With the information overload of our modern era, an ocean of information on child rearing is now available. Some say you should praise children, while others say giving less praise will give children the ability to overcome adversity. You may see all kinds of information in the bookstore and online, but in a considerable number of cases, it is not clear whether this information is based on data and facts.
Amid this backdrop, a recent research study based on objective observations and facts has shown once again that the more mothers talk to and praise their infants, the better those children’s social skills and responsiveness become. So, what are the factors that contribute to the healthy development of children? And what does the latest scientific research have to say on the matter?
Longitudinal survey with 100 mothers and their children: Studying the impact of environment on children's growth
A research project called the Ibaraki Cohort Study is currently being undertaken with a group of mothers and their infants in Ibaraki City, Osaka Prefecture. A cohort study is a kind of longitudinal study, or a study that looks at the same large group of people over a long period of time.
The leader of this project, Professor Yuko Yato (Ritsumeikan University College of Comprehensive Psychology), explains as follows:
‘In this study, we are observing the long-term development of children, first from infancy to age six, then from childhood into adolescence, with the aim of shedding light on the environmental factors that impact child development. The research techniques are seamless. In addition to using questionnaires that are often used in cohort studies, we are also taking a physiological approach (i.e., analyzing hormones in saliva) and observing how mothers and their children behave. In cooperation with child rearing support centers in Ibaraki City, we recruited 95 mothers for this study, making it one of the largest cohort studies in Japan.’
Children become more socially adaptable the more their mothers talk to them
So, how did researchers discover that mothers talking to and praising their children has an impact on children’s social skills?
Professor Yato explains:
‘When a mother talks to her infant, the infant responds by moving its hands and feet. The key to observing these behaviors is quantifying when a mother creates this kind of “positive atmosphere”. For this study, we are using the Interaction Rating Scale (IRS), a checklist I developed with Professor Tokie Anme from the University of Tsukuba. It is a list which allows us to observe and measure important factors in a mother’s communication behavior by asking, for example, questions such as: does the mother talk to her infant, does the infant look at its mother, does the mother praise her infant when it completes a task? It is a highly reliable checklist also used by the Family Court to make determinations on custody.
‘When we combined the results of these behavioral observations with mothers’ responses to questionnaires, we found that children become more socially adaptable the more their mothers look into their eyes and talk to them as infants. Furthermore, we found that infants of the mothers who told their babies “Well done!”’ or “Good job!” after the behavioral observations were the ones who responded the strongest when their mothers spoke to them.’
Other cohort studies previously conducted by national research institutes also showed that it was the babies whose parents praised them and spoke to them in gentle tones who grew up to be more socially adaptable children. Amid the mixed messages out there on child rearing, this study objectively shows once again that praising children is the right way to raise children.
Mothers need psychological care earlier in their pregnancies
In addition to child development, the Ibaraki Cohort Study is also looking at maternal health.
Professor Yato continues:
‘In this study, we found that depressive tendencies in mothers can have a negative impact on the responsiveness of their infants.
‘First, we found a correlation between a mother’s life satisfaction and the tendency toward depression. Next, we revealed that expectant mothers whose life satisfaction is lower at 14 weeks than at 25 weeks are more likely to develop depression. In other words, we might need to be providing mothers with psychological care from earlier in the pregnancy, not just right before and right after birth. For the sake of mothers’ mental and physical health, I believe it is meaningful for us to continue these observations.
‘If there is a mother with depressive tendencies, we can call her and talk to her, or seek the cooperation of the city's child rearing support centers, to provide her with the support she needs to overcome prenatal and postpartum depression. We are currently putting this kind of framework in place.
‘The members of my research group have also established a homepage, ‘Evidence-based Childcare and Empowerment Skills for Childcare Professionals Society’ (http://childnet.me/eindex.html), where we provide helpful information on child rearing, including evidence-based childcare techniques and tools like the Interaction Rating Scale. Our team does not just unilaterally collect data from the participants for the sake of our research; we want to work with the women who are cooperating with our study and the local government to create a childcare environment that is healthy for both mothers and children’.
Looking to the future, Professor Yato is optimistic about the impact of the group’s research efforts:
‘As we track participants’ development beyond infancy into childhood and adolescence, we hope to shed some light on how factors in each stage of development affect future stages of development. We are also moving forward with plans to conduct international comparisons in cooperation with foreign research institutes, and our eventual goal is to turn our center into one of the world's leading centers on child development studies.’
With the world’s advanced nations at the center of an emerging global trend towards slowing birth rates and aging populations, reassessing the importance of child rearing takes on extra significance.
In particular, looking at Japan’s population as a whole, with the percentage of children under the age of 15 sitting at 12.3% (as of April 2018), the lowest among advanced nations, the pressure for it to become a model for advanced nations with low birth rates and aging populations is by no means small. In this context, progress in the field of child development studies research in Japan, will surely not be restricted to the country itself, but will become profoundly important for child rearing around the world.