Playing, singing, reading and talking to babies and toddlers are the most powerful tools parents have to promote their children's growth far into the future.
The Role of Family, Childcare and School in Early Childhood
While the mystery of how individual differences develop is far from solved, one long-term study has begun to sort out the answers.
The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) launched the Study of Early Childcare and Youth Development in 1991 to follow more than 1,000 ethnically, geographically and economically diverse children from birth through early adolescence.
Unique in that it regularly measures multiple qualities of the children, including cognitive, language and social skills, the study also tracks the amount of time those children spend in childcare, the quality of that childcare and, after the age of 5, their performance in school. The study also assesses their interactions with their mothers and their childcare providers.
The result is a comprehensive collection of data on the many early environmental influences on children's development - and the beginning of an understanding of how family, childcare and school work in concert to shape our children's abilities and behavior. The children in the study have now progressed beyond first grade, enabling researchers to observe how early cognitive, language and social skills emerge in the school setting.
While first-grade academic achievement may seem a distant goal to the parent of a young baby, it is a revealing measurable outcome of a complex interplay of social and cognitive skills in early childhood. By looking at children's performance at the age of 6, researchers can trace the strands of their development back to their earliest interactions with parents and other caregivers.
Gender Differences Found
Other studies have looked at gender, rather than child-rearing histories, to see if being a mom or dad makes a difference to the way we interact with our children. While the results reveal averages across large groups and may not be true for all individual mothers and fathers, these studies find that fathers do tend to interact with their babies and toddlers differently than mothers. While most fathers and mothers are similar in their responsiveness, stimulation, affection and teaching when interacting with their children, dads tend to engage in more physical play than mothers. Both parents, however, play more physically with sons than with daughters.
By many measures of the data, the NICHD researchers have found that language skills underlie numerous other abilities, from reading to math, and even social interaction. A child's vocabulary at the age of 4-1/2 is the single strongest predictor of overall first-grade achievement. And what produces a rich vocabulary and use of language? Researchers say the quality of language stimulation in the home, beginning with parents' vocabulary, use of language, reading habits and a child's exposure to books and other printed texts, has a direct effect on a child's language skills.
The overall quality of parent-child interaction in the first three years of life is also associated with strong language skills. Researchers have identified certain maternal traits and behaviors - responsiveness, acceptance, low intrusiveness and warmth - that foster children's development. (The parenting quality researchers label "low intrusiveness" is a willingness to allow a child to act independently.) Interestingly, the simple trait of warmth - open displays of affection, verbal praise and sensitivity to children's requests and feelings - has been shown to be most strongly linked to children's cognitive development, including school readiness at age 5, IQ scores at 6 and academic performance at 12.
In the NICHD study, this sort of high-quality parenting has been found to have a direct effect on both social and language skills at age 4-1/2. And a child's social and language skills, according to the study, have a direct effect on how well he reads and even learns math in first grade. The NICHD researchers found this result to be particularly significant because while a child's patterns of behavior and thinking are established before formal schooling begins, the "quality of parent-child relationships apparently also contributes to the long-term stability of these effects."
The Influence of Childcare
Today, most children's lives include some form of childcare, leading parents and professionals to ask what its long-term impact is on children's development. The NICHD study has found clear links between the quantity and quality of childcare and how children function. Indeed, high-quality childcare has been shown to encourage children's cognitive, language and pre-academic skills, especially among children at risk for developmental delays. Not unexpectedly, well-trained and talented caregivers were observed to have precisely the same traits displayed in high-quality parenting - language stimulation, responsiveness, warmth and low intrusiveness - traits directly related to strong cognitive and language skills.
Surprisingly, while high-quality childcare is associated with cognitive abilities, it has not been shown to have a consistent positive effect on children's development. Still, childcare and preschool are the source for most young children's first friendships, and these are important.
Another strand of data from the NICHD study reveals that stable preschool relationships - friendships maintained from preschool through first grade - ease the transition to formal schooling and improve academic performance.
The Power of Parenting
For all its similar positive effects, the influence of childcare on development is not as powerful as that of parents. In fact, the NICHD researchers state that in terms of language development alone, the influence of parents was between four and five times greater than that of the childcare environment. As language skills underlie so much of a child's overall abilities, it becomes clear that the simple pleasures of playing, singing, reading and talking to babies and toddlers are also the most powerful tools parents have to promote their children's growth far into the future.