Child Development Experts and Parents: Redefining the Relationship

Is there a gap between what child development research has found and what parents believe?

A new survey from Zero to Three, a nonprofit devoted to promoting the health and development of infants and toddlers, finds “yes” and “no” and importantly, underscores the need for a shift in the way we share the science of child development with parents.

This survey of more than 1600 parents with children from birth to age three found that the majority of parents echo the findings of child development research by saying that reading to young children is a strong or major influence on helping them learn (93%) as are speaking to babies in their main language (83%), playing with other children (81%), and playing pretend with children (65%).

The survey also found gaps in parents’ understanding of their children’s developmental milestones. For example, parents underestimate how early children can experience sadness or fear. Child development research shows that most children can sense whether their parents are angry or sad by six months, while only 34% of parents agree that children can sense these emotions by six months. Similarly, studies show that children are capable of feeling good or bad about themselves by ages one to two, while only 43% of parents feel that children are capable of these feelings by age two. On the other hand, parents overestimate how early children can control their emotions, such as when they are having a tantrum.

These are critical gaps between what child development research shows and what parents think. Especially important to me then are the questions this study and other studies raise: What’s important for parents to learn from child development research? How and from whom are findings best conveyed?

To begin, I have no doubts whatsoever that child development research provides extremely useful information for families. A personal disclaimer: I spent the last eight years pursuing this research in order to share it with families for my book, Mind in the Making and I wouldn’t have poured my heart and soul into this endeavor had I not truly believed that the findings of child development research can be extremely enlightening for all of us.

But in this process, I arrived at some cautions that lead me to conclude that we must redefine the relationships between child development experts and families. Put in a phrase: My way or the highway is now a dead-end road.

In the past, much of the knowledge from child development research has been handed down as dictums—this is the knowledge that parents must have. Furthermore, this knowledge has been conveyed through a one-way road—from expert to parent. These are no longer tenable approaches.

First, parents know that science—all science—evolves. In talking about research, one parent said skeptically to me: “First studies say that you should drink red wine, then they say not to drink red wine. They say to eat hamburgers, then not to eat hamburgers. I want to know who the child development researchers are and how they know what they know.”

I agree with this parent fully. If we want to share the science of child development with families, it must be shared transparently—including who the researchers are and how they know what they know. Consumers are calling for this kind of openness in industry and I believe parents are calling for and deserve a similar openness in child development research as well. In this day and age, we can share more than written descriptions of studies—we can even share videos that can show how researchers come to their conclusions. For example, to see a study illustrating how very young children sense their parents’ emotions, there is a video of Joseph Campos’s Visual Cliff Experiment.

Second, parents know that applying child development research to parenting depends—it depends on the specific parent, on the specific child, on their families’ circumstances, on their culture and on so many other factors. That’s why I think that the Zero to Three Survey found that most parents turn to their mothers or mothers-in-laws (47%), their friends (21%), and other relatives (16%) when they want day-to-day information about child development and parenting. Those people know them and know their child.

The numerous parents writing into the “Motherlode” blog by The New York’s Times’s Lisa Belkin to comment on the study put it best. One describes herself as reading everything she could about child development and driving her husband crazy until she turned to a wise group of friends. Another said that if she likes another parent, if she likes their children and if their children seem well-adjusted, then she figures that that parent must be doing something right and can help her apply what they have learned. Others talked about turning to their mothers, to websites or books. But in the end, as a number of them said, they must ultimately figure it out for themselves because “I know my child best.”

For me, the implications are that child development experts should provide many suggestions rather than dictums. But more importantly, they need to share their “behind the scenes” stories: these researchers are careful observers of children’s behavior, they have hunches about what is going on, and they test these hunches. In this process, they make mistakes, they learn from these wrong turns, and they keep improving. And that is what effective parents do too. Like scientists, they are ongoing observers and learners about their own children. So ultimately, sharing child development knowledge must be about sharing more than findings—it must include sharing a process of observing and learning from experience—both from the experts and from others, including family and friends.

A number of leading thinkers are suggesting that we are in a “relationship economy.” In the “information age” and “knowledge economy,” experts held the know-how, which they gave to their audiences. The explosion of connectedness and information today calls for a new paradigm—where we are all learners and where knowledge-sharing is a two-way rather than a one-way road.


Photo/image by: USAG Livorno PAO – campdarby / Flickr