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Education & Development

Cause and effect in a child

Updated Tuesday 4th January 2005

John Oates looks at cause-effect links in child development, and examines how much weight we should give to media scare stories

It’s not surprising if parents feel that their buttons have been pushed when a new piece of research is publicised linking something like postnatal depression, daycare or diet to child development, and get anxious that they might have done something which has held back their children. In a way, this is a very positive reaction; it shows how much you care about your kids! And it is, indeed, worth taking stock from time to time as to whether you are ‘doing the right thing’ by them.

There’s a real problem, though, with reacting to research results in this way. First, modern research into child development is quite complex, since development itself is complicated and the research must reflect that. I’ll give some examples later in this essay. Reports in newspapers and other media often fail to convey this complexity because they want to give a simple, clear message. Second, most research in this area nowadays involves quite large samples of children, parents and settings (if it doesn’t, you can properly ask whether the results can really be applied more broadly) and any results that are found apply to the sample as a whole, rather than to individual children.

That’s what must be stressed; understanding how cause and effect work for an individual child must take account of all the myriad influences on them and also the power of the child herself to influence what happens to her.

One example of this might be a finding that babies who are ‘irritable’ (that is, easily upset and hard to soothe) tend to do less well in the early years. So you might get quite worried if you read this and felt that your baby cries a lot and you sometimes get upset when you can’t seem to calm them. The first question you might ask, and it’s unlikely that the newspaper report will give you the answer, is how you define ‘irritable’. For that you would need to find the original research paper that reported the finding. That’s much easier nowadays, using web search tools can often find a copy of the article for you. Even if the journal website won’t let you download a paper that you have found, the authors’ website may have a downloadable copy, or your local library may be able to get hold of a copy for you.

The newspaper report might have also said that this difference in temperament has a genetic basis. That might suggest to you that there is nothing that you can do to help matters, if it’s ‘all in the genes’. Well that’s just a fallacy, it’s simply not true. Even though some aspects of children’s behaviour do seem to be affected partly by genetic factors (aspects like how active and outgoing they are) that most definitely does not mean that they are unchangeable. Almost any aspect of children’s development that you care to explore has multiple causes and there are almost always things that you can do to help your child to develop to meet their potential.

But I also want to sound a note of caution about the idea of ‘potential’. That also suggests that there is something inborn that sets a limit on what a child can ultimately do. Well, it’s true that each child has their own unique set of attributes (such as musical and athletic abilities), but it’s how these combine with the potential that the environment offers them that affects how far and fast they progress, as well as their own belief in what they can achieve. There are also big differences around the world and between different groups in the UK as to what counts as ‘normal’ outcomes for child development. As psychologists have become more aware of how parents’ expectations and beliefs influence children’s development, the idea of a single ‘normal’ set of outcomes has become less and less meaningful.

The key point is that we are still a long way from being able to predict how an individual child will respond to the particular environments in which they find themselves. One reason for this is that children actually create their own environments. Think back to the example of the ‘irritable’ baby: a baby like this is going to evoke different things from a mother than a placid baby, so their environments will in fact be different. Also, as they get older, children are active in seeking out and creating their own environments (which we may sometimes not approve of!).

A good example of this is that there have been suggestions that a mother’s work satisfaction affects her baby’s development, perhaps because a mother who is less happy at work may find it more of a challenge to be bright and cheerful with her baby in the evenings. But it may be completely the other way around; recently it has also been found that mother’s work satisfaction may in fact be affected by her baby’s temperament. Again, one can see how this might happen; the stress of wakeful nights and not being able to calm a screaming baby is hardly likely to help the next day at work.

I hope that these examples have shown that identifying cause and effect in your child’s development is not a simple matter. If a research study finds that untidy children’s rooms are associated with higher school performance later (this is not a real finding!), that doesn’t mean you should go in and mess up your child’s room once a week. However, if there was a finding like this, it is likely that it would be reported in the popular press in a way that suggests that there is a cause-effect link.

You can read more about this in the sample extract from a chapter that I have recently completed with Jim Stevenson, of Southampton University, on the influence of temperament. This will be part of a new textbook for the Open University course ED209 Child Development.


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