Survey Shows Many Adults Have Misconceptions About How Young Children Develop

A national survey of 3,000 adults on what they know about child development shows serious gaps in basic knowledge, says a Yale psychiatrist and president of a group that acted as the chief scientific collaborator on the survey.

Kyle Pruett, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry and coordinator of education and training at the Yale Child Study Center and president of the non-profit Zero To Three, a leading resource for expertise on child development, said many parents still spank, even though they know it does not work, and fail to realize how sensitive infants are to their environment. The parents and adults also wrongly believe flash cards are good learning tools for very young children.

“One of the interesting findings is the high percentage of parents who did not know that even young babies can experience depression,” said Pruett. “They also did not know that babies are taking in everything from the world around them - conflict, depression, anxiety, even depression in their parents and caregivers.”

“This is hard for parents to acknowledge because it makes us all feel exposed,” he said. “But I think we ignore these facts at the great expense of our children.”

The survey, titled “What Grown-Ups Understand About Child Development: A National Benchmark Survey,” is based on telephone interviews conducted nationwide from June 12 to July 5. Of the 3,000 adults interviewed, 1,066 were parents of children aged newborn to six.

The survey was commissioned by Civitas, a national, non-profit communication group that creates tools to help educate and support adults who take care of young children. Brio Corp., the toy company, paid for the survey.

Although most of the adults were aware that reading to children is very beneficial, a large percentage did not understand that activities such as flash cards, educational television and solitary play on the computer are less beneficial to the intellectual development of young children.

“Parents seem to think development is some sort of a race,” said Pruett. “It certainly is not. It’s a dance, not a race. The kind of play that really supports a child in the belief of their own comfort and competence is the play they have with you. If the child starts the ball rolling, quite literally, it’s a more interesting game than if you sit them down and flash cards at them for 20 minutes of boredom. That’s wasting their time and their curiosity.”

He said adults also tended to expect too much from children at too young an age. Being capable of sharing toys, for example, doesn’t happen until the child is at least two years old, yet the majority of adults thought a 15-month-old should be capable of doing so. Forty-four percent of parents and 66 percent of grandparents of young children incorrectly believe picking up a three-month-old every time he cries will spoil a child. “If you ignore the needs and distress of the three-month-old, when they are one year old they will be more frustrated, more irritable and cry more, not less,” Pruett said. “You cannot spoil an infant.”

The least informed adults, he said, were those who are planning to have children. In most areas surveyed, this group showed more confusion than parents or grandparents, although they tended to believe that they were well prepared for parenthood.

“That’s a real clue to us about who we need to be talking to about parenting,” Pruett said.

One of the pleasant surprises, he said, was that the majority of those interviewed favor paid parental leave and government subsidies in order to provide quality child care.

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