Parent-Child Interactions Affect Children's Social Development

AUBURN, Ala. - A child's social skills begin to develop at an early age and parents interested in nurturing that development can help by being both good role models and coaches, according to Auburn University researchers.

"Decades of research have documented that parent's characteristics -- their ability to be warm and positive or punitive and harsh -- can affect a child's confidence in a wide range of areas," explained Jackie Mize, associate professor of family and child development in Auburn University's School of Human Sciences. Mize and Greg Pettit, also an associate professor of family and child development, are exploring how much parents' own tendencies and coaching influences development of children's social skills.

Both Mize and Pettit are former preschool teachers who saw first-hand how important social skills are to children. "There is a strong body of research that shows, at least by the time they attend elementary school, children do have different styles of picking up on social cues," said Mize. "The skills they gain at this age can serve them for a lifetime."

While some social tendencies are innate, Mize and Pettit also believe that parents contribute to that development in both direct and indirect ways.

"We know that the way parents interact with their children is one pathway that helps children develop social skills," said Pettit. "We've speculated that there are other pathways that may overlap or be quite distinct from this one. Part of what children learn about relationships comes from their relationship with their parents, part comes from what parents tell them and the kinds of experiences with peers that parents help provide."

To learn more about this, Mize and Pettit are conducting a study through the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station at Auburn. For the study, parents and children are brought into a "laboratory" setting -- a room arranged much like a den or living room and complete with toys. The pairs are allowed time to play, and researchers evaluate how much interaction occurs between the parent and child during this period. Later, another child is brought into the room and observations are made at how the parent facilitates this meeting and how the subject child reacts to this stranger. Finally, the subjects watch video tapes about preschool social situations and respond to the circumstances in the video.

"Our best measure of their relationship quality is something we call `synchrony' that seems to capture the nature of the parent-child relationship," said Pettit. Synchrony is the mutual tuning in to each other, a balance in the relationship where the two people are jointly observing and responding to one another.

"One of the things that we discovered is that the parent-child synchrony is a great predictor of how the child is doing in social development," said Mize. In addition, they found that when parents are more involved in the child's free-play, the children are doing better socially. But the best predictor for social skill comes from parent-child mutuality. This is defined as how often the parent offers a play suggestion and the child complies, and vice versa.

The study also has shown that children will mimic their parents social behavior. For example, if a parent is warm and outgoing to others, the child will be more likely to react in kind. "It's that old `do as I say, not as I do' thing," noted Pettit.

Results suggest that there are some identifiable aspects of parent-child interaction that will directly contribute to a child's social development. By pinpointing these aspects, child development experts can provide parents with solid suggestions about how to help their children.


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