I was recently told by a lady scientist I barely knew, "Your child is always your lab." This, after I had announced, “No really, I object to using my child in any kind of research I am doing. I find it inappropriate parenting, subjective data-collecting and plain unethical”. But after further thought, as much as I hate to say it, she was right. Raising a child is a scientific process onto itself. It involves trial and error, hypotheses and experiments, unexpected findings and –hopefully- eureka moments. As much as you try to separate your professional investigations from your personal life, you end up projecting them as a parent. Reading research shapes your behavior and orients your discourse in certain ways. Every child is their parents’ lab to some extent.
When my daughter was born 4 ½ years ago, we made sure, her father and I, to find a name for her that would work in most countries and sounded pretty much the same in French and English. I guess this was already me planning to raise her as a bilingual, bi-cultural child. It was, de facto, experiment number one. As a linguist and foreign language teacher, I had encountered many children of “international” families. Their names help them “fit” or make them seem “foreign.” I have found that the group they identify with is the most important factor for language learning –especially in the really early years, and then again in the teenage years. Juliette now spontaneously introduces herself as Juliette in French, Juliet in English, Yulieta in Russian, and Julietta in Spanish (with the Spanish “jota”). She even changes the way she pronounces our last name: Pootmahn or Puttman depending on the setting.
When I taught preschool, I tried to explain this important factor to my students’ parents and I called it the “Sandbox effect.” This does not only apply to the way children are called, but to any linguistic interaction they engage in. As toddlers from multi-cultural and/or multi-lingual families get out of their homes to socialize for the first time, they realize that the important language to master in the world is the one that is spoken in the sandbox. In other words, as much as parents speak their native language while interacting directly with their child, children will acquire more rapidly and seem to value more the language that is spoken in the sandbox, when it is different from the one spoken at home. From an evolutionary perspective, it is not difficult to understand why that would be. Parents are supposed to love you unconditionally and will therefore feed you and care for you regardless of the language you speak to them, regardless of the level at which you are mastering their language, and –quite often- regardless of the fact that you act like a brat. Preschool-age peers on the other hand, may try to interact with you a couple of times but if you don’t speak their language, they will just dump you right there, in the middle of the sandbox, for someone who does, possibly taking your bucket and shovel in the process. In addition, during the preschool years, the children defining the story lines during pretend play are usually the ones who have the most verbal fluency in the language spoken in the sandbox. They are the “moms”, “dads”, “kings” and “queens” of the story. If a child is a late talker, a foreign-language speaker, or simply a little shy, chances are he/she will end up being the pretend family dog, cat or baby. None of which are roles to be envied, trust me.
It is with that observation in mind, that I, I am shamefully admitting here, came up with my home experiment number two in bilingual education. Right after she was born, during my maternity leave, I started to reach out to other French-speaking parents in my neighborhood. Soon after, I had started an online group called “Bébés francophones” to facilitate meet ups and exchange ideas. Playdates, picnics, friendships, nanny-shares, and hand-me-downs followed. Although I was never very involved because I had returned to work full-time, I saw this group blossom up to over 70 families -a success considering all of them where French-speaking residents of a small area in one single borough in NYC. The idea behind this was multi-fold: I wanted to make new friends for myself; I was hoping those meet-ups would be beneficial to all –especially to new moms in need of moral support- ; and I wanted Juliette to meet other children like her, who were being raise bilingually in NYC. I was hoping she would never feel like and “oddity”, as one friend –who grew up speaking French in the Midwest- once described herself. I had witnessed many young children refusing to speak their parents’ native language from the moment they realized it was not as widely used as English in NYC, and I also knew that you can’t force a toddler to do –well- anything. In other words, I thought, I can’t control the sandbox effect so let me control the sandbox. Juliette and I formed friendships, had fun moments, and are still in touch with many of those families. Some of them are even involved in a French daycare/preschool project I am working on. Some of them have moved away and we sometimes try to locate them on a world map. Juliette’s world is a global sandbox now.
I will not keep going down the list of parenting experiments ; they happen every day and are not all interesting. But I will say one more thing about parent involvement and professional experimentation. Two years ago came a moment where I was offered a teaching position I would not take: being my own daughter’s head teacher. No other offer was made to me when I explained my concern, and this is where I drew the line and quit… I will always be my daughter’s biggest fan and will be thrilled when she wants to hear my suggestions and advice. And I am sure that I will often tell her things she doesn’t really want to hear. But ultimately, I think that children, like all individuals, need their own space to experiment without being watched. Being her teacher full-time would have prevented her from growing into her own independent person and would have put our relationship in danger. In addition, using her to collect data on dual-language acquisition would have been inappropriate and unethical. It would be like entering her bedroom without knocking, reading her diary if she ever writes one. Would my daughter’s sandbox be a great lab? Of course! Should it? No! Because in the end there is a time when, emotionally, linguistically and otherwise, for the sake of their children, parents just need to step out of that sandbox.
(For more on parents using their children as tests subjects in their research, read this great NY times article http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/18/science/18kids.html?pagewanted=all)