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The Science of Parenting

Not every family moment is worth framing. In CAS’ Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences, child development experts are studying the secret to happy, healthy kids—and stress-free parents.

We spoke to eight child development researchers working on topics as diverse as the impact of early experiences on brain development and global attitudes to sharing to get their science-backed advice for helping your children whine less, learn more, and sleep when they should.

What’s the secret to getting a baby to sleep?

Anyone who’s tossed and turned at night, their anxious mind racing with financial fears or personal worries, knows that stress and sleep don’t go together. It’s the same for babies. In a recent study of one-year-olds, Amanda Tarullo and doctoral student Charu Tuladhar (GRS’20,’20) found infants with higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, took longer to fall asleep—and got less shut-eye throughout the night.

“Biological stress in infancy can lead to infant sleep deprivation, which is important because getting enough sleep is crucial to infants’ brain development, mood, and health,” says Tarullo, director of BU’s Brain and Early Experiences Lab.

But it’s not like these tiny tots have mortgages to pay or bosses to please, so what’s keeping them up at night? Their parents’ stress could be to blame.

“We know that when parents are chronically biologically stressed,” says Tarullo, an associate professor, “it is more difficult to be emotionally present for children, and their children also have higher levels of biological stress.”

Tarullo’s research also looks at how other early experiences shape the developing brain and body. One recent study, led by doctoral student Ashley St. John (GRS’19,’19), uncovered a connection between socioeconomic status and performance in tasks requiring attention. “Poverty shapes brain activity in early life,” says Tarullo. “The study underscores the need for intervention in early childhood, in the years when the brain is rapidly developing, to set children up for success.”

While parents might not be able to control all aspects of their kids’ environment, Tarullo says giving themselves an occasional break could bring big benefits—and more peaceful nights for everyone.

“There is nothing selfish or indulgent about self-care. It is absolutely essential for parents to take care of their own emotional well-being.”

Just how smart are babies?

We’ve all politely listened—and privately rolled our eyes—as parents boast that their infants are remarkable geniuses, how their little one can already follow a conversation or ace a guessing game. But research shows there might be something to those proud claims and that babies may be smarter than we think.

In the Developing Minds Lab, Melissa M. Kibbe studies how young children learn to process the world around them, from how they remember objects to whether they can predict other people’s actions. In recent research papers, Kibbe has found that even before they can speak, babies are beginning to categorize objects (phones, toys, books) and show basic arithmetical capabilities.

“I’m really interested in understanding the basic architecture of human cognition,” says Kibbe, an assistant professor whose research is centered on children aged five months to seven years. “Infants are primed from very early on to pay attention to things that are really important and that could actually help them learn.”

She says a deeper understanding of how we accrue knowledge could help create better learning environments and lessons for children. For instance, our natural predisposition to counting, calculation, and other math skills could, she says, be “leveraged to help kids learn formal math later on.”

Until then, says Kibbe, new parents—and their skeptical friends—can keep one key message in mind: “We need to give kids more credit than we do from very early on; kids have the capacity to do and learn and understand more than we think they do. That really can change the way that we interact with them, the way that we expose kids to new ideas and new knowledge.”

Can parents speed their child’s language development?

The best TED Talks, the ones that rack up millions of views, all have something in common, according to writer and consultant Vanessa Van Edwards, author of Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People. The speakers move their hands a lot, which Van Edwards says makes it easier for the audience to absorb their message. It’s a trick parents can use, too, says Helen Tager-Flusberg, a professor and director of BU’s Center for Autism Research Excellence. She’s found that the gestures parents use to accentuate their spoken words may help boost their toddler’s language development and vocabulary.

Tager-Flusberg is particularly interested in how that plays out in children with an autism spectrum disorder. In a December 2020 study of infants at risk for the disorder, she found that one-year-olds with parents who gestured more had better vocabulary by age three than those with more static caregivers. A later research paper showed that’s also true for infants who don’t go on to develop autism. (Tager-Flusberg encourages parents who want to participate in future projects to get in touch.) In both studies, parents were observed interacting with their children during short periods of free play.

Parents’ early gestural communication to their infants, especially pointing and showing gestures, are important predictors of their children’s later language.
—Helen Tager-Flusberg

“Parents’ early gestural communication to their infants, especially pointing and showing gestures, are important predictors of their children’s later language,” says Tager-Flusberg. “For parents of all children, with and without disabilities or risk for disabilities, when communicating with your infant or young child, your gestures and spoken language are especially important in guiding language development.”

Do you have to answer all those “Why?” questions?

Why is the sky blue? Why aren’t the dinosaurs still around? Why do people die? Why, why, why. It’s an exhausting rite of passage as a parent: being peppered with questions—many that push fading high school science knowledge to the limit. Although it can be tempting to brush off inquisitive kids, Deborah Kelemen says the incessant interrogation is how children build their understanding of an intricate world. When parents give rich—even complex—answers to young children, they give them a better foundation for lifelong learning.

“My advice to all parents is to try and explain things as much as you can,” says Kelemen, a professor and director of the Child Cognition Lab. “And if you can’t explain, be honest about it and try and look up an answer together.”

Deborah Kelemen has found that even young kids can grasp tough subjects, like biological variability and the origin of specicies, and says that adults should help them dive into difficult questions. iStock; montage by BU Creative Services

Kelemen studies how children and adults learn to think about the world, especially the natural world, with the goal of improving education. She’s also the author of How the Piloses Evolved Skinny Noses, a children’s picture book on natural selection.

In a recent study, Kelemen found second and third graders can grapple with knotty subjects, such as biological variability and the origin of species, that even many adults struggle with. She also discovered that little kids are already encumbered with inaccurate preconceptions—rain falls to help flowers grow, for example—that they have to work hard to set aside when learning something new. Once entrenched, those ideas can linger into adulthood. Kelemen says her findings show that science education shouldn’t wait until middle or high school.

“We should give young children opportunities to engage with interesting and big scientific ideas from early on so that they can build a foundation for explanation and inquiry over time.”

How do you raise kind, thoughtful children?

Kids are not born sharers. Evolution has programmed them to retaliate against those who make a grab for their favorite toy, to whine when someone gets more ice cream. The good news, says Peter Blake, an expert on fairness and social cognition—how we learn to live with others—is that they can be taught to play nice.

In a recent paper, Nadia Chernyak, a postdoctoral researcher in Blake’s Social Development and Learning Lab, tested whether young children would naturally return a favor to someone who helped them out. If a peer gave them a sticker, would they share when they had extras? They wouldn’t—but were quick to seek revenge if someone stole a sticker from them. “We tried multiple ways to get kids to show gratitude but kept failing,” says Blake, an associate professor. “The one thing that worked was telling them a story about kids who returned a favor. After that, they paid back the positive act.”

Blake has also examined differing attitudes to fairness around the world, including how likely kids from different countries are to share candy. He found most rejected an offer of candy if the deal involved a peer getting more than they did. But as they got older, children in some countries, including Canada and Uganda—though not Mexico, Peru, or Senegal—also rejected candy offers that disadvantaged their peers. Blake says it shows that while some psychological capacities have evolved to be ingrained, others, including sharing, are learned and shaped by culture.

Peter Blake, an expert on fairness, says children aren’t natural sharers—but they can learn it. iStock; montage by BU Creative Services

“Children can still be encouraged to share by asking them to take the perspective of the child with less,” says Blake. “Children—and many adults—are often so happy with their advantages that they simply don’t think about the person with less.”

If parents are unhappy, will their kids be too?

English poet Philip Larkin didn’t hold back on what he saw as the malign influence of parents in 1971’s “This Be The Verse.” They mess you up, Larkin warned (though he chose a more colorful word than “mess”): “They may not mean to, but they do./They fill you with the faults they had/And add some extra, just for you.”

The science doesn’t support Larkin’s cynicism, says Nicholas Wagner, director of BU’s Biobehavioral and Social-Emotional Development Lab. An assistant professor, he studies how family relationships and social environments shape children’s thoughts, behavior, and mental health. His research aims to show “how this influence unfolds, and in what ways parents can promote positive development.”

The sorts of language parents use when discussing shared experiences provides a framework through which children can gain the tools and skills necessary for reflecting on and growing these shared experiences, both positive and negative.
—Nicholas Wagner

In a recent project, led by doctoral student Caroline Swetlitz (CAS’16, GRS’25), Wagner and his team examined the impact of a mother’s depression on childhood development. They found that when parents talked directly and deeply about their experiences—what researchers call elaborative reminiscing—their kids benefited. He says the same openness applies whether a parent is struggling with work stress or arguing with their partner.

“The sorts of language parents use when discussing shared experiences provides a framework through which children can gain the tools and skills necessary for reflecting on and growing these shared experiences, both positive and negative,” says Wagner.

Hearing adults talk about what’s going on in their lives or watching them resolve a conflict can be a positive event, teaching children that difficult situations can be handled productively.

Wagner also reminds parents—and cynical poets—that the good times count, too, and are perhaps even more influential than the bad ones. And that a little love and a few minutes’ attention—he recommends parents set aside 15 distraction-free minutes for their kids every day—go a long way.

How can families navigate stressful times together?

When a child gets sick—really sick—their families rally around them. Routines and roles shift: parents may spend more time at a hospital than at home. But what of the siblings left behind, still going to school, still dealing with the everyday trials of growing up?

In 2018, Kristin Long, an assistant professor, cohosted an international summit of child health experts to examine new approaches to maintaining the mental health of siblings of young people with a serious illness, particularly cancer. Their recommendations, published in 2020 in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, included involving siblings in family-based psychosocial screenings, monitoring their well-being during a relative’s care, and connecting them with community-based support resources.

But Long, who directs BU’s Child & Family Health Lab, says there’s a broader lesson for families, too—even those without a chronically ill child.

“I would urge parents to think about their family as a system in which changes or stressors affect all members,” she says. “When there is a stressor in the family, parents could acknowledge that other family members also feel the effects. They might say to a child, ‘I know that the situation has affected you, too, and it must be hard for you.’ Acknowledging can go a long way; parents don’t always need to fix things for their children.”

Long is also researching other ways family and cultural dynamics interplay with chronic illness and disability. In one recent study, Long and doctoral student Monica Gordillo (GRS’23,’23) looked at how ethnicity might shape parental attitudes to autism, finding that culturally based stigma made it harder for Latina mothers to accept a diagnosis in their children.

“Our research aims to promote more family-centered, culturally responsive models of mental health care and medical health care.”

When kids are scared, how can you help them be brave?

There’s a lot to be scared of when you’re a child, from monsters under the bed to schoolyard bullies. “Some anxiety is natural—it’s a natural human emotion,” says Donna Pincus, a clinical psychologist and author of Growing Up Brave: Expert Strategies for Helping Your Child Overcome Fear, Stress, and Anxiety. She advises parents not to “shoo away the emotion of anxiety. As soon as you stop avoiding it, anxiety starts to come down.”

A professor and director of the BU Child and Adolescent Fear and Anxiety Treatment Program, Pincus has spent much of her career translating research on topics like cognitive behavioral therapy and early onset anxiety disorders into user-friendly techniques and tips for helping kids deal with their fears. She says some parenting styles—particularly those laced with criticisms or commands—have been associated with increased anxiety.

Instead, she recommends families offer praise for facing an anxiety rather than orders to get over it, model good coping strategies when overwhelmed by stress of their own, and build a Bravery Ladder. This hierarchy of anxiety-inducing situations allows families to take baby steps toward reducing a fear: rather than pushing a child into singing onstage, for instance, have them start by singing at home in front of a parent, then another relative. As they take each brave step, parents reward their child with praise, retraining their young brain and relegating the anxiety.

“These seemingly simple strategies could result in incredible change,” says Pincus, who recently started a study comparing clinician-led and self-guided care for those children diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.

Although many parents and providers might be tempted to reach for medication to help fearful kids, especially those whose worries go beyond being scared of the dark or starring in a school play, Pincus says “there are many skills-based approaches to helping kids with anxiety. Parents should not blame themselves and there’s plenty of things you can do to change it.”