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What Children Need: An interview with Jane Waldfogel

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MMO: Mass-market parenting advice often stresses the importance of providing a learning-enhanced environment for babies and toddlers -- and parents who prefer a low-key, attentive style of parenting are called "slackers." What does the research you reviewed actually say about the benefits of special enrichment activities for children age zero to three?

Jane Waldfogel: During the 1990s -- heralded as "the decade of the brain" -- a series of well-publicized events informed parents of new advances in brain science that indicated for the first time just how much growth was occurring in the early years and how important early experiences were in that process. While much of what was presented in this decade was correct, some was over-hyped or exaggerated.

One point of confusion has to do with the importance of above-average experiences versus below-average experiences. In translating findings from neuroscientific studies, sometimes results concerning deprivation are used to draw conclusions about enrichment. So, studies showing slower brain development among rats who are placed in deprived environments (cages with nothing at all to play with) are used as evidence to support the idea that providing extra enrichment to children will boost their brain development. Beyond the difficulty of extrapolating from rats (in cages) to babies (in their playpens), there is also the difficulty of assuming that providing extra stimulation will have equal and opposite effects to withdrawing normal stimulation. It could as well be the case that a minimal amount of stimulation is necessary for healthy growth and development, but anything beyond that has no effect, or diminishing effects. Early intervention programs have been shown to have dramatic effects, particularly when they are intensive and high quality and when they serve very disadvantaged children. We also know that placing young children in very deprived environments, such as Romanian orphanages, can do lasting damage. However, the jury is still out on how much extra enrichment in the early years really matters for children whose experiences are in the normal range.

These nuances are often lost in the popular press, as research findings have been rapidly translated into prescriptions that parents should buy particular toys or learning items, or should make sure their children engage in certain activities. What infants need is something more fundamental than the latest toy or CD. After all, generations of children have developed quite well without ever having seen a black and white crib toy, or listening to classical music in utero. As the National Academy of Sciences' Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development concluded, "there is no scientific evidence that any sort of mobile, toy, computer program, or baby class has a long-term impact on reasoning, intelligence, or learning."

MMO: There's a lack of clarity in popular parenting culture regarding the concepts and qualities of maternal "attachment," "sensitivity" and "responsiveness" -- which are frequently confused with the practice of "full-time" or intensive mothering. Can you explain how maternal attachment, sensitivity and responsiveness are defined and evaluated by researchers? Is there anything in the existing literature about the effects of fathers' attachment, sensitivity and responsiveness on children's health and development?

Jane Waldfogel: The care that young children receive from their parents and other caregivers lays the foundation not just for their physical growth and health but also for their cognitive and emotional growth and development. Parents recognize this and worry about whether they are providing the "right" type of experiences and interactions for their children. 

The bottom line message from developmental psychology and developmental neuroscience is that the most important features of the care children receive in early childhood are its sensitivity and responsiveness. Sensitivity refers to how appropriate the care is to the individual child, while responsiveness has to do with how adaptive it is to changes in the child's needs and status. A caregiver may be warm and well-intentioned, but may nevertheless not provide sensitive and responsive care if she or he is not familiar with the child or is not good at picking up cues from the child about what the child needs right now. Conversely, a caregiver may know this individual child's needs well but if the caregiver is harsh or neglectful in responding to those needs, the care provided will not be sensitive and responsive either. So, sensitivity and responsiveness are attributes both of the caregiver and of the relationship between the caregiver and the child. Both must be in place if the care is to meet the child's needs and enable the child to grow and develop. Sensitive and responsive relationships with the adults who care for them lay the groundwork for infants to grow and develop, both in terms of cognitive and language development, and in terms of emotional and social development. This is true of both mothers and fathers, although most of the research to date has been conducted on mothers

In the social and emotional arena, one of the major developmental tasks for infants is to develop secure attachments to adults who care for them. Secure attachments provide a sense of basic trust and a foundation for the infant to explore the world and form attachments with others. Here, as in other aspects of development, sensitivity and responsiveness are key -- children can only develop secure attachments if their caregivers are knowledgeable about their needs and are responsive to those needs. If parents and other caregivers do not know a child well or can not read a child's cues, or fail to respond warmly and consistently to what a child needs, the child will still be attached to them but that attachment will not be secure. Some children may have an attachment that is ambivalent (reflecting the uneven care they have received to date), while others may have a relationship that is characterized by avoidance (if the care they have received has been harsh or interrupted). These different types of attachment are diagnosed using a laboratory test called the "Strange Situation," developed by Mary Ainsworth. In this test, a mother and infant are brought into the lab, and the mother then leaves the infant and returns, twice (this test could be done with fathers, but typically has been done with mothers). The child's reactions to the two separations and reunions with the mother are coded, and the attachment relationship is then characterized as secure, ambivalent/inconstant, or avoidant.

The importance of attachment first came to the fore in the 1940s and 1950s, when researchers began studying children who were homeless or orphaned during World War II. Reviewing the evidence on these terribly deprived children, British psychologist John Bowlby concluded that in order to develop a secure attachment, an infant had to receive continuous and sensitive care from an individual caregiver round-the-clock for the first year of life. Bowlby was careful to point out that the continuous, sensitive care could be provided by a mother or another consistent caregiver, but his work was widely interpreted as saying that only continuous and uninterrupted mother care would do. Even worse, it was soon forgotten that the evidence on which Bowlby based his conclusions came from studies of institutionalized children (children in orphanages or shelters) who were indeed deeply traumatized by their experiences, not from studies of children with working mothers. And so, attachment theory was taken to suggest that working mothers posed a risk to their children's mental health. Working fathers were not seen as a problem because it was assumed that it was the mother who would, or should, be there to provide the consistent care. 

It was many years later before researchers empirically tested whether and how infants with working mothers differed in their attachment relationships from infants with non-working mothers, and this research did not bear out the dire predictions. Children with working mothers (or fathers) can develop secure attachments to them, just like children with non-working mothers (or fathers). The key lies in how sensitive, responsive, and consistent the parent is.

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