In This Issue

Belief Systems

In both popular and scientific literature, young children are portrayed as being confused about the distinction between fantasy and reality. Think about how many young children believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and various other fantastical beings. Woolley and Ghossainy (p. 1496), in a review of research on children's judgments of reality status, use of testimony, understanding of possibility, and religious cognition suggest that, far from being the uncritical believers they're portrayed to be, children often exhibit skepticism much earlier than previously thought. In short, children aren't as gullible as we think they are, and many are just as likely to doubt as they are to believe. The researchers propose that the development of metacognitive knowledge allows children to eventually find an appropriate, culture-specific balance between acceptance and doubt, or between skepticism and credulity.

Adolescents respond more aggressively when they interpret peer conflicts—like being bumped in the hallway—as having been done on purpose to be mean rather than by accident. But what leads teens to draw such conclusions? Yeager, Miu, Powers, and Dweck (p. 1651) surveyed 1,100 middle school and high school teens from all walks of life and find that a simple belief—that people's character traits are fixed and can't change—reliably led to more aggressive interpretations and responses to a peer conflict. The same relation showed up in poor schools and rich schools, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. The researchers also show that a 20-minute intervention—a reading and writing exercise teaching that people's characteristic have the potential to change—could reduce teens' tendencies to see accidents as having been done on purpose and further reduce the desire to retaliate aggressively. This was even found at an 8-month follow-up, with no reinforcement of the treatment message. This intervention may prove useful in aggression prevention.

Helping Hands

As adults, we routinely and automatically mimic others' body postures and movements. This type of mimicry is thought to be a sort of social glue that has many positive social consequences. In a study out of Germany, Carpenter, Uebel, and Tomasello (p. 1511) find that this happens even for 18-month-olds (they tested 48): Infants whose actions were copied by an adult subsequently behaved more prosocially than infants whose actions weren't copied—helping the adult more often, more quickly, and more spontaneously. And infants gave the help not only to the person who mimicked them but also to another adult who needed help but wasn't involved in the copying. The findings have implications for our understanding of the social functions of imitation in early childhood.

Within the animal kingdom, humans appear exceptional in their ability to help others. These prosocial, other-oriented behaviors are not simply something people do, they're an essential part of human social life and can fundamentally change the way two people interact. Dunfield and Kuhlmeier (p. 1766) wondered: How do these behaviors emerge early in life? They looked at 95 primarily White, middle-class preschoolers (ages 2–4), examining their ability to recognize and respond to an adult in distress (e.g., a woman who cried because she hurt her knee, or a woman who displayed an empty bowl at snack time). The children reacted by helping, comforting, and sharing—readily and repeatedly—with different types of aid emerging at different ages, suggesting different developmental patterns. By broadening our understanding of the factors that encourage or discourage prosocial behaviors, the findings can inform educational and parenting strategies to promote positive social interactions.

Owning It

To avoid social conflicts, people must recognize and respect other people's rights to ownership, which means they have to judge whether a particular object is owned and by whom. In their study of almost 120 mostly White, middle-class preschoolers (ages 3–5), Friedman, Van de Vondervoort, Defeyter, and Neary (p. 1519) find that children judged that an object belonged to the character who played with it first, but only when this character had the object at the beginning of the scenario; when the scenario instead began with the object between the characters, this bias disappeared. This suggests that children don't necessarily infer ownership by considering who had the object first. Instead, their reasoning reflects a process that reconstructs history.

Phrasing Praise

Parents praise their children in a variety of ways. In their longitudinal study, Gunderson et al. (p. 1526) find that the more parents praised their toddlers for their efforts (as in “you're doing a good job”), rather than as individuals (as in “you're so smart”) or in general terms (as in “good”), the more those children had positive approaches to challenges 5 years later. Researchers videotaped more than fifty 1- to 3-year-olds and their parents during everyday home interactions (the families represented a variety of races, ethnicities, and income levels), classified the types of praise used, then followed up when the children were 7 and 8 years. When parents used more process praise while interacting with their children, children reported more positive approaches to challenges 5 years later, could think of more strategies to overcome setbacks, and believed that their traits could improve with effort. The study also finds that although boys and girls received the same amount of praise overall, boys got significantly more process praise than girls. And 5 years later, boys were more likely to have positive attitudes about academic challenges than girls and to believe that intelligence could be improved. The findings suggest that improving the quality of early parental praise can help children develop the belief that their future success is in their own hands.

Negative stereotypes about boys have been shown to hinder their achievement. In contrast, assuring them that girls and boys are equally competent academically helps them achieve, according to Hartley and Sutton (p. 1716). In their studies of more than 580 primarily White schoolchildren ages 4–10 in the United Kingdom, they sought to determine the factors that are related to boys' underachievement at school, focusing on the role of stereotype threat, which grants stereotypes a self-fulfilling power. From a very young age, children think boys are academically inferior to girls, and they believe adults think so, too. Even at these young ages, boys' performance on an academic task is affected by messages that suggest that girls will do better than they will. The study suggests that it's possible to improve boys' performance by giving them egalitarian messages.

A Hard Day's Night

Executive functioning is a set of advanced cognitive skills (examples include impulse control, working memory, and mental flexibility) that permit individuals to consciously plan and monitor their behavior to reach desired goals. Although executive functioning develops very rapidly between 1 and 6 years, children vary widely in their executive skills. Bernier, Beauchamp, Bouvette-Turcot, Carlson, and Carrier (p. 1542) took a longitudinal look at 65 primarily White Canadian mother–child pairs from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds to determine why certain children are better than others at acquiring and using these skills. They find that nighttime sleep can account for a portion of these differences; children who got higher proportions of total sleep at night at age 1 performed better on executive tasks at ages 2 and 4, even when socioeconomic status and children's prior cognitive levels were taken into consideration.

Mental Rotation

Mental rotation—the ability to turn something in one's head—is an important spatial ability that's relevant to many problem-solving tasks. Few studies have looked into the origins of mental rotation abilities, so the determinants and limits of infants' abilities in this area are largely not known. Möhring and Frick (p. 1554) sought to determine whether and under which conditions forty 6-month-olds could mentally rotate objects. The infants were able to differentiate an object and its mirror image version, even though it underwent a hidden rotation, suggesting that they were able to use mental rotation to judge whether the rotated version was the same as the original one. However, infants succeeded only after being allowed to touch and explore the object, highlighting the vital importance of action experience on cognitive performance. The study provides insights into the foundation of behaviors of scientific, mathematic, and daily problem solving.

Under Stress

Stressful early life experiences can affect behaviors in children like attention and memory. Hanson et al. (p. 1566) examined the organization of white matter in the prefrontal cortex of the brains of about sixty 9- to 14-year-olds; this part of the brain is related to cognitive processes such as thinking, planning, and learning. About two dozen of the children had experienced early neglect and were adopted from institutions in Romania, Russia, China, and Bulgaria. The other children, who had not been neglected, were from families of similar socioeconomic status. The children and adolescents were asked to complete cognitive tests, and then underwent an MRI scan. Among youths who had been neglected, white matter in the prefrontal cortex was connected very diffusely, and this was related to less effective processing of information. Prefrontal white matter in children who had not suffered such early maltreatment was organized in more specific patterns and this group performed better on cognitive tasks of thinking, planning, and learning. The findings can inform interventions for children who have experienced early life stress.

In another study on stress, Johnson, Rhee, Whisman, Corley, and Hewitt (p. 1823) asked: To what extent do genes and the environment contribute to exposure to stressful life events during the transition from childhood to adolescence? In their longitudinal study, they examined more than 450 pairs of primarily White, middle-class, same-sex twins from ages 9 to 16; some were identical, sharing all their genes, while others were fraternal and shared, on average, half of their genes. Findings: The same genetic influences contribute to exposure to stressful life events throughout adolescence (rather than new genes “turning on” at specific ages), so that negative events experienced by youths result, in part, from a genetic propensity to experience stressful events. Furthermore, the influence of genes increases from late childhood to adolescence (ages 12–13). The findings can inform efforts to help young people cope with stressful life events.

Stress predicts children's psychological problems, but not all children are affected equally by stress. Schermerhorn et al. (p. 1579) find that children who tend to be both fearful in new situations and have low self-regulation are more likely than other children to have behavior problems (such as aggression and disruptive behavior) when exposed to stress. In their investigation of more than 550 primarily White, middle-class children, followed from kindergarten through eighth grade, they find that the interaction between the two characteristics of temperament may multiply the effect of each—especially for children who have been exposed to stress relatively early (kindergarten through second grade).

Sibling Dynamics

Parents act differently with different children—for example, being more positive with one child and more negative with another. Meunier, Boyle, O'Connor, and Jenkins (p. 1594) took a longitudinal look at almost 400 Canadian families with up to four children whose average age ranged from 2 to 5 to differentiate between dynamics operating across the whole family and those specific to individual children. They find that differential behavior negatively affects not only the child who receives more negative feedback, but all the children in the family: When siblings in families are parented very differently, all children show more mental health problems. The study also finds that the more risks experienced by parents—such as single parenting, low income, past abuse, and lack of organization and safety in the home—the more likely they will treat their children differentially.

Identifying ADHD

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common childhood psychiatric disorders, and usually begins before age 7. In a longitudinal study, Berger, Alyagon, Hadaya, Atzaba-Poria, and Auerbach (p. 1616) sought to determine whether preschoolers with family risk for ADHD showed less inhibitory control (the ability to deliberately stop or withhold an automatic response), and to identify electrophysiological processes in the brain that may interfere with a child's performance in a response inhibition task. In their study of 60 Israeli 5-year-old boys (ADHD is more prevalent in males) at different levels of risk for ADHD, they find that children's performance on a stop-signal task correlated with concurrent ratings of ADHD symptoms. They also find that paternal symptoms—dads' symptoms of inattentiveness—measured in children's early infancy predicted performance on the stop-signal task. In strengthening the contention that behavioral markers of ADHD can be found early in life and providing a plausible brain basis of this behavioral difficulty, the study can inform early identification and intervention efforts.

Portraits of Perfectionism

Research has shown that some types of perfectionism beliefs can have negative emotional consequences, such as depression. How do these beliefs develop and change during adolescence? In their longitudinal look at almost 550 African American adolescents (grades 6 through 12, most from low-income families) living in an urban setting, Herman, Wang, Trotter, Reinke, and Ialongo (p. 1633) identify four different patterns of development, with each pattern uniquely associated with risk for internalizing problems at the end of high school. They also find that perfectionism may be more malleable in adolescence than previously thought. Youths with various combinations of self-critical perfectionism and perfectionism they see as imposed by others had the highest rates of depression. The study can inform efforts to identify and help youths with high-risk patterns of beliefs about perfectionism.

Accent on Language

Infants are language novices, but at some point, they recognize that talkers with unfamiliar accents are speaking the same language as their parents, despite the fact that infants' experience is usually restricted to the accent spoken at home. In their study out of Australia, Kitamura, Panneton, and Best (p. 1686) tested about 150 infants' listening preferences for sentences spoken in their native and other accents. Native Australian English babies heard their own accent and an unfamiliar accent—South African English. Infants preferred Australian English at 6 months, but by 9 months didn't distinguish between the two. However, when American English was pitted against Australian English, 6-month-old Aussie babies showed earlier adaptation to the novel accent, probably because of the prevalence of American accents on TV. The take-home message: Infants don't need much exposure to an accent to understand that it belongs to the same language.

Language comprehension is a competitive process in children, according to Henderson, Weighall, Brown, and Gaskell (p. 1668), who used a novel paradigm to provide the first clear evidence of “on-line” lexical competition in children. In their study of almost 40 British children ages 7–8 years and 35 adults from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, participants were slower to detect pauses inserted in words with at least one competitor than words with no competitors (competitors are words that sound, at the start, like other words). Children, it turns out, are like adults in that they're constantly trying to guess ahead at what's being said and don't wait until the whole word is uttered before deciding what the word is. The study also finds that when children and adults are introduced to novel words, the speed with which pauses are detected in similar-sounding existing words is slowed down. This competition effect only emerged after 24 hours, once the new words had been integrated with existing knowledge.

Child-Care Effects

Most children in industrialized countries go to child care in their infant, toddler, and/or preschool years. Research, mainly from the United States, suggests that children who spend a lot of time in such care, from an early age, and especially in large peer groups, may become more aggressive and disobedient, less socially competent, and have more conflict with their care providers than children with less experience in child care. Solheim, Wichstrøm, Belsky, and Berg-Nielsen (p. 1701) looked at more than 900 Norwegian 4-year-olds to better understand how child care affects social adjustment in Norway. They find neither negative nor positive effects of early start times, long days, or large preschool groups on children's aggression, disobedience, or social competence (the study did not gauge quality of care). This may be because in Norway, with up to 57 weeks of parental leave, 100% salary replacement, and strict regulations on child-care quality, few children begin child care before 6 months, as they do in the United States, with most starting after they're a year old. The study did find that children who spent more time in child care had slightly more conflicted relationships with their care providers.

The federally funded child-care subsidy program is one of the government's largest investments in early care and education for low-income children, although it was designed primarily to support parental employment. Unlike other public programs such as Head Start and public prekindergarten, though, little is known about the subsidy program's potential to enhance low-income children's development. In their study of about 1,400 kindergartners (part of the nationally representative Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort) whose parents were eligible for child-care subsidies when the children were 4, Johnson, Martin, and Brooks-Gunn (p. 1806) sought to test whether subsidies received in the preschool year affected children's school readiness in kindergarten, namely their reading, math, behavior, and approaches to learning. Although other research has found negative effects of subsidies on child outcomes, this study finds that subsidy receipt in preschool is not directly linked to subsequent reading or social-emotional skills. However, subsidy receipt predicted lower math scores among children attending community-based centers.

Approaches to Caregiving

From 2000 to 2005, the largest, most comprehensive attempt to improve an orphanage for more than 450 infants and young children (up to age 4) was conducted in St. Petersburg in the Russian Federation. The intervention encouraged caregivers to “love these children like you would your own,” and trained them to provide warmer, more sensitive, and more responsive care. McCall et al. (p. 1734) compared the intervention at this orphanage to one orphanage that received only caregiver training and another that conducted business as usual. They find that the physical and caregiving environment improved quite substantially in the intervention orphanage, and that children's physical, mental, and social-emotional development improved greatly, much more than in the training-only and a no-intervention orphanage. Improvements were maintained in children who left the orphanage to be adopted for 6 years after the intervention ended.

Natsuaki et al. (p. 1750) aimed to understand how social wariness in children is associated with a specific form of parenting in toddlerhood called structured parenting. Structured parenting involves regulating, guiding, and managing children's behavior by giving them specific and direct instructions, commands, and requests. They studied about 360 adopted families from various regions of the United States and of various races/ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds to find that heightened social wariness in children at 18 months predicted reduced structured parenting in adoptive mothers at 27 months. Adoptive fathers' lower structured parenting at 18 months predicted subsequent elevation in children's social wariness. This suggests a pattern of reciprocal interplay between toddlers' social awareness and parents' use of structured parenting.

Messages in Language

Previous research has shown that mothers' tendency to comment appropriately on their infants' thoughts and feelings is positively associated with children's theory of mind (ToM) in the preschool years. Meins, Fernyhough, Arnott, Leekam, and de Rosnay (p. 1777) explored potential developmental pathways that could account for this link. Specifically, they looked at whether children's language and play abilities at age 2 mediated the relation between mothers' early mind-related comments and children's TOM performance at age 4. Findings: Mothers' nonattuned mind-related comments (i.e., comments that misinterpreted the infant's internal state) were negatively related to children's pretend play at age 2, but were unrelated to children's ToM performance at age 4. The opposite pattern of effects was found with respect to mothers' appropriate mind-related comments. Pretend play mediated the relation between nonattuned comments and children's ToM, but there was no such mediation for the link between appropriate comments and ToM. The study highlights the value of tuning in to your young child's thoughts and feelings.

Young children can learn new words by paying attention to a variety of cues produced by speakers, including monitoring eye gaze, following pointing, and reading facial expressions. One cue that's received little attention is speakers' tone of voice or emotion. Berman, Graham, Callaway, and Chambers (p. 1791) sought to determine whether children use emotion in speech to learn a new word. In their study of about 60 primarily White preschoolers, they find that by age 4, children use a speaker's tone of voice (especially negative tone) to identify the object labeled by an unfamiliar word. However, it's not until age 5 that children demonstrate their learning through pointing or generalize their learning to similar objects of a different color. These results highlight the developmental emergence of children's sensitivity to vocal emotion.

  • Anne Bridgman