In This Issue

Early Environments and Language Acquisition

Research tells us that poor social and physical environments can harm young children’s cognitive and behavioral development, and that development often improves in better environments. Windsor et al. (p. 1040) studied more than 100 children who were part of the longitudinal Bucharest Early Intervention Project—about half were placed in foster homes at about 22 months, while the other half continued living in institutions. About 60 typically developing children who lived with their biological families in the same communities served as a comparison group. Children who were placed in the more optimal environment of foster care before they turned 2 had substantially greater language skills at 3½ than children who stayed in institutional care, with those placed by 15 months showing language skills similar to the comparison group. In contrast, children placed in foster care after they turned 2 had the same severe language delays as those who stayed in institutional care. The findings highlight the importance of intervening early to help young children develop language.

The Psychological Basis of Imitation

Imitation plays a major role in how children learn cultural knowledge and socialization. Put simply, infants acquire new behaviors, the basics of language, and knowledge about how to use things partly by imitating others. In an effort to address the controversy about the psychological basis of imitation, Paulus, Hunnius, Vissers, and Bekkering (p. 1047) examined two theories that explain imitation. Their study, of almost hundred 14-month-olds, finds that toddlers don’t think about other people’s actions, as adults might do (that’s the principle of rational action), but rather tend to imitate actions that have been shown to elicit an interesting effect and are carried out in ways the children might do something themselves (that’s the principle of motor resonance). The bottom line: Imitation in infancy, rather than involving reasoning about others’ actions, has a strong basis in infants’ motor systems.

Experiences In and Out of the Home

When researchers observe that children who stay home full-time differ from those in other child-care arrangements, how much is this caused by nonmaternal care per se rather than other factors associated with the family’s child-care choices? Jaffee, Van Hulle, and Rodgers (p. 1076) studied more than 9,000 children who took part in the Children of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, comparing siblings from the same family who had different kinds of child-care experiences. They find no differences between children in nonmaternal care arrangements before 3 years of age and their siblings who were not. Specifically, contrary to previous findings, children who weren’t cared for at home didn’t have more behavior problems or lower test scores than their siblings who were cared for full-time by mom. The findings have implications for parents’ child-care choices.

Previous research has found that on average, children living in poverty are less well prepared to start school than children from middle-income homes. Despite their lower performance, there’s substantial variation in the skills of children living in poverty, which may be explained by their early experiences in the home. In a longitudinal study, Rodriguez and Tamis-LeMonda (p. 1058) did home visits with more than 1,850 children and their mothers from mostly low-income households when the children were about 1, 2, 3, and 5 years old. Findings: Differences in the children’s learning environments over time predicted their readiness skills, with children whose learning environments were low in quality across the ages much more likely to have delays in language and literacy at prekindergarten than those whose environments were high. The bottom line: Home learning experiences that are consistently supportive in the early years may boost low-income children’s readiness for school.

Recall and Reality

The inability of individuals to remember the very earliest years of their lives, called infantile amnesia, has been explored for many years in adults. Children also experience infantile amnesia. In a longitudinal study, Peterson, Warren, and Short (p. 1092) looked at the phenomenon in 140 Canadian children aged 4–13 years, asking them to describe their three earliest memories; 2 years later, they asked the children again about their earliest memories. Children who were between 4 and 7 years of age at the first interview showed very little overlap between the memories they recalled the first time and those they remembered 2 years later, suggesting that young children’s very early memories are fragile and vulnerable to forgetting. In contrast, a third of the 10- to 13-year-olds described the same memory as their very earliest, and more than half of all the memories they provided were the same at both interviews. Thus, younger children’s earliest memories seemed to change, with memories from younger ages being replaced by memories from older ages. But older children became more consistent in their memories as they grew older.

In both school and home environments, parents and teachers read fantasy stories to preschoolers with the expectation that the children will learn messages in those stories that can be applied to real-world situations. In contrast to this expectation, Richert and Smith (p. 1106) find that preschool-aged children are more likely to learn from stories with realistic characters than stories with fantasy characters. In two studies, they examined how well more than 80 mostly Hispanic 3- to 5-year-olds were able to solve problems after hearing fantastical and real stories. Although past research has found that preschoolers are pretty good at telling fantasy from reality, this study suggests that at this age, children may not view fantasy stories as sources of information for dealing with real-world problems.

The ability to distinguish reality from nonreality is a critical skill that develops throughout the preschool years and involves the use of cues such as context, evidence, and adult testimony. In their study of more than 130 children aged 4–6 years, Vaden and Woolley (p. 1120) looked at the youngsters’ use of religious cues in making this distinction. They find that as children get older, they’re more likely to use the involvement of God in a story as a cue to figure out if the story is real. When God was referenced in a story (all stories were based on parts of the Old Testament), children were more likely to accept as real events that they otherwise would discount as impossible. Children’s familiarity with the stories, their families’ religious beliefs, and the amount of religious education they received also influenced their willingness to believe the events in the story.

Parental Involvement Across Cultures

Children’s oral language skills, including their narrative ability, are a critical part of the development of a variety of school-related skills. Previous research has shown that children develop narrative skills in conversation with their caregivers, and that parents who engage their children in elaborative stories by providing or asking for new information boost children’s narrative, memory, and literacy skills. Melzi, Schick, and Kennedy (p. 1282) looked at storytelling dynamics in more than 60 mothers and their 3- to 5-year-old children—half lived in Peru and spoke only Spanish, the other half lived in the United States and spoke only English. They find that while elaboration is a key feature of mothers’ narrative style, narrative participation—the extent to which mothers include the child as a narrator in the storytelling interaction—is a second, more social dimension. Cultural background also plays a role, the study found, with differences emerging depending on the children’s culture.

As children enter middle school, their engagement in school often declines and so does their achievement. To determine why some children remain engaged, Pomerantz, Qin, Wang, and Chen (p. 1136) looked at students on the brink of adolescence in the United States and China, two countries where concepts of the adolescent years appear to differ considerably. The researchers asked questions of 800 youths four times over 2 years beginning at the start of the seventh grade. In the United States, but not in China, the youths’ sense of responsibility to their parents declined over the 2 years. But in both countries, youngsters who said they felt responsible to their parents were more invested and engaged in school, and often earned higher grades, independent of the quality of the parent–child relationship. Responsibility was defined as children’s feelings of obligation to their parents and their motivation in school to please them. The findings provide ideas for parents on staying engaged with and interested in their adolescents’ lives.

Peer Interactions

In young children, advanced social intelligence is known to be associated with superior social skills with familiar friends and siblings. Moore, Bosacki, and Macgillivray (p. 1163) considered such social intelligence in relation to the behavior of more than 40 Canadian 4-year-olds when they first came into contact with playmates they didn’t know. They find significant connections between the children’s performance on theory of mind measures and time spent watching the playmates, but no relations between theory of mind and either interactive or solitary play. This suggests that in encounters with unfamiliar children, preschoolers who spend more time observing their new playmates develop higher levels of social intelligence than those who immediately engage with the other children or play alone.

Previous studies indicate that when it comes to friendship in Western societies, girls typically overvalue closeness while boys tend to overvalue autonomy. Moreover, children find it distressing to see themselves as different from others of their gender in the way they relate to friends. Menon (p. 1152) gave questionnaires to more than 350 mostly White youngsters aged 11–13 years in England. Those who said they were different from others of their gender in their friendship styles had low self-esteem, felt less socially competent among peers, and were very depressed. The study suggests that these findings are partly because children who relate to friends differently than others of the same gender feel incompatible with their gender group. The research tells us that students’ self-appraisals with regard to their own gender are important to consider when examining how they relate to each other.

Counterfactual and Relational Thinking

People often speculate about what might have been. These counterfactual thoughts allow us to learn from our mistakes and underpin emotions such as relief and regret. In three experiments involving more than 150 British children aged 3–6 years, Beck and Guthrie (p. 1189) sought to determine when counterfactual thinking develops in young children. Challenging earlier research suggesting that children as young as 2 years can understand a counterfactual world, they find that it’s not until age 5 that this type of thinking develops. They also show that children find it more difficult to identify something that almost happened than to answer standard counterfactual conditional questions, such as “If this hadn’t happened, how would the world be?” This suggests that there isn’t one single shift marking the development of counterfactual thinking, but rather a range that unfolds over time.

How and when do children learn relational categories—categories whose membership is determined not by intrinsic properties, but by extrinsic relations with other entities? In three studies, Gentner, Anggoro, and Klibanoff (p. 1173) showed children aged 3–6 years pairs of cards that pictured familiar relations (e.g., a nest and a bird, illustrating the concept of home for). Then, they asked whether children could extend the relational concept to another instance (such as choosing a picture of a barn as a home for a horse). They find that children grasp the relational category better when they’re given relational language showing the link. Children also do better when they’re led to compare members of the category (such as bird/nest and fish/fishbowl). By focusing on the use of analogical comparison between two situations as a way to highlight how they’re related, the research suggests that structure mapping helps children learn about categories that are connected.

Perception-Action Systems

Our experience of the world is based largely on information that comes from more than one of our senses. For instance, when we move something, we usually see and touch it at the same time. From birth, infants can detect associations between where stationary objects are and the sounds they make, but what happens when something that makes a sound moves? In four experiments with more than 130 infants in the United Kingdom, Bremner, Slater, Johnson, Mason, Spring, and Bremner (p. 1210) find that 2-month-olds were equally able to learn an association between objects and sounds that move together and those that don’t. By 5 months, however, infants had difficulty learning a relation between objects and sounds that didn’t move together and by 8 months, infants were able to do so only after repeated experience. These findings help us understand how infants process how the sights and sounds of their surroundings go together. By 5 months, infants expect sights and sounds to move together, but once they have this understanding, they are able by 8 months to learn exceptions to this rule.

Toward the end of the first year, babies make great strides in their interactions with things and people. They choose things to play with, spend a lot of time playing with things around them, and share things with other people. Around the same time, babies display a number of changes in their locomotor skills, including crawling, cruising along furniture, and walking by themselves. In their longitudinal study of 50 infants at 11 and 13 months, Karasik, Tamis-LeMonda, and Adolph (p. 1199) asked whether improvements in how babies play with things and how they get around are connected in a way that advances in one area support advances in the other. They find that babies who are motivated at an early age to play with things across the room are more likely to walk earlier, and that walking, in turn, provides them with new opportunities to learn about their surroundings through interactions with things and people. This suggests that babies’ emerging skills in different areas of development are synergistic—that is, when they express one skill, it may spill over to another skill area.

Number Sense

About 6–14% of children have a mathematical learning disability (MLD, or dyscalculia) that interferes with their performance in school math, even when they’ve had adequate instruction. Mazzocco, Feigenson, and Halberda (p. 1224) explored the causes of MLD: Is it possible that children with this problem can’t accurately make rapid numerical estimations; simply put, could they have a poor gut sense of numbers? Through a variety of tasks, they tested more than 70 children aged 14 and 15 years who were part of a 10-year longitudinal study of math achievement and had a wide range of achievement levels in math. They find that students with MLD have a markedly more inaccurate “number sense” than their peers, but that many other students who struggle with math don’t. The results can inform efforts to support children with learning disabilities in math, but also show that students struggle with math for very different reasons.

Nutrition’s Effect on Attention

Rural southern Ethiopia has a high incidence of childhood malnutrition and iron deficiency anemia. Aubuchon-Endsley et al. (p. 1238) looked at infants there to explore the relations among infant growth, nutritional status, and attention. In their longitudinal study of more than a hundred 6- to 9-month-old infants, they find a relation between attention development and nutrition: At 9 months, a combination of growth and nutritional variables (standardized weight-for-age, length-for-age, head circumference-for-age, and blood hemoglobin concentration) significantly predicted average looking time and number of attention shifts. This study goes beyond previous research, which has shown a strong connection between nutrition in infancy and cognitive development, to include attention.

Marital Discord and Sleeping Woes

Research indicates that marital problems can negatively affect families and children’s well-being. Mannering et al. (p. 1252) assessed the relation between marital instability and children’s sleep problems (such as difficulties getting to sleep or staying asleep) over a 9-month period during infancy and early toddlerhood. They studied adoptive families to rule out genetic associations because of genes shared between parents and children. In their longitudinal look at more than 350 families with infants who were adopted at birth, they find that while marital instability when the children were 9 months old predicted increases in children’s sleep problems when they were 18 months old, the inverse wasn’t true—that is, children’s sleep problems didn’t predict marital instability. The findings also suggest that the relation between marital instability and children’s sleep problems emerges earlier in development than has been previously shown.

Psychopathic Traits and Aggression

Adult psychopaths are charged with violent crimes twice as often as nonpsychopaths. There’s growing evidence that psychopathic traits—lacking empathy and acting immorally while outwardly acting morally—underlie many aggressive and antisocial behaviors and are evident much earlier in life than previously thought. Bezdjian, Tuvblad, Raine, and Baker (p. 1267) investigated the relation between psychopathic personality traits and aggressive behaviors in more than 1,200 twin 9- to 10-year-olds. They find that common genetic factors explain the link between these two traits in children. The results can help us understand the origins of these types of personality traits and their relations with aggression, and can inform intervention efforts.

Teens: Freedom, Religion, and Sex

Research on adolescents’ development of autonomy indicates that with age, teens increasingly consider certain issues to be beyond the scope of legitimate parental authority. Although expanding the boundaries of personal authority is a normal part of youths’ development, individual differences exist, and many teens choose to push for autonomy over different issues than do their peers. In two studies involving more than 700 youths in grades 6 through 9 and 12, Daddis (p. 1310) explored the adolescent perspective to determine how teens decide over which issues they want more authority. He finds that teens used their peers as a gauge to figure out when and in what areas to seek more autonomy in their own lives. Specifically, when teens felt their peers had more decision-making control than they did, they wanted more control in their own lives. In addition, younger teens and girls wanted autonomy more than older teens and boys, and teens consistently overestimated the actual levels of their peers’ autonomy.

Religious identity and practice are often considered personal choices, and adolescence is thought to be a time when children begin to decide the importance that religion will play in their lives. Lopez, Huynh, and Fuligni (p. 1297) studied about 475 American teens from Latin American, Asian, and European backgrounds who took part in a 3-year longitudinal study in tenth through twelfth grades. They find that teens’ ethnic background shaped their religious identity and participation, with teens from Asian and Latin American backgrounds reporting higher levels of identity, and teens from Latin American backgrounds reporting greater religious participation (compared with those from European backgrounds). They also find that rather than being solely an individual choice, religious identification is closely tied to adolescents’ sense of themselves as members of their cultures and families. Moreover, while participation in organized religious activities typically declines during the teen years, the study highlights the importance of religious identity in adolescence, and suggests that these are linked to other aspects of teens’ developing identities.

Previous research has found that smart teens—those with good grades and good marks on intelligence tests—tend to put off having sex until later in adolescence. Harden and Mendle (p. 1327) asked why. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, they took a look at more than 500 same-sex twin pairs, assessing them four times over 8 years. Identical twins who differed in terms of grades and IQ tests did not differ in the age at which they first had sex. In addition, the correlation between academic achievement in the first twin and age at first sex in the second twin was higher in identical twins than in fraternal twins, suggesting that a common set of genes influences both academic achievement and sexual behavior in adolescence.

Anne Bridgman