Around this time last year, an inexorable force swept into people’s lives. It upended everything — relationships, friendships, routines, work life, independence, and sense of control. In this respect, the COVID-19 pandemic has similarities to another dramatic event — becoming a parent. And just like the pandemic, nothing quite prepares you for it. For all those who became parents in the last year, these two realties have collided. New parents have been left without many of the usual support networks that help support them through the early days. Those networks include their own parents, parent-baby groups, informal social networks, and in-person postnatal and breastfeeding support groups. Added to all this is the constant threat from a life-threatening virus. “We hope it is a comfort to know that there is something simple and easy to do together, safely and in the comfort of home, that lays positive foundations for the developing brain.” It is too soon to say what effect these extraordinary circumstances will have on babies born during the pandemic, but the effect on parents is already being felt. Numerous studies show that parents have found lockdowns extremely hard emotionally, and that the strain they are under has affected their ability to parent, which has consequences for children. The lockdowns have been linked to an increase in parental anxiety, depression, and hostility. And the pandemic has put women at increased risk of anxiety and depression in the perinatal period. At the same time, increased parental support has been shown to help decrease stress associated with the pandemic. The brunt of this burden has fallen on certain groups, including single parents and low-income families. Because of this, it is vital that new parents receive additional support at this difficult time, especially in terms of their mental health. There are some very simple, intuitive ways parents can work on laying the foundations for their children’s development from the very early days. One of the simplest of these is to pick up a book and read together. Plenty of evidence shows how important it is to read with children, not least for their cognitive development and vocabulary. In one study, both the quality of the books and the amount of reading time starting at six months were important predictors of literacy and vocabulary four years later. New parents might be surprised to learn that a shared activity like reading promotes a kind of back-and-forth interaction between child and caregiver that can trigger a chain reaction of long-lasting beneficial effects, and that these interactions might also help reduce the stress parents are feeling. Adults who interact sensitively with a child — for instance, reading or singing, looking at the same things, and copying sounds and faces — help children feel safe and secure. In turn, these feelings can help children cope better in challenging situations later on — something we know is important during the pandemic. These interactions also encourage children to explore more, which helps them develop problem-solving skills. All this builds to the kind of learning and development that prepares children for big steps in life, like starting school. This cascade of development is supported by the science of early learning, which shows that parents and caregivers lay the foundation for secure caregiver-child attachment relationships, which help children develop the ability to focus and pay attention, remember instructions, and demonstrate self-control (also called executive function). Positive caregiver-child interactions also help children develop social-emotional skills, such as cooperating and playing well with others, and managing feelings appropriately. Together, secure relationships and strong social-emotional and executive function skills in children are related to resilience and school readiness. “New parents might be surprised to learn that a shared activity like reading or singing together promotes a kind of back-and-forth interaction between child and caregiver that can trigger a chain reaction of long-lasting beneficial effects.” The children are not the only ones who benefit. Positive and engaging interactions between children and the adults in their lives are also good for the adults, helping them become more confident caregivers. Reading to children may also help with parental stress and even depression. It can feel strange to read books to very young babies. Even without a pandemic, the early days of parenthood can be overwhelming and it can be hard for parents to know what they should be doing, especially given the deluge of parenting advice. Parents also underestimate just how early the care they provide has long-term impacts on their children’s development. For instance, in one survey, parents said they believed what they did started to make a difference at six months, but we know that the impact starts from birth. At a time when uncertainty abounds, especially for new parents, we hope it is a comfort to know that there is something simple and easy to do together, safely and in the comfort of home. And that the simple back and forth that reading and rhyming creates can extend beyond the pages of the book and lay positive foundations for the developing brain that last for many years. More
Research has consistently shown that children who are physically disciplined by their parents, such as getting hit or slapped, have more externalizing problems (like aggression) and more disruptive behaviors in the classroom. Their academic performance is also lower than that of children who are not physically disciplined. Even in studies that do not focus on physical punishment, children who behave in problematic ways in the classroom tend to do less well academically, in general, than their peers.
However, this research raises the proverbial chicken-and-egg question: Does disruptive behavior in the classroom interfere with the learning process? Or do learning challenges lead children to act out? For example, when children act out in school, they are sometimes separated from other children and removed from the classroom, which may give them fewer opportunities to learn. Under this scenario, which has been referred to as the adjustment erosion hypothesis, negative behavior comes first, followed by academic challenges. An alternative idea, called the academic incompetence hypothesis, suggests that when children have difficulties learning, they can become disruptive, perhaps out of frustration.
“We found that children who were physically disciplined by their parents in kindergarten had more externalizing problems in first grade, slower rates of literacy learning from K-8, and ultimately, lower overall literacy skills by eighth grade.”
Many studies lack the data to determine when problems start, how children’s behavior changes over time, or even if these challenges start as a result of disciplining practices at home. To examine these questions, my colleagues and I conducted a study, focusing on children’s literacy as an important indicator of academic performance. Literacy is the foundation for acquiring knowledge, especially as children shift from learning to read to reading to learn.
We analyzed data from a large U.S. sample that tracked children from kindergarten through eighth grade. While controlling for factors that have also been associated with children’s behavior and learning, such as socioeconomic status and parents’ education, we found that children who were physically disciplined more frequently by their parents in kindergarten had more externalizing problems in first grade, slower rates of literacy learning from K-8, and ultimately, lower overall literacy skills by eighth grade when compared to children whose parents did not use physical discipline early on. Our findings support the adjustment erosion hypothesis and show that parents’ physical discipline practices have long-lasting, cascading effects on children’s behavior and learning.
Why might physical discipline in early childhood lead to children’s problem behavior and lower literacy over time? As children transition into a new educational system, as they do when they start kindergarten, they may be particularly vulnerable to the challenges at home. We know from a number of studies that in times of stress or change, children need support. If parents are sensitive to their children’s needs, and offer a supportive and predictable caregiving environment, children feel comforted, safe, and less stressed.
“Promoting a positive environment at home should start as early as possible.”
They also regulate their feelings better, meaning that when a child gets distressed, as all children do, they are better at recovering from their negative feelings. However, if children are parented harshly or inconsistently, they can feel unsettled, and this adds to the stresses they are already experiencing. When some children feel heightened levels of stress, they act out. Moreover, when children are hit by their parents, it signals to them, even unintentionally, that aggression is a way to control others. So harsh discipline in the home may set up children to struggle with getting along in the classroom environment and ultimately, with learning important skills such as reading.
We also know from our research that promoting a positive environment at home should start as early as possible. Early in infancy, when children are so dependent on support, they need a safe and responsive caregiving environment. For example, when babies are very young and cry, they are signaling that something does not feel right. Caregivers need to respond by picking them up and trying to figure out what they need. Babies cannot be spoiled by caregivers responding their needs.
As children get older, they start to test limits and boundaries. Sometimes they engage in behaviors that could harm themselves or others. Parents can learn strategies that are more authoritative in which they set clear boundaries (e.g., telling that that “it is not okay to push your sibling”), teach them better ways to regulate their feelings (e.g., using words, not physical force), and provide comfort when children are distressed. Using more authoritarian methods such as hitting a child to “teach them the rules” may work in the short term but does not work over time.
Early parenting behaviors are important for children to help them feel safe, learn how to explore safely, and regulate their feelings so they do not resort to acting out at home or in the classroom. Promoting better ways for children to manage their behavior can also help them in the learning environment, which can set them up for success.
Header photo: CDC. Unsplash. More
Adversity, such as abuse, neglect, and poverty, damages children. But protective experiences can build resilience against adversity and promote positive development.
We identified 10 relationships and resources proven to counter the impact of adverse experiences. They have hidden magic that can transform an otherwise miserable childhood. Perhaps a child has been abused and has an alcoholic or depressed parent – or both. Down the street lives a grandmother who provides safe harbor. Maybe a caring teacher or an athletics coach takes the child under her wing. These are just a few of many protective antidotes that can diminish the toxicity of adverse experiences. They mean that a child’s outcomes may turn out to be much better than expected in the face of difficult circumstances.
This list of PACEs – Protective and Compensatory Experiences – is based on more than common sense. The impact of such experiences is often identifiable through changes to the brain and in behaviors. For example, experiments with mice graphically demonstrate what can happen when a PACE repairs some of the damage caused by bad early experiences.
PACEs and genetic changes
A new mother mouse placed after the she gives birth in an unfamiliar environment with inadequate bedding typically becomes abusive to her pups. She may step on her young, and stop licking or grooming them because she is stressed. These pups grow up and act in a depressed manner, and are more likely to be harsh and fail to nurture their own pups. However, when the pups are fostered by non-stressed, nurturing mothers, over time, the epigenetic change driving their abusive behaviors can be reversed.
“When children experience multiple forms of adversity, the impacts are magnified. Multiple protective experiences may also have a cumulative effect.”
We do not yet have data for humans on the epigenetic impact of switching from an adverse to a protective experience. However, infants raised initially in Romanian orphanages who were later fostered in nurturing homes showed developmental benefits that likely mirrored the neurobiological improvements observed in mice.
Our colleague, David Bard, professor of pediatrics at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center, has demonstrated how positive parenting practices in thousands of U.S. families have buffered children against the impacts of adversity. Activities such as reading to children; ensuring they have routines; and taking them to shops, museums, and playgrounds were associated with better learning in preschool and fewer behavioral problems at school than would otherwise have been expected.
Top 10 protective and compensatory experiences
From research evidence, we have assembled a list of the top 10 types of relationships and resources that provide the PACEs that bolster children against adversity. These are detailed more extensively in our new book, Adverse and Protective Childhood Experiences: A Developmental Perspective.
Receiving unconditional love: Not only do children need to be nurtured and loved, that love should feel unconditional. This does not mean that children never get in trouble or parents never get mad. The crucial point is that whatever a child does, the parent stays on the child’s side. As an infant, it means that when you cry, you get a response; your parents make eye contact with you and cherish you; and they sing, play, and talk with you. As a child, you can count on your parent’s eyes lighting up when you walk into the room; mom or dad always has your back. And when you grow older, it means that your parent sets limits and explains how things are done. There are many ways to express unconditional love.
Having a best friend: Close friendship offers protection from peer rejection, bullying, and victimization. This happens not just because a child has someone to talk to, but because it helps the child learn how to deal with conflict and grow a relationship over time. Children have a sense of being important and they have someone to go to.
Volunteering in the community: Volunteering helps children learn about the needs of others and gives them the opportunity to see a world outside their own. When they understand that helping is not done out of pity, it allows them to accept help from others when they need it.
Being part of a group: Being in a group gives children a sense of belonging outside the family. It allows children and teenagers to learn about themselves in different contexts, and provides opportunities for friendship and leadership. Taking part in school clubs and sports is linked to academic success, psychological well-being, and lower rates of substance abuse.
Having a mentor: Having an adult other than a parent who can be trusted and counted on for help and advice helps protect against psychological distress and academic difficulties, and reduces the incidence of high-risk activities. Even if children have exemplary parents, an adult outside the home can be an alternative role model to whom children can aspire and is a reminder that someone else loves them.
Living in a clean, safe home with enough food: These primary needs are crucial. Good, regular nutrition is important for brain development and protects against health problems; eating dinner regularly with your family reduces the risk of weight problems. Chaotic, unpredictable home environments are associated with harsh and inconsistent parenting. Children who live in unclean, cluttered homes have worse outcomes than those living in clean, organized homes.
Getting an education: Just like living in a clean, safe home, the opportunity to learn and be educated in an environment with boundaries and rules also protects children from risk. High-quality early childhood programs make a lasting difference to outcomes for children from low-income families.
Having a hobby: Whether it is playing an instrument, dancing, doing judo, reading, or playing chess, any recreational activity helps teach self-discipline and self-regulation, and can provide children and youth with a routine and a sense of mastery, competence, and self-esteem.
Engaging in physical activity: Being physically active helps children handle the physiological effects of stress on the body, and improves mood and mental health. In so doing, it reduces the likelihood that children will grab a bag of chips or lash out to relieve stress.
Having rules and routines: Security comes when children know what to expect and when caregivers enforce clear rules and limits. Children cannot parent themselves; they need high expectations, consistency, and parents’ involvement. In early childhood, this means that parents should establish and enforce bedtime and other routines, redirect children when they misbehave, and as children grow up, explain the effects of their behavior on others.
Photo: Anna Earl. Unsplash.
We know that when children experience multiple forms of adversity, the impacts are magnified. Likewise, multiple protective experiences may have a cumulative effect for children, though the power of this accumulation requires further study.
PACEs matter for all children
Adverse experiences can happen anywhere to anyone — the rich as well as the poor. All children should have access to experiences that bolster and protect them. Children from more well-to-do families who face adverse experiences, such as family break-up, mental illness, and substance abuse, are more likely to have compensatory experiences. These might be opportunities to participate in clubs, have tutors, go to drama classes, choose to play an instrument, and have teachers and coaches who really care about them.
“Down the street lives a grandmother who provides safe harbor. Maybe a caring teacher or athletics coach takes the child under her wing. These are just a few of many protective antidotes that can diminish the toxicity of adverse experiences.”
In contrast, children in families living in high-crime and high-poverty neighborhoods might lack access to protective experiences because their families have insufficient money or time. These children face a double jeopardy – more adversity and less compensatory protection. Their difficulties have increased in recent decades as many PACE resources, such as youth sports and activities, have become increasingly expensive.
The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasized how alone many parents are as they try to help their children gain access to PACEs. Parents have struggled to support their children’s learning at home, grappling with isolation; lack of routines; inadequate opportunities for exercise and hobbies; and in some cases, lack of enough food to keep children healthy.
The pandemic reminds us that promoting childhood development is about much more than preventing adversity. We need to think more about how to ensure that children have the good things in life so they are less likely to be hindered by what can go wrong.
Header photo: Anna Samoylova. Unsplash. More
Early emotional experiences leave children with much more than memories. Neuroscience suggests how these experiences can literally shape the ways in which children – and the adults they become – think. These early experiences contribute to the development of the biological mechanisms that process and interpret past and future experiences. They can influence brain circuitry that makes meaning from what has happened and predictions for what happens next, sometimes throughout children’s lives.
These insights from neuroscience place parents – not only their actions but also their well-being — at the heart of children’s brain development for two reasons.
First, parents are usually the source of their children’s earliest experiences and those who are likely to influence brain development. The nature of this relationship highlights the importance of understanding these experiences.
Second, parents also provide a buffer between the world and young children’s brain development. If parents can manage the stresses the world throws at them, then children may learn how to manage challenges better. Children are also more likely to be protected from biological responses to adverse events. In contrast, when parents are overtaxed and have difficulty regulating themselves, children may be more vulnerable to external stressors.
This understanding of how moms and dads influence children’s brain development makes a fresh and compelling case for supporting parenting. It also demands action to help ensure that parents are supported and buffered. It means that, if we care about children, then we as a society should care a lot for their parents.
“A parent is an extension of a child’s developing neurobiology – like an interpersonal scaffolding that affords a long childhood.”
This understanding of children’s neural development springs from observing how the brain functions. My colleagues and I have looked at a key communication inside a particular part of the brain — between the subcortical brain regions and the medial prefrontal cortex. These areas support and link emotional learning with subsequent emotional behaviors.
Subcortical brain regions learn at a deep level about positive and negative events, and they create emotional memories. Meanwhile, the medial prefrontal cortex is involved in managing behaviors, as well as in planning and decision making. These two areas are connected and therefore, communicate with each other. The patterns individuals establish in making meaning seem to influence how they interpret what happens and how they make decisions.
We have observed how these regions of the brain are influenced by early experiences. We can also see how they are then used in later life. This helps us understand how childhood experiences may play out and influence subsequent adult behaviors.
Forming the neurobiology of the childhood brain
What happens in the early building of these brain regions? They develop rapidly during early childhood so they are very vulnerable to environmental influences, whether nurturing or maltreating. These areas of the brain learn about security and threat, create emotional memories, and are involved in managing behavior and decision making. Intriguingly, we have also found that these areas are very sensitive to parents and to the messages or cues parents send to children.
Photo: NeONBRAND. Unsplash.
Why does it serve human welfare to be so heavily influenced by these early experiences? Because, as a species, humans have evolved to learn from our early environments so we are ready for what we encounter once we reach maturity. The human brain develops very slowly compared with other species – it’s on a “slow cook” setting. This is a great adaptation that gives us a lot of time to learn from our environments.
Some have said that childhood is a dress rehearsal for the performance of adulthood. The longer the dress rehearsal, the longer we get to stay immature, and the more efficient and powerful the adult brain becomes to help us tackle the drama on life’s stage.
A child’s brain is primed to learn from its closest environment, especially early in life. That makes family and parents a big influence on emotional development. Human children spend a very long time with their parents, compared with other species. This time affords them a lengthy period of brain plasticity — the first two decades of life — during which they can do the massive amount of learning required for the sophisticated set of behaviors human adults need.
The role of parents’ neurobiology
Although parents are not the sole source of input, they provide the bulk of that learning. Part of that learning, especially early in life, springs from the way parents regulate their children’s stress biology (consciously or not). The neurobiology involved in social and emotional behavior is enriched with stress hormone receptors that prompt the body to respond biologically to what is happening. However, the mere physical presence of a parent can reduce the release of these stress hormones in a child.
Mom or dad can also decrease the firing of a child’s amygdala, one of the brain’s subcortical structures that is involved in learning about fear. A parent is an extension of a child’s developing neurobiology –like an interpersonal scaffolding that affords a long childhood. However, this scaffolding can also create a perilous situation when it is difficult for a caregiving environment to be an effective buffer of threat or may even be a source of threat, rather than security, to the child.
“[We must] ensure that parents are supported and buffered. It means that, if we care about children, then we as a society should care a lot for their parents.”
The power of parents as buffers has been demonstrated in studies with rodents. In an experiment that associated a meaningless stimulus – such as peppermint odor – with a mild shock to the foot, young rats learned to dislike the odor (as you and I would) and their amygdala responded to that learning. However, when the rat’s parent was present, the developing rodent, despite smelling the scent and experiencing the shock, did not avoid the smell. Functionally, the presence of the parent blocked the young rodent’s amygdala from reacting. Indeed, the rodent actually showed a preference for the odor. This sounds bizarre, but we have duplicated these findings in experiments with preschool-age children.
These reactions occur because early in life, humans are primed, as dependents on their parents, to form preferences for things associated with them – regardless of how pleasant or unpleasant the stimulus. For example, my father smoked cigars. I know the smell is unpleasant. However, that odor was learned in the context of my attachment to my father, so I remain drawn to this stimulus. Most people can probably think of things associated with the home (“the nest”) to which they are attracted, regardless of whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. This response is part of a young animal’s survival strategy.
Usually this system works well — it keeps us close to our parents, the nest, and the developmental benefits mom and dad bring. However, this system may also explain why, even in the context of harsh early environments, children still form attachments to their parents and things associated with them. This understanding helps explain why children often resist being separated from a parent even where there is maltreatment. It highlights the difficult and complex issues involved in separating any child from his or her parent.
The adult brain and its inheritance from childhood
Next, let us think about the adult brain: How do these brain circuits, shaped by early experiences during childhood, work later in life? Studies show that these neural circuits are activated when adults are trying to manage strong emotions, say, after a really bad day at work or when someone needs to calm down. The same neurobiology – between the prefrontal cortex and the subcortical regions – is involved when we lack complete information and need to fill in the gaps to understand fully what is happening.
Taken together, these observations of the brain suggest that early experiences may influence future behavior by providing a template for understanding how the world works. One person’s templates differ from another’s. Such templates are presumably supported, at least in part, by subcortical regions and the medial prefrontal cortex.
In situations of incomplete knowledge, a template influences an individual’s predictions of what a situation means and guides the response. Thus, matching what behavioral psychologists described more than 60 years ago, neuroscience can provide a biological model of how early experiences with parents and other caregivers form templates that influence how adults operate socially and emotionally, sometimes throughout their lives.
To care for children, care for their parents
All this demonstrates how important it is that parents themselves feel supported and are well-regulated. When parents are overly distressed, they may find it difficult to effectively buffer their children’s stress biology. However, when parents themselves are well and feel relatively secure, they are probably more effective than any other intervention in managing their children’s emotional reactions.
Parents are powerful; they are the conduits of the emotional world to their children. This is easy to see in everyday life: If parents react well to something, their child often will do the same. If parents respond in a calm way, their child will likely follow that lead. In certain senses, parents are an extension of their children’s developing brain. For that reason, we should consider: How can we support families so parents regulate themselves well to help their children become well-regulated?
Certain policies around parenting place children’s mental health at risk. For example, imagine the problems caused by the policy of separating children from parents who tried to cross from Mexico to the United States without visas. There are other areas of policy to consider. For example, how should we shape employment practices to ensure that mothers and fathers are sufficiently present in their children’s lives to provide a calm buffer against adverse experiences? How can we ensure parents’ mental, physical, and economic well-being so their wellness protects their children?
Childhood adversity is the leading environmental risk factor for mental health problems. Many of these problems are preventable – they are not genetically determined from birth. That’s why, if we are serious about caring for children, we must care for parents.
Parents ask me, “What is the best parenting advice you can offer?” I tell them, “Do what you can to take care of your well-being, to make sure you are feeling safe, and to manage your own emotions in a healthy way. When you feel this way, that gets translated to your children in a powerful way.”
Header photo: Gita Krishnamurti. Unsplash. More
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many children in the United States are struggling with remote learning and emotionally distressed by the absence of social interactions. But significant numbers of children in the world do not have access to the Internet or to any education during the pandemic.
Children are our future. Yet about 33 million children worldwide are displaced and most of them are out of school. Refugee children are a case in point. More than 92% of refugee children live in developing countries. Lack of education during COVID-19 has the potential to become an even more destructive pandemic.
Rohingya children are receiving no education during the pandemic
In August 2017, more than 742,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh from Myanmar. More than 800,0000 Rohingya refugees now live in Cox’s Bazar in the largest and most crowded refugee camp in the world, and more than half are children and adolescents. Prior to the pandemic, children in Rohingya refugee camps were not allowed to receive education in local schools, barring them from opportunities to integrate into the local community in Bangladesh. As a result of the lockdown due to the pandemic, about 315,000 Rohingya children and adolescents lost access to education in the camps’ more than 6,000 learning institutions, which closed in mid-March 2020. In January 2020, the government of Bangladesh promised to give Rohingya children access to education and skills training, but we know little about the fine points of the pledge because the pandemic has stalled any progress.
“They are neglected, lack proper nutrition and health care, do not have access to any education, and are caught in a limbo of an uncertain future, from which there seems no apparent escape. It is time to give these children a fair chance at life.”
For many decades, Rohingya parents in the Rakhine state of Myanmar have seen their children being killed, maimed, violated, abducted, attacked in schools and hospitals, and denied a chance at a decent life. The situation was so bad for these and other refugee children worldwide that in 1999, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1261 to protect children in conflict regions for the first time. But Rohingyas in Bangladesh continue to live in danger. The lack of access to education is likely to result in parents marrying their children off at an early age or losing them to human trafficking. This means that generations of children will not realize their potential.
Considering these issues, the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner of Bangladesh agreed that “it will definitely help” to educate children in the camp. Yet despite similar language from policymakers, a government directive in 2019 banned Internet access in the camp, so during the pandemic, even remote learning is not an option for children there.
Photo: taken at a learning center by Fatima Zahra in October 2019 (before the lockdown). It shows two siblings – getting ready to go home after school. Location: Ukhiya, Cox’s Bazar.
The violence against children affects not only the refugees in the camp but also the social architecture of the host community. Refugee children in Bangladesh are a big part of the future of the country’s political economy and national security. Many fear that the inequalities and violence in the camps already contribute to enhanced violence in the host communities surrounding the camps.
How to right the wrong against refugee children: Three steps
Sadly, the fate of Rohingya children in Bangladesh is similar to that of most refugee children in the world. They are neglected, lack proper nutrition and health care, lack access to any education, and are caught in a limbo of an uncertain future from which there seems no apparent escape. It is time to give these children a fair chance at life through three steps.
First, children need access to high-quality education that is in both the children’s mother tongue and the language of the host country.
Language of instruction determines the effectiveness of education. It also determines how children perceive their future (in the host country) and how they are accepted as people from another country (their home country). Rohingya children were allowed some form of education in the Rohingya language before the pandemic in the informal learning institutes in the camps, but the host community looks down on Rohingya culture and language so the children did not learn about their home country.
“We often forget that refugee children are just like our children – and that they are in our space because they have nowhere to go. Governments,including the newly elected U.S. government, the private sector, and donors can step up their game and play a major role in supporting the future of refugee children.”
Bangladesh should give refugee children access to the curriculum in public schools in the country. This will create a cultural bridge between refugee and host community children. The Bangladeshi government has been very clear from the start that they do not want to do this. While learning one’s first language has tremendous benefits, it also helps facilitate learning another language (such as Bangla and English) when the children are living in Bangladesh. Children who speak the Rohingya language can build on the language and literacy they know to acquire another language.
Second, children in the camp need mental health support. Many children and adults in the camp are suffering from acute depression and anxiety. These children need teachers who are trained to support the learning of children who have experienced severe trauma, anxiety, and depression, and who continue to live with constant uncertainty. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the camps are invested in supporting children’s education – assistance from the local and national governments will mean they can scale their efforts in training teachers to extend high-quality education to the children.
Finally, people in the camp need access to high-speed Internet. The first two steps that are needed to improve education are possible only if refugee children have access to the outside world.
Using the Internet is crucial for children to access both education and mental health support. NGOs and companies can set up Wifi hotspots throughout the camp, as has been done in the past in other camps. Once that happens, children can access remote learning programs. Parents also need access to the relevant technologies (such as smartphones and the Internet) so they can oversee their children’s learning, which is instinctive for most parents.
As leading post-colonial scholarHomi Bhabha said, “the refugee condition makes the most stringent and severe demands on the national community or the ‘world community’ to recognize the global right of hospitality which is at the heart of human survival itself … for a ‘good life lived with others.’” We often forget that refugee children are just like our children – and that they are in our space because they have nowhere to go. Governments (including the newly elected U.S. government), the private sector, and donors can step up their game and play a major role in supporting the future of refugee children.
Closing the education gap for refugee children will move us one step closer to building a strong and diverse leadership for the world.
Header photo: taken during a focused group discussion with Rohingya children and adolescents about their learning preferences and aspirations as part of a research study at the South Asia Institute at Harvard University. The picture shows a child solving some basic math problems to demonstrate what he learned back in his school in Myanmar. Location: Ukhiya, Cox’s Bazar. More
The start of 2021 sees a major new contribution to family court practice by child development researchers. A 35-page “Consensus position based on the concerted body of attachment research” has been published, under the names of 70 leading attachment researchers. It is the most comprehensive statement ever produced on how attachment theory can be applied in family courts worldwide in the best interests of children. It also shows ways in which attachment theory is frequently misused.
This summary highlights the key points in the statement, but family court professionals who wish to learn more about this important topic should read the document in full. References to page numbers are included in this summary to enable quick access to the more detailed account.
The “best interests of the child” has become the fundamental consideration in family courts. The concept is included in the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989): “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration (#3.1)” (p. 5).
This article addresses four issues:
The challenge of using attachment theory in family courts
What is attachment theory?
Three attachment principles for family court practice
Eight pieces of advice for family courts
1. The challenge of using attachment theory in family courts
A fundamental difficulty applying attachment science in family courts is that the science and the courts start from very different places. The measures used in attachment research are accurate enough to produce average scores that predict patterns of future child development across groups, but they are not sensitive enough to be used as diagnostic tools for individual families, which is what courts need (p. 5). Correlations found in attachment science, while statistically significant, may not be substantial, and rarely provide the basis for making a prediction about one individual (p. 21). Even the more fine-grained attachment assessments have been designed and validated for standardized contexts and may not apply in highly charged situations common in family courts.
“Family courts are under pressure to appear to base their decisions on evidence, and attachment theory has become by far the most popular theory among professionals working with children and families.”
Therefore, specific measures of attachment quality should be used with great caution. They may play a part, but only in combination with other assessments. Other measures include the child’s physical, cognitive, and socioemotional development, and very importantly, the capacity of a parent to provide care or be helped to develop caring skills. Above all, it is crucial to assess risk of harm to the child. Every one of these factors is hard to assess, not least because each can change over time, particularly if the assessment is made at a moment of heightened trauma and change (pp. 15-16, 20-21, 30-32).
Family courts are under pressure to appear to base their decisions on evidence, and attachment theory has become by far the most popular theory among professionals working with children and families. This creates an environment in which over-confidence about the application of attachment classifications or concepts to individual cases is common (p. 21). Because of the complexity of cases in family courts, proceedings can be influenced by personal opinions or cultural and social values and norms (pp. 5, 6, 32).
2. What is attachment theory?
2.1 Defining attachment
The 70 attachment researchers who contributed to the statement defined attachment this way:
Attachment refers to an affectional bond in which an individual is motivated to seek and maintain proximity to, and comfort from, particular familiar persons (Bowlby, 1969/1982). Children are born with a predisposition to develop this motivation in relation to significant others (“attachment figures”) who have been sufficiently present and responsive. For children, these persons are usually their caregivers. The motivation is held to be governed by an attachment behavioral system. This system seeks to maintain a certain degree of proximity between child and attachment figures, with the setting for desirable level changing dynamically in response to internal and external cues. The motivation to increase proximity is activated when a person is alarmed by internal cues (e.g. pain, illness) and/or external cues (e.g. fear-evoking stimuli, separation), and manifests in a tendency to seek the availability of an attachment figure. When the attachment system is strongly activated, some kind of physical contact with an attachment figure is generally sought, especially by infants, though this contact can also be achieved by non-physical means later in development … Caregivers who have regularly interacted with and protect the infant when the infant has been alarmed usually come to be represented by the infant as someone he or she can turn to when in need (i.e. as a safe haven). Importantly, even the most sensitive and responsive of caregivers necessarily “tune out” from time to time – to visit the bathroom, make tea, or even temporarily hand over caregiving to another trusted person familiar to the infant, while the caregiver attends to other matters. Thus, that a caregiver provides a safe haven does not necessitate that this person is constantly accessible for the infant physically, or even psychologically, or that the child is securely attached to that caregiver. Conversely, being physically present does not necessarily mean that a caregiver is emotionally available (pp. 7-8).
Photo: Yogendra Singh. Unsplash.
2.2 Attachment quality is measured by secure/insecure, not strong/weak
In attachment research, trained and certified coders measure the quality of attachment through standardized observation of children’s relative ability to use their caregiver as a safe haven to which they can turn for protection, and as a secure base from which they can explore the environment (p. 8).
Secure attachment manifests itself in the child’s expectation that the adult will be available in times of need. Insecure attachment manifests itself in the child’s expectation that the adult will be relatively unavailable (p. 8).
Insecure attachment is not weak and is extremely common and normal. Insecure attachment is an important strategy for children to maximize the potential availability of a caregiver who is unavailable or insensitive. An insecure attachment does not mean that the caregiver is never a safe haven for the child (pp. 10, 17).
Insecure attachment is observed in three forms:
Insecure-avoidant is when the child does not seek his or her familiar person when mildly alarmed, but remains near (p. 17).
Insecure-resistant is when the child seeks proximity but is not readily comforted and can show anger toward the caregiver. Both this and insecure-avoidant behavior are termed organized insecure attachment because they are coherent and work to increase the availability of less sensitive carers (p. 17).
Disorganized attachment is when the child is conflicted, confused, or apprehensive about a family caregiver in a situation of mild to moderate alarm. It is often associated with frightened, frightening, or dissociative behavior on the part of the caregiver, or a caregiver’s hostility, withdrawal, or maltreatment (p. 18).
All these forms of insecure attachment correlate with later compromised child development, but even in the case of disorganized attachment, the associations are not strong enough to infer that observing insecure attachment foretells poor development outcomes for a specific child (p. 19).
Furthermore, researchers observe patterns of attachment in carefully controlled conditions that involve only mild to moderate stress for a child. Family courts commonly deal with children in situations of intense stress. Disorganized behavior on the part of a seriously stressed child does not necessarily imply disorganized attachment (p. 19).
“Specific measures of attachment quality should be used with great caution. They may play a part, but only in combination with other assessments.”
2.3 Attachment disorder differs from insecure attachment
The negative effects of insecure attachments, as presented earlier, are far surpassed by the potential damage of attachment disorder.
Two types of attachment disorder have been defined. Reactive attachment disorder is when a child shows a lack of care-seeking toward any caregiver when alarmed. Disinhibited social engagement disorder is when a child is over-friendly with unfamiliar people.
Reactive attachment disorder is seen in children who have experienced extremely inadequate caregiving in their early years, for example, those who have lived in institutions. The symptoms are reversible if the child is placed in a stable caregiving environment (p. 19).
2.4 Children form attachments with multiple caregivers
There is a widespread belief in the importance of one psychological parent, which emerges from the practice in some cultures of a single parent being the primary caregiver. A related idea has emerged: that an attachment with one person competes with other attachment relationships. Bowlby himself started with the idea of a single attachment in his 1969 book, but had changed his mind by the time he wrote his second book in 1984.
The reality is that children form attachment relationships with multiple caregivers simultaneously if they have sufficient time with the caregivers and if the caregivers provide enough of a safe haven in times of need. For decades, the vast majority of attachment researchers have believed that children benefit from having more than one safe haven (p. 6, 11-12).
The presence of multiple caregivers is the norm in many cultural settings across the world. Multiple caregivers and a network of attachment relationships constitute a protective factor in child development when caregiving is inconsistent (e.g., a caregiver is unwell or unavailable). This does not imply that the number of attachments is limitless, nor that a child may not prefer some caregivers over others. A child’s preferences are often shaped by the current accessibility of one carer over another and do not seem to depend on relative attachment quality with the caregivers. However, in the context of inter-parental conflict and custody disputes, less is known about how children’s preferences play out (p. 11-12).
While all attachments with regular caregivers are important, researchers’ opinions differ about whether a most familiar carer should be afforded priority in the early years. Variations in context – such as cultural and family factors – might influence the organization of continuous contact with different caregivers (p. 12).
“Insecure attachment is not weak and is very common – the average rate of insecure attachment in the general population is nearly half.”
2.5 New attachments can form
When a child and new caregiver spend sufficient time together, attachments usually form. The time together can activate not only the child’s attachment system but also a complementary caregiving system in the caregiver. Both are malleable. This is a relevant consideration in decisions about custody and overnight stays. However, no empirical research shows that overnight stays are a necessary condition for the development of an attachment relationship (p. 14).
Photo: Alan Wat. Creative Commons.
3. Three attachment principles for family court practice
In their statement, the researchers present three principles for family court practice based on a full consideration of attachment research.
Principle 1: A child needs to experience safe havens provided by particular, familiar, and non-abusive caregivers.
Two considerations are key:
Limited contact with a caregiver makes it more difficult for a child to form, enhance, and maintain expectations of that caregiver’s availability in times of need.
Almost all non-abusive and non-neglecting family-based care is likely to be better than institutional care (p. 25).
Principle 2: Safe, continuous, “good enough” care is in the child’s best interest and caregivers should be helped to provide it.
A safe haven requires particular familiar relationships and sufficiently continuous interaction with these caregivers. Even if another caregiving environment may be better in some way than the child’s current one, continuity of good enough care constitutes part of a child’s best interests. Disrupting existing attachments in favor of an “optimal” solution should be pursued with extreme caution (pp. 25-26).
Safe, continuous, good-enough care can be actively supported. Many studies and meta-analyses demonstrate effective interventions that improve caregiving quality. Many of these interventions are limited in time, typically lasting just 6 to 10 sessions (p. 26).
To this end, it is important to assess a caregiver’s potential to provide good enough care with sufficient support, not just the caregiver’s actual caregiving. The assessment also needs to consider a future time, if a current extreme state of distress diminishes the caregiver’s current ability (e.g., fear of loss of custody). Also, any particular intervention does not suit every caregiver, so alternatives should be made available (p. 32).
In families where roles were different prior to the separation, it is important to give the less experienced caregiver the opportunity to develop the ability to provide a safe haven (p. 12).
Bowlby put it this way in 1951: “Just as children are absolutely dependent on their parents for sustenance, so … are parents … dependent on greater society for economic provision. If a community values its children it must cherish their parents” (p. 28).
“The reality is that children form attachment relationships with multiple caregivers simultaneously.”
Principle 3: Maintain a child’s existing safe havens if they don’t pose a threat.
A decision to maintain a child’s existing safe havens does not provide a blueprint for allocating time in shared care arrangements. Time must be sufficient for attachment relationships to be developed and maintained (p. 28).
This principle can also apply to foster care, where relationships with biological parents can be maintained during fostering. Similarly, relationships with foster carers can maintained after foster care (p. 29).
In addition, grandparents, step-parents, siblings, and extended family members can often provide a safe haven for children (p. 29).
Photo: Frank Mckenna. Unsplash.
4. Eight pieces of advice for family courts
1. Do not equate attachment quality with caregiver sensitivity.
Caregiver sensitivity – the ability to notice a child’s signals, interpret them correctly, and respond to them appropriately and in a timely way – is, of course, important and correlates with attachment. However, gender norms can influence how care is expressed, and measures of safe haven and caregiver sensitivity may be shaped by gendered assumptions about caregiving (pp. 8-9). For example, sensitive caregiving in mothers predicts secure attachment more than it does in fathers, suggesting that other factors play a greater role in father-child attachment.
2. Do not equate attachment quality with relationship quality.
Relationships are made up of more than attachment alone. Other factors, such as basic physical care, play, supervision, teaching/learning, setting standards for conduct, and discipline, are also important (p. 9).
3. Do not interpret one-off behaviors of children as reliably indicating attachment quality.
Children’s behaviors depend on context. Attachment is measured in very controlled contexts. A very frightened child behaves differently than a less frightened child. A child in a highchair may cry in response to a threatening noise, but not cry if he or she is free to move to the caregiver. Children’s behaviors are also a function of their individual temperaments (p. 9).
4. The Tender Years Doctrine is wrong.
The Tender Years Doctrine holds that custody automatically goes to the mother for children under a certain “tender” age. While this concept has been formally replaced in most countries by standards related to the best interests of the child, it remains influential (p. 13). In Israel, it remains the policy: custody automatically goes to the mother for children under the age of six. The researchers state: “We are in full consensus that the ultimate establishment of a network of attachment relationships is generally a protective factor in the long term and thus a desirable outcome in child development. We are also in full agreement that losses of and permanent separations from attachment figure are in themselves risk factors that should be prevented wherever possible in child development.” (p.13)
5. Overnight care with a second parent is not inherently harmful for children.
In the 1990s, researchers concluded that co-parenting arrangements that included overnight visits to the co-parent were associated with insecurity in a child’s attachment with the resident parent (Solomon & George, 1999). However, the data presented in the study actually showed that parental conflict, not overnight stays, was the problem. The inaccurate conclusion of this study has been quoted frequently to defend a position that is not supported by this or other evidence (p. 13).
The key question regarding decisions about overnight stays is whether the child experiences a safe haven with each caregiver. Of course, having a secure attachment does not preclude a child being unsettled for a time by unfamiliarity with, say, a new home. Also, the application of Principle 2 (safe, continuous, “good enough” care is in the child’s best interest and caregivers should be helped to provide it) requires attention to actively enabling the caregiver to develop a safe haven over time (p. 14).
“It is important to assess a caregiver’s potential to provide good enough care with sufficient support, not just the caregiver’s actual caregiving.”
6. Addressing and reducing conflict is key.
Inter-parental conflict and hostility undermine a parent’s own caring competencies and ability to let the other parent provide care. Interventions to reduce parental conflict are important (pp. 14-15).
If courts are clear about their decisions regarding custody and time allocation, they can increase parents’ capacity to overcome conflict. Similarly, if courts are clear about their commitment to the three principles outlined earlier, caregivers’ anxiety can be reduced and their motivation for cooperation increased (p. 33).
7. Ensure that family court professionals are adequately trained in attachment assessment.
While attachment theory is typically a mandatory part of professionals’ training, specialist training in assessing attachment quality is not. This can lead to attachment theory being either under-estimated or used with over-confidence. If assessments of attachment are used, they must be performed by formally trained observers (pp. 23, 31).
8. Take evidence directly from experts, not via representing parties.
Appeals to attachment in family courts would be less partial, more balanced, and more aligned with convergent evidence if courts called in experts, rather than the representing parties (p. 23).
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More playtime with dad during the COVID-19 pandemic may turn out to be one of the few positives to emerge for children from the virus. It could also serve as some compensation for children’s considerable losses in school learning and access to friends.
Many children may have benefited during this time from the special contribution of playing with fathers to their social, cognitive, and emotional development.
That’s because many fathers have spent more time at home during the pandemic. They have also spent more time caring for their children. While that shift has been particularly pronounced during the pandemic, according to official data, it also reflects a longer-term trend, going back 40 years, of gradually increasing paternal involvement.
On average, fathers spend a higher proportion of their time caring for children than mothers playfully interacting with their children. That share may have shifted during the pandemic, but the amount of time overall that dads spend playing is likely to have risen.
“The pandemic reminds policymakers how jobs can be remodelled to help fathers participate more in their children’s lives.”
Playing with dad helps children develop
Children’s extra playtime with their fathers matters for several reasons. First, when parents spend more time with their children, they strengthen their skills in areas that are crucial to play – understanding what interests children, following their lead, and generally being more sensitive to them. In short, many fathers have become more closely attuned to their children’s play and to the pace at which they learn.
Photo: Mikael Stenberg. Creative Commons.
Learning to be patient and follow a child’s lead can be challenging. Some young children take a long time to learn a new skill for the first time and once they have learned it, may want to perform the new skill again and again. Unattuned adults may wish to rush them, do it for them, or move on to something else.
Second, fathers’ play makes a measurable and considerable difference to outcomes for children. Playing with dad is consistently linked to children being able to learn better and make friendships. More playtime with dads is also associated with less anxiety and fewer behavioral problems for children, who are less likely to get in trouble at school or fight with their peers.
The special quality of fathers’ play
Third, fathers’ play has some special qualities. Typically, it exposes children to a second person who is important in their lives. It also allows children to experience styles of parenting that differ from those demonstrated by their mother. As a result, children are exposed to differences and surprises in a safe environment. This can help them build capacities to manage change and difficulties in relationships.
Focusing too much on dads’ rough and tumble play with their children is unwise. We should avoid making it emblematic of fatherhood. Lots of moms engage in this type of play, too. And many dads can also spend quiet time with their children, sitting with them and cuddling them, and we should not think of this as “un-dad-like” behavior. Nevertheless, rough and tumble play has real value and is an area in which many fathers feel confident.
“One take-home message for fathers is to get stuck in and try to make time to play with their children from the outset.”
Even very young babies benefit from fathers’ play
The skills that fathers bring in playfully exciting young children can benefit not only toddlers but also young babies. In my studies on fathers’ playful interactions with 3-month-olds, fathers’ engagement predicted fewer behavioral problems at 12 months and higher cognitive scores at 2 years.
It’s important that dads understand these findings because some may lack confidence in and feel reticent about caring for their babies. They – and others – may subscribe to the mistaken view that dads’ impact on children’s lives begins later. We also need to fight the mistaken cultural belief that very young babies don’t notice much about what’s happening around them. After 20 years doing child development research, I know that babies have a great capacity to notice and learn from very early in their lives.
What should dads do?
One take-home message for fathers is to get stuck in and try to make time to play with their children from the outset. Fathers can bring something important to their children, even and perhaps especially when they are very young. Dads might not feel confident at first, but they shouldn’t worry: They should just play and, with practice, they will get better at it. I advise fathers to try a range of activities beyond rough-and-tumble play. It’s also okay for fathers to sit quietly with a toy or a book and just snuggle up with their children. At least some of time, dads should slow down, follow their child’s lead, and play at their pace.
Photo: Humphrey Muleba. Creative Commons.
The pandemic has introduced stresses that can undermine play. When people are stressed, the focus of their attention narrows so they attend less well to their relationships. We have seen this shift in studies of the impact depression in fathers — there was a reduction in the surprises that fathers typically built into play with their children, who were subsequently exposed to a narrower range of play. So, as COVID-19’s effects continue, we should be mindful to protect parents’ mental health.
Overall, the pandemic highlights the important role of fathers in child development. The past year should help policymakers recognize how jobs can be remodelled to help fathers participate more in their children’s lives. It also reminds family service practitioners to emphasize, facilitate, and capitalize on the assets that fathers, as well as mothers, can bring to their children from the earliest ages.
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In her creative homemade short film, The Lucky Ones, Rachel Morrison reflects on her favorite memories as a 5 year old of ice cream for breakfast and bevies of balloons. Then she segues into scenes of her 5-year-old son with cape and swords running through dunes at a nearby beach. She describes how much he, even at the young age of 5, acutely feels the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic and misses his friends and teachers. This quite blissful introduction abruptly shifts as Morrison reflects on how those playful memories of her 5-year-old self were actually intimate moments with her mother in the hospital battling cancer. The pangs of isolation undercutting these reflections pivot back to her son: What will he remember of this unusual pandemic? His play on the beach with swords and capes interwoven with so much time spent with a sibling and parents, or something else?
This poignant short film captures so much about play and its evolutionary buffer. Play cements pleasant memories. Play is primal. Play is not only an expressive outlet for curating and preserving our own well-being, but also connects us with others. Play positions us for resilience and survival.
“As a society, we undervalue play.”
If this is true, why aren’t we hearing more about the value of play for children during this pandemic? Moreover, how might play be an avenue for learning or serving as a buffer against even more anticipated learning loss as the pandemic continues?
One reason is that as a society, we undervalue play. Play’s long-term benefits for economic health and general well-being are neither easy to quantify nor quantified the way, for example, we quantify metrics on the benefits of formal and structured early education (as James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, has done). Some early childhood experts are even complicit: Good intentions to elevate information and education about the types of parent interactions and environments that support early childhood development have unintentionally contributed to imposing more stress on structure and deliberateness at the cost of spontaneity.
Another reason is that we view play as a luxury, something that is frivolous and for the rich or lazy. We’ve been wired to see play as an “extra” rather than as a core ingredient. Unlike breakfast, a good night’s sleep, and tooth brushing, play is not considered a building block to healthy living.
“Play, and the habit of spontaneous play, can help support parents and children through this pandemic.”
Two years before the pandemic, in 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics for the first time published a public statement on the benefits of childhood play. They did this in part due to concerns about recommendations that tilted toward overstructured, overly formalized, and overly controlled environments for children. Managing the tension of spontaneous, unstructured play with the directive that parents hear about routine, predictability, and daily practice of positive interactions with children has and can be confusing (as I’ve previously written). Some progress has been made in addressing this tension (e.g., through initiatives such as Playful Learning Landscapes, an effort reinforce learning more naturally through public spaces and parks as locations for unfettered play).
Photo: Paige Cody. Unsplash.
COVID-19 has had and will continue to have devastating impacts on children of all ages. Parents’ loss of jobs and income, lockdowns in homes with adults who are sometimes abusive and neglectful, separation from school and early care and education, distance from peers, and disruption of monitoring by health and other professionals will have long-term negative consequences. We have many reasons to be worried about the next generation and the likely increases in socioeconomic and racial disparities. Could play be the silver lining in this gloomy scenario?
Indeed, evolution might have positioned children well: No pandemic can fully kidnap their innate imagination and impulse to play (though it can drain their capacity to embrace and enjoy it). For younger children, whether turning basements into beaches or backyards into butterfly gardens, or conjuring a new influx of imaginary friends, playful activities are stepping stones to learning in all the ways educators, economists, and developmentalists tout as predictors of long term well-being. The social skills developed with imaginary friends, and the math skills incorporated into cooking and designing beaches are seedlings of the cognitive and emotional foundations children need to thrive. Considerable research shows a variety of ways that, for example, rough-and-tumble play improves children’s social cognition, social competence, and spatial ability, and imaginative or pretend play can improve children’s creativity and psychological and moral development. In fact, childhoods that are deprived of play might be harmful to children.
“The role of intuitive play, and its place in daily habits, is more important now than ever.”
For older children, increased time in the digital world can lead to reduced physical activity and isolation. The counterbalance can be found in the ways the digital world has sparked creativity—songs, videos, new ways of communicating across large groups of peers.
The role of intuitive play, and its place in daily habits, is more important now than ever. Conventional modes of learning have been taken away from many families, with emotional and economic stress escalating as new struggles of getting food on the table, and balancing children’s schooling and work have increased. Conventional places to play may be constrained and unsafe, whether at home, at school, or in publicly available spaces.
The underlying message of the AAP in 2018 is one worth revisiting now: Play, and the habit of spontaneous play, can help support parents and children through this pandemic. This might be the moment to validate that intuitive play counts as play and play counts as learning. The good news is that this message does not have to emerge from a new committee of scientists or public health experts to inform strict protocols to succeed.
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Near-scientific consensus that physical punishment is damaging to children has led to interest in how to educate parents about its potential harms. Efforts to reduce parents’ use of physical punishment, often called spanking, with young children through on-line education are likely to succeed only if they directly address parents’ beliefs.
This is what we learned from an experiment we undertook to examine how parents who approve of physical punishment remain committed to spanking even after being shown scientific evidence linking the practice to many negative outcomes for children, including aggression and mental health issues. The study, of parents of 2- to 8-year-olds from 41 U.S. states, was published in the Journal of Family Psychology.
Discomfort makes parents mistrust science
In our study, parents were given written scientific evidence about spanking in the form of an on-line news article, which included quotes from an expert on physical punishment. They also received written opinions from lay commentators who advocated for physical punishment. Parents who approved of physical punishment rated experts as less trustworthy than lay commentators, thereby avoiding the psychological challenge and discomfort – often called cognitive dissonance — that occurs when beliefs contradict scientific evidence. They may do this by questioning the trustworthiness of the science and preferring alternative perspectives that fit their views.
“Parents do not discount all science related to parenting, just science that conflicts the views they hold.”
However, in our study, parents who approved of physical punishment were not anti-science in principle. Their distrust of science was specific to this topic. For example, parents had no trouble valuing messages from experts on a neutral topic — the importance of car seats for children — even when they had discounted the expert on physical punishment. These findings suggest that parents do not discount all science related to parenting, just science that conflicts the views they hold.
Photo: Average Joe. Creative Commons.
Findings suggest more workable approaches
The Internet has become a leading source of information for parents around the world. Our study helps us understand why efforts to significantly reduce spanking by disseminating information on-line about the dangers of physically punishing children may prove difficult without directly addressing common misperceptions about physical punishment. First, the on-line world makes it very easy for users to avoid information that contradicts what they already believe. Second, it gives users competing lay and pseudo-scientific commentary that can confirm existing views in what are often referred to as echo chambers.
The good news is that parents who approve of physical punishment don’t distrust science per se — they are generally open to scientific findings, as the comparison involving child car seats showed. However, it is easy for parents to discount scientific findings when they can easily find others on-line who validate their support for practices such as physical punishment.
Paediatricians can be influential
Given the challenges of on-line parent education, a more productive way to educate parents about the harms of physical punishment may be to do so through experts they already trust, such as their children’s pediatricians. Pediatricians are widely trusted by parents. In the United States and Canada, they are encouraged to offer anticipatory guidance – a type of proactive counselling on childrearing topics such as children wearing bicycle helmets and ensuring that guns are stored safely — even if parents don’t raise the issue. The risks of physical punishment should be a subject that is frequently discussed with parents, along with suggestions for disciplinary methods to use instead of physical punishment. Pediatricians say the best time to discuss this is when children are infants so parents can reflect on the options available long before their children misbehave. However, pediatricians are not always trained for the task and may need advice on how best to raise these issues and participate in these discussions.
Beliefs underpin parental resistance to science
At some level, most parents who physically punish their young children believe in the practice. Some use this kind of punishment because their parents used it on them and they believe it worked. Some see it is as a last resort, when parents feel they have no other option. They may feel they need spanking in their toolbox to drive their message home on occasion. Simply telling parents not to hit their children without providing a realistic and credible toolbox of alternatives is unlikely to win over converts. Experts may seem to be taking away parents’ last resort without offering them something they know will work in what can be a stressful situation. Also, if experts offer parents alternatives that seem too difficult or time consuming, parents may display solution aversion: When a solution is regarded as unworkable or too scary, people recoil from it and stick with what they know.
Tempting though it may be to simply rely on making scientific evidence about physical punishment widely available, to have a wider impact, we need more individualized approaches that address parents’ beliefs. Resistant parents are not intrinsically anti-science. But on the issue of spanking, they need workable options other than physical punishment. When the going gets tough, they need something they can really believe in.
Header photo: Guian Bolisay. Creative Commons. More