6. Key concepts that explain how families influence child development


Cognitive Development


A core concept in the theory of cognitive development, executive function is a set of mental skills that help individuals gain control over their actions and thoughts. Within this concept, the field has identified four parts: 1) working memory: the ability to hold information and recall it when carrying out a task, 2) inhibitory control: suppressing initial impulses in favor of more rational action, 3) attentional flexibility: changing from one way of solving a problem to another, and 4) planning: using all these skills to create a way to get something done.


To explain how parents and other adults can support children’s cognitive development, the field uses the term “scaffolding”: the building of a temporary structure to provide support. Through scaffolding, caregivers create an environment in which children can practice skills, allowing them to set goals, regulate actions, and inhibit responses that may be unhelpful; it also allows them to organize their actions and choose appropriate strategies. On a practical level, this can be as simple as a parent offering hints and prompts appropriate for their child’s developmental level.


The terms “growth mindset” and “fixed mindset” describe people’s underlying beliefs about learning and intelligence. Simply put, individuals’ views of themselves can determine the outcome of their efforts. People who have a fixed mindset tend to believe that qualities like creativity and intelligence are fixed, inborn, and cannot be changed, while people with a growth mindset believe these abilities can be developed and strengthened through hard work and effort.


One of the basic cognitive processes, decision making is built on other processes such as perception, attention, and memory. The development of the prefrontal cortex and associated cognitive control has been associated with decision-making abilities in children and adolescents.


Children who are curious tend to explore more, which leads to more opportunities for learning. Curiosity is a form of intrinsic motivation important to the development of active learning and spontaneous exploration. It starts in infancy and spurs children to figure things out, and it is a key factor in development and school success.


People are more likely to be creative when they feel motivated by satisfaction, enjoyment, challenge, or interest—in short, when they feel passionate about what they’re doing. Imagining, experimenting, and trying to do something new in a creative way all help children develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.


Language develops in a critical early period of a child’s life, with the first abilities emerging soon after birth. Babies understand words before speaking them. When they learn to speak, usually in their second year, there is an explosion of understanding and speaking words. Children who are bilingual or multilingual may learn to process information more effectively, enhancing their cognitive development. And three- and four-year-olds who are taught the meaning of words such as know, think, and wonder understand emotion better. Families are the key influence: Children learn words by interacting with their caregivers.


Children who are under pressure to achieve, such as those at schools that aim to get children into the best colleges and universities, can suffer additional anxiety and depression, as well as substance abuse or delinquency. A study in the United States found rates of these problems two to three times the national average and in some cases, six times as high or higher.


Social Emotional Development


A prosocial behavior that matures through early childhood, empathy is an important part of social, emotional, and behavioral development. Empathy allows children to respond more sensitively to the distress of another person.


Prosociality refers to behaviors that are meant to help others, such as sharing, cooperating, and comforting. This type of behavior is foundational to social interactions with family members and friends. Family members can help children develop prosociality by pointing out opportunities to help, modeling helping behaviors, and encouraging them to help at home.


The development of morality represents a key milestone in child development. Morality refers to standards of behavior and beliefs of a person and of society about what behaviors are right or wrong, acceptable or not acceptable.


Children raised in homes in which they are loved and feel secure are more successful in their development than children raised in homes where they feel insecure and frightened.


When children participate in pretend play, making plans and assigning roles, it helps them develop social learning and relationship skills. Play can be considered an emotional toolbox, with children experiencing a range of emotions that help further their learning and development.


Sleep is a necessary part of development and children under age five spend nearly half their time satisfying their developing brains’ need to sleep. When sleep is disturbed, development of behavior, cognition, social interaction, and emotional regulation may be affected—though researchers have not reached consensus on whether or how this occurs.


Children who live in homes with high levels of stress—for example, those affected by separation and divorce, abuse, and poverty—are at greater risk for impaired development. Children who experience persistent and high levels of stress can have trouble developing self-regulation, may be delayed in meeting developmental milestones, and may suffer long-term negative health outcomes.


Children develop resilience through their relationships with caregivers. Strong, nurturing relationships, in and out of the family, help protect them from the negative effects of stress.


Children with mental-health conditions (e.g., depression, anxiety) can experience difficulties with social emotional functioning.


Scholars studying parents’ disciplinary practices have identified parenting styles that foster children’s social and emotional development. In short, parenting that is affectionate and loving and that provides structure and rules (as opposed to parenting that is harsh or too permissive) generally produces children with high levels of social competence.


Parents’ praise and criticism exert a powerful influence on children. While criticism can wound children and impede their development socially and emotionally, excessive praise can also be harmful to children’s learning.


Children benefit when desired behaviors are modeled for them. For example, children who watch their parents act calmly when something goes wrong are more likely to develop skills to soothe and steady themselves when they encounter adversity. Telling stories and using visual learning strategies can help adults model emotionally supportive behavior, which in turn helps children develop appropriate behaviors.


Children whose parents are experiencing mental illness and stress are at risk of developing social, emotional, and behavior problems. The effect of parents’ mental health on children varies significantly, and not all children are affected in the same way. Prevention strategies help minimize children’s risk and increase family stability.


Narcissism appears from middle to late childhood, with different developmental factors influencing how it manifests. Theories on the origins of narcissism suggest that its foundation lies in dysfunctional socialization experiences in childhood or troubled relationships between parents and children.


In the wake of recent protests over police treatment of Black people, some scholars advocate that open discussion of racism—and the inherent unfairness of how people of color are treated by society—is an essential part of social emotional learning. They believe that such discussion must counter stereotypes and racist attitudes prevalent today.


Children develop personal, ethnic, and gender identity when they are young. By age 4, most children have developed the ability to talk about their own personal experiences; this stage of development is heavily influenced by children’s interactions with their parents. The development of ethnic identity typically occurs between ages two and five, as does the development of gender identity.


Children begin to form their initial sense of self in early childhood. Their development of self-concept can be affected by internal and external variables (e.g., a child’s temperament, interactions with peers). Children also develop self-esteem, which is an evaluative judgment about who they are; this too can be influenced by internal and external variables (personality, others’ views of the child, relationships with others).


Scientists define temperament as biologically based differences in reactivity and self-regulation. Parents’ warmth (the affection they show their children, the support they give them) and control (typically seen in the ways they discipline their children) influence how they grow and develop.


Children’s relationships with their peers affect many aspects of their lives, especially as they grow older. For example, children who are unpopular tend to have less optimal social and emotional development, but it’s unclear whether that’s because they have fewer friends or because their underdeveloped social and emotional skills contribute to their being less popular.


Physical Development


Breastfeeding affects children’s physical development. Antibodies in breast milk help babies fight bacteria and viruses, and breastfeeding reduces the risk of allergies and asthma. Breastfeeding has also been linked with later cognitive development, including improvements in language skills, intelligence, and memory.


While nutrition is key to development throughout childhood, it is crucial that young children are fed healthy food. Childhood obesity can lead to health problems later in life, including heart disease and diabetes. Not only is sound nutrition—including a healthy diet at regular mealtimes—important for children’s physical development, but healthy diets boost children’s ability to learn. For example, children whose diets are deficient in iron have reduced cognition and do less well in school.


Just as eating healthily protects children, so does immunizing them. While questions about vaccine safety have generated controversy, current scientific consensus is that children’s growth and development benefit when they receive recommended immunizations. Children who are immunized have fewer incidences of vaccine-preventable illness, miss school less, and according to growing evidence, are more likely to thrive as a result of boosts in cognitive reasoning, thinking skills, and academic attainment.


Disabilities can be physical (e.g., cerebral palsy) or intellectual (e.g., Down syndrome). These can affect children in a variety of ways, depending on how the disability affects the body as well as the family. The effects of disabilities on children’s development range from inability to participate in interactive play to difficulty with traditional learning programs. In many countries, schools are required to accommodate children with disabilities, either in separate classrooms or programs or in the main classroom.