is getting ready to start experimenting with her second son, three-month-old Quenton.

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