A recent parenting survey completed by the nonprofit organization Zero to Three shows that despite differences in income, race, marital status and educational backgrounds, American parents have remarkably similar struggles, motivations and desires.
The over 2,000 parents surveyed found parenting both exhilarating and challenging, the cause of tremendous joy and tremendous stress, and equal parts terrifying and motivating. While parents shared some common misunderstandings about early childhood cognitive and behavioral development, they also shared a desire to learn more.
Parenting is Equal Parts Challenge and Reward
Of the 2,200 parents of children under 5 who took the survey, 73% said being a parent is the most challenging thing they do. At the same time, 91% of parents also feel it is the one thing in their lives that brings them the most joy. 87% of parents are motivated to be even better at it, and 67% say that if they knew more positive parenting strategies, they would do it.
Parents are trying their hardest to excel in a difficult, but rewarding role. From the survey results, however, many parents misunderstand both the importance of the first few years and what children are capable of achieving during those early years. Parents simultaneously have too high expectations in terms of behavioral and emotional milestones and too low expectations in terms of children’s cognitive needs.
Most Parents Underestimate Babies’ Cognitive Needs
34% of the parents surveyed said that most brain development occurs between the ages of 3-5, and over half of the parents believed that quality adult-child interactions have long-lasting implications only after a child is 6 months old. In fact, most brain development takes place before age 3. The study’s authors point out that, “during the first 1000 days of life, 700 neural connections are formed in a baby’s brain every second. The way adult caregivers – parents in particular – interact and connect with children during the early years can actually shape babies’ brain architecture for life.” Attachment, communication and connection need to start at birth.
42% of parents said that children can feel negative emotions, like fear, sadness or frustration, starting at one year. In fact, babies can feel intense emotions – both positive and negative – between three and five months. By one year, babies are also adept at sensing caregivers’ emotions and responding to that emotion.
Babies take in information long before they can express themselves. Talking, singing and reading to babies is important well before they can speak their own first words. 34% of parents believed that talking to children benefits their language ability only after age 1, and half of them believed that reading to children is only beneficial after age one. Children receive and start to make sense of language input from the second they are born, so they need that input from day one. As soon as babies can lap sit and look at a book, usually around 6 months, they can benefit from being read to daily.
Many Parents Overestimate Toddlers’ Behavioral Control
Paradoxically, while parents underestimate a baby’s growing cognition and emotional intelligence, they overestimate young children’s behavioral control. 36% of the parents surveyed believed that children have the ability to resist something forbidden, such as touching breakable decorations, before age 2. Actually, children do not develop the self control to resist their own urges in favor of more socially acceptable or less dangerous behavior until the age of three and a half or four.
Almost half of the parents, 43% of them, also believed that children could share and take turns before age 2. In fact, some children do not develop turn taking as an independent skill until age 4.
How parents view children’s capabilities is important because it influences parents’ reactions to their behavior. If parents believe a child is still learning a particular skill, they are much more likely to teach, model or scaffold the behavior. But if they think the child should be capable of performing the skill independently, they may be more likely to punish what they view as misbehavior when the child fails to perform correctly.
Websites and Other Parents are Valuable Resources
Parents can take steps to educate themselves. It is important to know when each child development milestone is likely to be reached, and to understand that each individual milestone usually has a fairly broad range of “normal” ages. Some children will grasp each concept at a later or earlier date than other children.
A good resource for learning about child development is the Parent Toolkit website. Parents can read what is usual for children at different ages in academic and social development, as well as health milestones. The site also provides parents with clear ideas to support children at each age and stage.
Another resource for parents lies within their own communities. A big take-away from the survey is that all parents are facing the same struggles. Chances are good that a next door neighbor, grandparent, a teacher or a playgroup parent has faced the same situation. A trusted support network can offer advice, provide more resources or simply let parents know they are not alone.