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Bornstein Lab: Section on Child and Family Research

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Research Areas

The Child and Family Research Section (CFRS) was established with the broad aim of investigating the ways in which human development is affected by variations in the conditions under which human beings are reared. We investigate dispositional, experiential, and environmental factors that contribute to physical, mental, emotional, and social development in human beings across the first three decades of life. Our research goals are to describe, analyze, and assess (i) the capabilities and proclivities of developing children and youth, including their physiological functioning, perceptual and cognitive abilities, emotional and social growth, and interactional styles; (ii) the nature and consequences of interactions within the family and the social world for offspring and parents; and (iii) influences on development of children's exposure to and interactions with the natural and designed environments. Research topics concern the origins, status, and development of psychological constructs, structures, functions, and processes across the first three decades of life; effects of child characteristics and activities on parents; and the meaning of variations in parenting and in the family across different socio-demographic and cultural groups. Laboratory and home-based studies employ a variety of approaches, including psycho-physiological recordings, behavioral observations, standardized assessments, rating scales, interviews, and demographic/census records in both longitudinal and cross-sectional designs. Socio-demographic comparisons under investigation include, for example, family socio-economic status, maternal age and employment status, parenthood status (adoption, birth), child parity, and daycare experience. In addition to the United States, cultural study sites include Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Cameroon, Chile, England, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Peru, and the Republic of South Korea; in all places, we pursue intra-cultural as well as cross-cultural comparisons.

We also conduct broad programs of research in developmental neuroscience and behavioral pediatrics that investigate questions at the interface of child development, biology, and health. Childhood is a time of vulnerability (to accidents, in risk taking), as it is formative in habit development and decision making (nutrition, exercise) for the balance of the life span. Our developmental neuroscience research has several facets, including fetal development and psychological functioning after birth; cardiac function and EEG in psychological development; eye-tracking, perception, and cognition in infancy; and categorization. Our program of research in behavioral pediatrics investigates developmental sequelae of cancer in infancy; children's understanding and coping with medical experiences; parental depression and child development; development following preterm birth; the deaf culture; and behavior problems in adolescence.

To meet this multifaceted charge, we pursue four integrated multi-age, multi-variate, multi-cultural research programs that are supplemented by a variety of ancillary investigations. These research programs represent an en bloc effort. The first program is a prospective longitudinal study designed to explore multiple aspects of child development in the context of major socio-demographic comparisons. The second program broadens the perspectives of the first to encompass cultural influences on development within the same basic longitudinal framework. The third program comprises basic neuroscience research, and the fourth applies extensions of this basic research to behavioral pediatrics. The ultimate aims of these research programs are to promote aware, fit, and motivated children who will grow into knowledgeable, healthy, and happy adults.

The child, the parent, and the family across the first two+ decades

We studied maternal personality, parenting cognitions, and parenting practices by observing mother-child interaction is a community sample of mothers and firstborn toddlers. Controlling for socio-demographic characteristics, personality factors qua variables and in patterns qua clusters related differently to diverse parenting cognitions and practices, supporting a theory of the multidimensional, modular, and specific nature of parenting. Maternal personality in the normal range, a theoretically important but empirically neglected factor in everyday parenting, has meaning in studies of parenting, child development, and family process.

Child development and parenting in multicultural perspective

In a study of cultural determinants of parenting, we used the Parenting Across Cultures Project to evaluate similarities and differences in mean levels and relative agreement between mothers and fathers attributions and attitudes in parenting in nine countries: China, Colombia, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, the Philippines, Sweden, Thailand, and the United States. Although mothers and fathers did not differ in any attribution, mothers reported more progressive parenting attitudes and modernity of child rearing attitudes than did fathers, and fathers reported more authoritarian attitudes than did mothers. Country differences also emerged in all attributions and attitudes that were examined. Mothers and fathers attributions and their attitudes were moderately correlated, but parenting attitudes were more highly correlated than were attributions.

We examined cognitive and socio-emotional caregiving in 28 developing countries in more than 127,000 families with children under five years of age. Mothers varied widely in cognitive and socio-emotional caregiving and engaged in more socio-emotional than cognitive activities. The gross domestic product (GDP) of countries related to caregiving after controlling for life expectancy and education. We drew policy and intervention recommendations from these data.

In another study, we examined home environment conditions (housing quality, material resources, formal and informal learning materials) and their relations with the Human Development Index (HDI) in the same 28 developing countries. The quality of housing and availability of material resources at home were consistently tied to HDI, but the availability of formal and informal learning materials less so. GDP tended to show a stronger independent relation with housing quality and material resources than life expectancy and education. Formal learning resources were independently related to GDP and education indices, and informal learning resources were not independently related to any constituent indices of the overall HDI.

Developmental neuroscience

We tracked eye movements of 4-month-olds as they viewed animals and vehicles in natural scenes and, for comparison, in matched experimental scenes. Infants showed equivalent looking time preferences for natural and experimental scenes overall, but fixated natural scenes and objects in natural scenes more than experimental scenes and objects in experimental scenes and shifted fixations between objects and contexts more in natural than in experimental scenes. The findings show how infants treat objects and contexts in natural scenes and suggest that they treat more commonly used experimental scenes differently.

We investigated the eye movements of 4-month-olds and 20-year-olds to object-context relations. Infants and adults scanned both objects and contexts, but there were differences in how they did so. The findings for location, number, and order of eye movements indicate that object-context relations play a dynamic role in the development and allocation of attention.

A study aimed at examining key parameters of the initial conditions in early category learning compared 5-month-olds' object categorization between tasks involving previously unseen novel objects, and between measures within tasks. Infants provided no evidence of categorization by either their looking or their examining even though infants in previous research systematically categorized the same objects by examining when they handled them in 3D. Infants in a related experiment participated in a visual familiarization–novelty preference (VFNP) task with 3D stimulus objects that allowed visual examination of objects' 3D instantiation while denying manual contact with the objects. Under these conditions, infants demonstrated categorization by examining but not by looking. Focused examination appears to be a key component of young infants ability to form category representations of novel objects, and 3D instantiation appears to better engage such examining.

Behavioral pediatrics

Two studies that combine work in developmental neuroscience and behavioral pediatrics examined perceptual performance in infants of clinically depressed mothers. In a study of object perception, we familiarized 5-month-old infants of clinically depressed and non-depressed mothers to a wholly novel object and afterward tested for their discrimination of the same object presented in the familiar and in a novel perspective. Infants in both groups were adequately familiarized, but infants of clinically depressed mothers failed to discriminate novel from familiar views of the object, whereas infants of non-depressed mothers successfully discriminated. The study shed light on the difference in discrimination between infants of depressed and non-depressed mothers in light of infants differential object processing and maternal socio-demographics, mind-mindedness, depression, stress, and interaction styles that may moderate opportunities for infants to learn about their world or influence the development of their perceptuo-cognitive capacities. In a second study, we habituated 5-month-olds of clinically depressed and non-depressed mothers to either a face with a neutral expression or the same face with a smile. Infants of non-depressed mothers subsequently discriminated between neutral and smiling facial expressions, whereas infants of clinically depressed mothers failed to make the same discrimination. Such divergence in perceptual performance has implications of for later cognitive and socio-emotional development in depressed dyads.

In one of a series of studies of the development of children with Down syndrome, we investigated the functional features of maternal and paternal speech. Parents and their young children (with Down syndrome and typically developing children) participated. We observed parents' speech directed to children in naturalistic parent-child dyadic interactions. We categorized verbatim transcripts of maternal and paternal language in terms of the primary function of each speech unit. Both mothers and fathers of children with Down syndrome used more affect-salient speech than parents of typically developing children. Although parents used the same amount of information-salient speech, parents of children with Down syndrome used more direct statements and asked fewer questions than did parents of typically developing children. Mothers in both groups used more language than fathers and specifically more descriptions. Our findings held after controlling for child age, mean length of utterance (MLU), and family SES. The study highlights strengths and weaknesses of parental communication to children with Down syndrome and helps identify areas of potential improvement through intervention.

Last Updated Date: 11/30/2012
Last Reviewed Date: 11/30/2012

​Contact Information

Name: Dr Marc H Bornstein
Senior Investigator
Section on Child and Family Research
Phone: 301-496-6832
Fax: 301-496-2766

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