Q&A With Allegra Midgette, PhD
Name: Allegra Midgette
Role at FPG:
- Brown University, 2014 undergraduate degree in education, focusing in human development
- University of California at Berkeley, 2019 master's degree and PhD in education, focusing in human development
I study children's and adolescents' social and moral development, the influence of culture on development, and how families and teachers can support their children in becoming better people.
What is one of the areas you study in your postdoctoral work at FPG?
I'm interested in understanding how kids think about and learn from their mistakes. For instance, I am currently studying with Dr. Andrea Hussong, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Carolina, and Dr. Jennifer Coffman, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at UNCG, how parents and children talk about events in which children could have been grateful but were not (i.e., missed opportunities), and how these conversations support their gratitude development.
I became interested in how children learn from "missed opportunities" when I was entering my PhD program in 2014. My source of inspiration was my brother, who at the time was 11. I noticed he was making the same mistakes over and over and wondered what could help him do better next time. I also noticed that children don't always necessarily agree with adults on what constitutes a mistake. I became interested in studying how do children themselves think about what they should and shouldn't be doing and what are they doing to make sure they don't make the same mistakes again.
How have you studied this so far?
In 2018, I published a study I'd done in California and Massachusetts where I interviewed 100 children from ages 5 to 16 and asked them their ideas of things they'd done before that they wish they hadn't. What did they do after they made the mistake to make it right? These are 'social mistakes'—not errors like forgetting homework but more like hurting someone's feelings. What did they remember about those mistakes and how did they make sure they wouldn't do them again?
What they remembered the most are what we call ‘moral mistakes’—the kinds of mistakes that cause interpersonal harm. Many kids reported fighting with their siblings. I found that, especially in the teenage years, they don't always agree with the social conventions and rules we have in place, such as curfews or playing ball in the house. They don't say, “I broke them and I regret it.” They say these things don't affect people and they only regret it because they were punished.
What are some of your findings?
We learn through experience. Kids do develop strategies so that they won't be put in situations where they'd make the same mistakes again. They come up with a lot of different strategies, including substitutions (e.g., instead of hitting a friend, they will hit a pillow). When they're frustrated, they can hit something, but not someone; they can change behavior and change focus. They implement preventive measures like not talking to friends during class change if it habitually makes them late.
For parents and teachers, it might be helpful to support children to think about what they should do next time, rather than just making sure children say "sorry" or do the right thing at that particular moment.
Something I didn't have a chance to study with American children were the effectiveness and source of these strategies. What strategies are parents and teachers suggesting to kids? Do they remember to use them? Are the strategies they use helpful?
I am also currently working on publishing a similar study with a colleague in Guangzhou, China on Chinese adolescents' social mistakes and their strategies for self-correction.
Why is this kind of work important to you?
I'm interested in this kind of work because it asks children their own perspectives. Kids have agency and they are trying to figure this out. When we've looked at this, we've mostly asked parents and teachers to report on children's behavior, but we don't ask the children involved how they feel about it. Kids are making their own assessments and trying to make sense of their social world in ways that impact what they decide to do and the choices they make. To help them change their behavior, you have to talk to them directly to know how they think about their behavior.