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I guess it’s a good thing we had a boy:

Oh, No: It’s a Girl!

If you want to stay married, three of the most ominous words you’ll ever hear are “It’s a girl.” All over the world, boys hold marriages together, and girls break them up.

In the United States, the parents of a girl are nearly 5 percent more likely to divorce than the parents of a boy. The more daughters, the bigger the effect: The parents of three girls are almost 10 percent more likely to divorce than the parents of three boys.

Hard to believe, but it doesn’t stop there. The few surveys of parental happiness I found on the web show that mothers of sons are “happier” on average than mothers of girls. And unmarried couples are more likely to tie the knot if they learn their unborn child will be a boy. And, as if that weren’t enough, divorced women with daughters have a harder time remarrying.

The question is why. Are daughters really such an albatross? Do sons really cause happiness?

Slate’s Steven E. Landsburg kicks the tires on some explanations. Maybe men stick around to raise their sons? Or maybe women stay with men so their sons can have fathers? Or maybe it’s the “everybody stays happy” theory: Dad invests in making son happy; so Mom invests in making Dad happy; so everybody stays pretty happy.

On the other hand, it could be that sons are more vulnerable to the effects of divorce, thus raising the stakes of splitting up. You want your kid to wear a trench coat and skin cats? Leave his mother. Or maybe women with daughters depend less on their husbands emotionally? Why bother talking to that blob on the couch playing Halo when you can go shopping with your daughter?

Either way, I’m probably the wrong person to make sense of this. I love just about everything there is to love about women. The way they walk, talk, think, feel, smell, taste, smile, cry – all of it. The first 25 years of my life, in fact, were a love affair with women in general. The last 10 have been a love affair with one woman in particular. So when you tell me that bringing a woman into the world ruins your life, I call bullshit. That’s like someone telling me that Ben & Jerry’s tastes bad. No. No, it doesn’t.

Could it be there’s something else going on?

Rich Mother’s Have More Sons

Rich, married and well-educated women tend to have more sons while those who are unhealthy and poorer tend to have more daughters, according to a study.

Researchers studied 50 million people and found that mothers in ‘good condition’ – those who were married, better educated and younger – bore more sons than mothers in ‘poor condition’.

I am no number cruncher. The last math course I took was freshmen year of college, and I still have recurring nightmares about trying to operate a TI-85. But if nature really does hedge its bets this way, then why is everyone so surprised that women with sons are happier on average than those with daughters? Of course they’re happier. They’re statistically more likely to be rich, married, well-educated, well-fed, and healthy. The whole thing about their kid having a penis has nothing to do with it.

With some luck, one of the 3 people who read this blog is a closet statistician and can tell us if the “daughters cause divorce” phenomenon holds true when you adjust for the parent’s income, education level, marital status, etc.

Because I’m guessing it doesn’t. And until I see otherwise, I’m going to assume that the sex of the kid you have doesn’t determine whether or not you have a happy marriage.

Your marriage does.

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Remember when I wrote this?

This next year, my wife’s going to bring home the bacon. And I’m going to bring up the baby. And do the dishes. And fold the laundry. And take out the garbage. And clean the cat box. And shop for groceries. And have supper ready. And assemble the crib. And paint the nursery. And rock a screaming baby to sleep at 3 o’clock in the morning. And, on certain nights, stare up in to the city-bleached sky and wonder if this is part of the journey or the destination itself. Or both.

Well, that all still stands. I’m still ready to do those things. I just had no idea that I would be doing them all at once.

And yet that’s what every body keeps telling me about parenting – i.e. that it’s a Herculean feat of multitasking. Brian Chen had a post on Wired last Monday about what multitasking technology is doing to our ability to concentrate. In it, he talks to Vaughan Bell, a neuropsychologist and clinician at the Universidad de Antioquia, who compares our waning focus to parenting:

“If you think Twitter is an attention magnet, try living with an infant,” Bell said. “Kids are the most distracting thing there is, and when you have three or even four in the house it is both impossible to focus on one thing — and stressful, because the consequences of not keeping an eye on your kids can be frightening even to think about.”

(Kids are indeed distracting: A British study found that for drivers, the distraction of squabbling kids can slow down break-reaction times by 13 percent — as much as alcohol.)

And here I was thinking that having a kid might be a good occasion to get sober.

But, seriously, I wonder if this generation of parents is prepared to multitask in a way their parents were not. As we speak, I am writing this post . . . while texting my wife . . . while watching the preview for Monday Night Football . . . while answering incoming emails . . . while boiling eggs for my wife’s breakfast tomorrow. And somehow, I feel like I’ve got everything under control.

So, thank you, the internets. And email. And smart phones. And social networking. And, even, 24 hours news networks that have “Breaking News” whenever someone farts. You’ve all ruined my ability to perform long-duration analytical thinking, but you may have made me a high-functioning parent in the process.

Also, the extra arms I’ve grown help.

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Who knew that loving your baby could actually help it?

From Time Magazine’s Healthland blog:

Over the last several decades, more and more research has suggested that experiences in early life — even prenatal life — can have a disproportionate influence on the development of personality and physical and mental health. Now another group of studies, led by Notre Dame psychology professor Darcia Narvaez, confirms earlier work suggesting that children who get more positive touch and affection during infancy turn out to be kinder, more intelligent and to care more about others.

Narvaez, who will present her findings at a conference in early October, conducted three separate studies. The first compared parenting practices in the U.S. and China. Another followed a large sample of children of teen mothers who were involved in a child abuse–prevention project, and compared outcomes of various types of early parenting practices. The third examined how parents of 3-year-olds behaved toward their children.

All three studies suggested the same thing: children who are shown more affection early in life reap big benefits. Researchers found that kids who were held more by their parents, whose cries received quick responses in infancy and who were disciplined without corporal punishment were more empathic — that is, they were better able to understand the minds of others — later in life.

These findings will no doubt come as a shock to Dr. Gary Ezzo, whose book On Becoming Baby Wise I intend to massacre review next week.

Until then . . .

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Don’t know who to root for in this year’s Major League Baseball playoffs? Well, if your favorite team is already playing golf, here’s a quick and dirty guide on who you should be pulling for:

(Hat tip: Slate’s Tom Scocca)

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Hopefully you enjoyed the wifey’s post yesterday about our “almost normal” pregnancy. She’s been a real trooper through this, and you may see more posts from her in the future . . . if only to scare away all the internet groupies who keep flooding my gmail. Please note, I do not open attachments.

In other news, I think I’m going to have to add Wired’s John Lehrer to my blogroll. He’s got another good entry today about the effect of television on kids’ brains. You know how this generation has devolved into a bunch of knuckle-dragging mouth breathers? Well, you may want to consider the shows they’re watching (or not watching) as children:

Numerous studies have found that regularly watching “Sesame Street” is associated with a wide assortment of positive outcomes, including improved performance on measures of school readiness, expressive language capabilities, numeracy skills and vocabulary size. (Similar effects have also been observed from “Blue’s Clues,” “Dora the Explorer,” and “Clifford the Big Red Dog”.) While most of these studies are correlational, and thus vulnerable to all sorts of confounding variables, a recent study tested the effects of “Sesame Street” using a randomized, controlled paradigm. The positive effects remained: After ten weeks of exposure to Big Bird, young children demonstrated increased literacy skills.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that every TV show makes us smarter. While “Sesame Street” accelerates early education, recent research demonstrates that other shows, such as “Teletubbies,” seem to slow it down. Worst of all are those videos designed for infants, such as Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby. According to a 2007 paper, each hour of daily viewing between the ages of 8 and 16 months led to a significant decrease in the pace of language development. While daily reading with a parent was associated with a 7 point increase in the language skills of 2 year olds, each hour of baby DVD viewing was associated with a whopping 17 point decrease. If you want a baby Einstein, don’t watch Baby Einstein.

Got that? If you want your kid to wear saggy pants and sell speedballs behind the mall, just alternate him between Baby Einstein and Bones. (That’s right. I just ripped on Bones.)

As for why this discrepancy exists, here’s what the researcher has to say:

In the case of promoting early literacy, the use of child-directed speech, elicitation of responses, object labeling, and/or a coherent storybook-like framework throughout the show appears positively related to vocabulary acquisition and better language expression. Thus, to be effective, early intervention programs need not only engage the young viewer, but they must also elicit direct participation from the child, provide a strong language model, avoid overloading the child with distracting stimulation, and include a well-articulated narrative structure. In addition, effective educational shows also exemplify how to resolve social conflicts and productively manage disagreements and frustration. This social teaching may be as important to child development as academic content, because antisocial behavior has been linked to poor academic outcomes

As for video games . . .

A burgeoning literature indicates that playing action video games is associated with a number of enhancements in vision, attention, cognition, and motor control. For instance, action video game experience heightens the ability to view small details in cluttered scenes and to perceive dim signals, such as would be present when driving in fog (Green and Bavelier, 2007; Li et al., 2009). Avid players display enhanced top-down control of attention and choose among different options more rapidly (Hubert-Wallander et al., 2010; Dye et al., 2009a). They also exhibit better visual short-term memory (Boot et al., 2008; Green and Bavelier, 2006), and can more flexibility switch from one task to another (Boot et al., 2008; Colzato et al., 2010; Karle et al., 2010).

Thank you, boys. Because that’s now my excuse to get our baby a pacifier, a teddy bear, and one of these:

Just hit the B button.

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If you’ve ever wondered how your baby sees the world, there’s an interesting article in Wired today about exactly that. Unlike adults who can direct their focus, babies focus on everything at once:

What is it like to look at the world like an infant? The question is particularly interesting because the ability to pay attention, focusing that spotlight on a thin slice of the stage, depends on the frontal cortex, that lobe of brain behind the forehead. Alas, the frontal cortex isn’t fully formed until late adolescence – ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny – which means that it’s just beginning to solidify in babies. The end result is that little kids struggle to focus.

This has led the UC-Berkeley developmental psychologist Alison Gopnik – I’m a huge fan of her latest book, The Philosophical Baby – to suggest that babies don’t have a spotlight of attention: They have a lantern. If attention is like a focused beam in adults, then it’s more like a glowing bulb in babies, casting a diffuse radiance across the world. This crucial difference in attention has been demonstrated indirectly in a variety of experiments. For instance, when preschoolers are shown a photograph of someone – let’s call her Jane— looking at a picture, and asked questions about what Jane is paying attention to, the weirdness of their attention becomes clear. Not surprisingly, the kids agree that Jane is thinking about the picture she’s staring at. But they also insist that she’s thinking about the picture frame, and the wall behind the picture, and the chair lurking in her peripheral vision. In other words, they believe that Jane is attending to whatever she can see.

Or consider this memory task designed by John Hagen, a developmental psychologist at the University of Michigan. A child is given a deck of cards and shown two cards at a time. The child is told to remember the card on the right and to ignore the card on the left. Not surprisingly, older children and adults are much better at remembering the cards they were told to focus on, since they’re able to direct their attention. However, young children are often better at remembering the cards on the left, which they were supposed to ignore. The lantern casts its light everywhere.

This sounds a little bit like how I watch TV. I keep trying to ignore that stupid “blast of hydration” Schick commercial, but every time I close my eyes it’s the only thing I see. Maybe my frontal cortex needs a tweak.

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So my brain’s about to get a make-over:

Since there’s no clear physical connection between a father and his child — at least not like the one seen with mom and baby — researchers are starting to look deep in the brain for better clues to understand the power of this relationship. A recent wave of studies are starting to bear fruit: We are now learning that in the first few days after birth, changes occur in the brains of both the dad and the baby, depending on whether the father is around or not. Perhaps neuroscientists have finally cornered the elusive father-child bond, and found the biological hook that makes sure a father sticks around after birth.

Brains are not static, and neurons constantly rewire themselves throughout life. Not only do brain cells alter their connections, but additional neurons can also spontaneously form, a process called neurogenesis. While the mechanism of neurogenesis is not fully understood, extra brain cell growth is strongly correlated to learning new things.

A recent study has shown that neurogenesis took place in male mice in the days following the birth of their pups. But the extra boost of brain cells only occurred if the mouse father stayed in the nest. In other words, if he was removed on the day of their birth, nothing happened. One new set of brain cells formed in the olfactory bulb, and were specifically tuned to the smells of his pups. Another set of neurons grew in the hippocampus, a crucial memory center in the brain, which helped to consolidate the smell of his pups into a long-term memory.

This means I’m going to get smarter, right? Awesome. In about two months this blog will actually be readable.

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