What parents do and don't know

Though most parents are clued in to their child's physical and intellectual development, misconceptions prevail on their social and emotional milestones.

Learning Stages

By Dr. Kyle Pruett


Dr. Kyle Pruett is Clinical Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center and School of Medicine. He is also past president of Zero to Three, the nation's largest think tank, research, and policy center for the first three years of life. He is the author of Fatherneed: Why Father Care is as Essential as Mother Care for Your Child.

Some years back, Zero to Three, an organization devoted to championing the importance of healthy child development to our nation, commissioned a poll on a hunch. They discovered an interesting gap in parental knowledge that was surprisingly widespread: though parents are quite well-informed about the intellectual and physical sequences of their children's development, they are relatively clueless about the social and emotional milestones. As if that weren't enough, these parents were further confused by the almost daily discoveries in the fields of neuroscience and genetics that shed new light on the developing brain and child. Worried about these imbalances, and their impact on how parents make decisions about discipline, affection, and education, Zero To Three went back to further examine this growing problem.

Benchmark poll: What grownups understand

Just how misinformed many of us are shows up clearly in the new poll, "What Grownups Understand about Child Development." Called a "National Benchmark," because of the hope to periodically repeat it, the poll was commissioned by Civitas, with my organization, Zero To Three as the scientific consultant (both nonprofits), while Brio, the toy company, paid the bill.

Compelling results

The good news is that there has been continued improvement in adults' understanding since the last poll in 1995. Ninety-six percent of the adults surveyed are very aware of the tight relationship between a child's intellectual development and their emotional closeness with parents and caregivers, and seventy-five percent understand that brain development can be impacted both prenatally and from birth onward.

The first surprise, however, was how many adults, including non-parents, underestimate the competence in understanding, and awareness of our young children, particularly those under three, in taking in the world around them. These are the worrisome misunderstandings:

  • Sixty-two percent of the parents with children under six felt that kids don't really begin to "take in" and "react to" the world around them until the child is two. They also believed that children don't begin to react to their parents' mood until three years of age. The Reality: Children as young as three to four months react to, and can begin to share, a parent's repeatedly depressed or anxious mood.
  • Twenty-six percent of all the adults surveyed believed that six-month-olds would not suffer any ill effects from witnessing domestic violence or intense conflict at home or in the community. The Reality: Long-lasting detrimental effects on social and emotional development and the brain itself are known to begin this early.
  • Sixty-five percent of the parents with children under six felt that flashcards and educational TV were positive educational resources, and slightly less than half felt that solitary computer play was good for first graders and younger. The Reality: The child's innate motivation to master and problem solve, which begins in the first three to six months of life and lasts into adulthood, is better responded to in interactive play and discovery with caring adults and other children than by imposed curriculum, eliminating the necessity for this kind of artificial push to learn.

Recommendations for parents

The subgroup of adults with the most misunderstandings of a child's competence and developmental needs were those who planned in the future to be parents. Parent education at home, in the community, even in school must be re-thought from the inside out, and bottom up. These are the folks who need the most, not the least, and best information. Let's help our kids prepare more for parenthood by listening to—and informing them about—some of our mistakes as parents, too (we are not gods, either).

Some recommendations for parental behaviors for parents of kids from all ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds:

Read and play (short board games, cards, puzzles) with your kids daily, even for just a few minutes, because it reminds them of your love and appreciation of their abilities and drive to learn. Do this! Ninety-five percent of parents said it was important to read to kids, but only 20% actually did it more than once a day.

Talk to your kids about emotions, yours and theirs, as part of conversations of everyday life, not just when somebody gets promoted, dies, or gets left out of a sleepover. Recognizing one's own feelings as an adult and talking or doing something about them sets a good benchmark for our kids. Get your depression or anxiety treated (these are more common and easily treated these days than you may expect) or try to get an unhappy marriage repaired. Such unfinished business spills over into kids' emotional lives, making it hard for them to keep on an even keel.

For more information on children's early development go to www.zerotothree.org.