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While pursuing a masters degree in Early Childhood Education and Special Education at NYU, one professor made a lasting impression on me: Erin O'Connor. I was immediately inspired by her enthusiasm for child development research. I was also grateful for the way she presented critical research to our group of teachers-in-training. Erin transformed complex research studies into meaningful, engaging conversations, which later informed our teaching practices and parenting approaches.
When our Instagram worlds collided, I was thrilled to learn that Erin has partnered with PhD student Robin Neuhaus to create Scientific Mommy. Their Instagram account shares bite-sized insights to child development research. Given our commitment to providing parents and educators with valuable resources, we are thrilled to collaborate with Scientific Mommy! You can look forward to Scientific Mommy content appearing on the Rose & Rex Instagram feed each week. I recently sat down with Erin and Robin to learn more about Scientific Mommy. Read on!
-Lauren Vien, Education Director
What inspired you to partner with one another to create Scientific Mommy?
RN: We were inspired to create Scientific Mommy when we noticed just how prevalent distortions of parenting research are online. Many parenting experts market their opinions as “research-based”. This makes it incredibly hard for parents to distinguish between opinions and research, and leads many parents to feel anxious or guilty about their parenting. We wanted to create a trustworthy source of information for parents in which we share research in an honest, credible way.
We love how Scientific Mommy shares complex research in a personal, relatable way. How do you stay up-to-date on child developmental research?
RN: Thank you! We’re so glad our content is resonating with parents. We’re immersed in research on a daily basis and are constantly hearing about new, exciting projects through our colleagues. Any time we come across a study that we think would be especially interesting to parents, we write about it on Scientific Mommy.
As parents, we are constantly exposed to ideas and products that claim to be research-based. What advice can you give parents who are overwhelmed by conflicting “research” or differing opinions from child development “experts”?
RN: When trying to figure out whether a source is credible, parents can look for references to research. But references alone aren’t always enough. Does the writer loosely cite research as a means of supporting their own opinion? Or do they share specific details of the study including potential limitations? And many parents have probably heard the phrase “correlation is not causation”. Correlational studies are often interpreted in a way that makes it sound that parents’ behavior can cause something to change about their child. Depending on the design of the study, this is not always true.
Erin, you’ve done extensive research on children’s relationships with their primary caregivers and the impact these relationships have on their long term development. What can you share with parents who are trying to strengthen or maintain a connection with their children?
EO: Research for over the past three decades has demonstrated that parental sensitivity and responsivity are the strongest predictors of the quality of the caregiver-child relationship. Sensitivity and responsivity relate to how “in tune” a caregiver is with their child’s cues. Sensitivity is the accuracy of a caregiver’s response, and responsivity is their consistency. However, since every child is different, sensitivity and responsivity will look different across different caregiver-child relationships. For example, some children may benefit more from specific types of interactions than others based on their temperament. A very sensitive child may be upset by being told by a parent that he/she is frustrated over something the child did. Another child, on the other hand, may take such honesty as an indication of the strength of the caregiver-child relationship. It’s therefore key that parents observe how their child responds to various cues from them and then use that information to figure out what type of response is best for their child.
Sensitivity and responsivity also evolve as children grow up. As children mature, providing them with some independence may be necessary in order to be sensitive and responsive to their needs. However, within this more autonomous caregiver-child relationship, it is vital that parents place restrictions on behavior and have open lines of communication. In addition, when an older child misbehaves it is important to speak with them about why they engaged in such behavior, talk to them about how it made you feel, and discuss consequences.
Even as children desire and need more independence as they grow, they still need their caregiver to act as their “secure base”. They need to know they can come to a caregiver with a concern and that the caregiver will listen to them and help them work through the issue.
They also need to know that the caregiver will help them regulate their own behavior, and help them with establishing restrictions that keep them safe.
How has your research and educational experience impacted your own family? How heavily do you rely on research when making decisions as a mother?
EO: My experiences in research and education were a double edged sword when it came to my maternal health as a new mother. Knowing how important the early years are, I was constantly worried about making a mistake that would have long term consequences. However, being able to look at parenting news and research and parse out what were meaningful findings of various studies alleviated some of my anxiety.
Going back to work and leaving my child in someone else’s care was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Reading news articles reporting that hours in child care in the first three years may be linked to higher levels of aggression made me feel guilty about my decision to continue working and anxious for my daughter’s long-term well being. Luckily, however, I was actually involved with the study that the news was referencing. Going back to the data and findings, I could see that child care hours had a negligible effect on aggression when compared to the positive impacts of maternal sensitivity and responsivity. Being able to read the actual research alleviated a lot of my fear and guilt. This experience, in fact, was some of the impetus for Scientific Mommy. If I had not had access to the actual data and scientific journal article on which these news stories were “based”, then I would have suffered more fear and guilt.
I tend to rely on research in my parenting, especially, when I feel pressure to parent in a way that does not feel natural to me. For example, when my daughter was three she was very shy. I felt pressure to “force'' her to engage in play dates and to be more engaged in her preschool classroom. Through my work on temperament and the importance of the goodness-of-fit between a child’s individual characteristics and their context, I knew that forcing her to engage in these situations that made her feel uncomfortable would only heighten her anxiety making the transition to a new school take longer. My research, and that of others, gave me the confidence to allow my daughter to take her time before jumping into the world of play dates and to speak with her school about alternative activities for her during recess.
Robin, we would love to hear more about your international teaching experience! Tell us what it was like to work with children in Madrid and Copenhagen.
RN: They were such fascinating experiences! I think the way that a society views childhood and approaches education can reveal deeper aspects of their culture. In Denmark for example, I went on a field trip to a farm with the preschool where I was working. The children were enamored with the baby pigs. Their teacher calmly explained to them that those very same pigs were going to be slaughtered in a few months for Christmas. Her frank comments caught me off guard. When I asked her about it, she explained simply, “Well, it’s just nature”. A few weeks later, Denmark was in the news because the Copenhagen Zoo invited children to watch a giraffe be dissected and fed to lions. There was international outrage, yet many Danes strongly believed that children would benefit from the experience. Echoing the views of my preschool teacher, a bioethicist from the University of Copenhagen commented, "When small children can go and see this giraffe and see it being turned into lion food, it's a very good picture of what nature is like.” Regardless of how I felt about all of this, it was such a valuable lesson that what we consider “age appropriate” for children depends on our culture.
Have you come across any new trends in child development that were surprising to you? When you compare your early research to current findings, are you noticing any significant changes in the attachment between children and their primary caregivers?
RN: There’s a lot of talk about “snowplow parenting” as a new trend in parenting among American parents. In an effort to alleviate a child’s anxiety and help them succeed, a “snowplow parent” does everything in their power to remove obstacles from their child’s path. From an attachment perspective, this type of parent would likely hover over their child rather than encourage them to explore. Over time, the child would come to believe that they aren’t capable of exploring and that their parent doesn’t trust them either, which could easily lead to an insecure attachment relationship.
What are the most common misconceptions about “attachment”?
One misconception about attachment is that parents need to instantly respond to their children’s every need or otherwise risk jeopardizing their secure attachment.
This might lead some parents to end up hovering or feeling guilty if they misread their child’s cues. But it’s also important for in secure attachment to support children’s exploration. When a child is playing and their parent jumps in with a snack or redirects their kid’s attention, then they may be interrupting their exploration rather than supporting it.
We are thrilled to be collaborating with Scientific Mommy and to feature your developmental insights on our Instagram feed each week. Where else can we find your valuable content? Any exciting Scientific Mommy projects we can look forward to?
RN: We’re thrilled too! In preparation for a book, we have an exciting research project in the works to learn about parents’ experiences with online parenting media. For many parents, the vast amounts of information available online may be more stressful than helpful. It’s not easy to know what sources to trust and misinformation spreads quickly. To get a broad cross-cultural perspective on this issue, we want to interview parents from different countries. So far, we’re planning on interviewing parents in France, Germany, and Spain this summer. It’s very exciting!
EO: We are so happy to be a part of the Rose and Rex community! In addition to our Instagram feed, you can find news on parenting on our blog. Our blog also contains links to some of our research articles, and will soon be offering a guide on how to support children in their early math development. As Robin said, we are thrilled to be researching for a new book examining the effects of parenting media across cultures. Stay tuned!