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Child and Family Development Across the First Two Decades of Life

Marc H. Bornstein, PhD
  • Marc H. Bornstein, PhD, Head, Child and Family Research Section
  • Maurice Haynes, PhD, Statistician
  • Charlie Hendricks, PhD, Statistician
  • Clay Mash, PhD, Psychologist
  • Yoonjung Park, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Diane Putnick, PhD, Statistician
  • Joan Suwalsky, MS, Research Psychologist
  • Justin Jager, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow

The Child and Family Research Section investigates dispositional, experiential, and environmental factors that contribute to physical, mental, emotional, and social development in humans across the first three decades of life. Our goals are to describe, analyze, and assess the capabilities and proclivities of developing human beings, including their physiological functioning, perceptual and cognitive abilities, emotional, social, and interactional styles, as well as the nature and consequences of family development for children and parents, and children's exposure to and interactions with their natural and designed surroundings. We pursue four integrated multi-age, multi-variate, multi-cultural research programs. One is a prospective longitudinal study designed to explore aspects of human development in the context of major sociodemographic comparisons. The second encompasses cultural influences on development within that longitudinal framework. The third comprises basic neuroscience research, and the fourth applied extensions of the "multi-age, multi-variate, multi-cultural" basic research programs to behavioral pediatrics. Project designs are experimental, observational, longitudinal, and cross-sectional as well as intra-cultural and cross-cultural. Study sites include Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Cameroon, Chile, England, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Peru, South Korea, and the United States.

Parenting and child development

Several studies, spanning infancy to adolescence, illustrate the wide range of work in the program. Emotional availability (EA) is a prominent index of mutual socioemotional adaptation in the parent-infant dyad. One study examined zero-order and unique associations of multiple maternal and infant behavior and context indicators to variation in aspects of EA in mothers and their young infants. Beyond zero-order relations, robust regression analyses revealed differentiated patterns of unique relations of mother and infant behavior and context indicators to the EA dimensions of maternal sensitivity and infant responsiveness. Adequate EA is fundamental to a healthy parent-infant relationship, and understanding the behavior and context indicators associated with emotional availability is pivotal to its enhancement.

Knowledge of childrearing and child development is relevant to parenting and the well-being of children. In a sociodemographically heterogeneous sample of European American mothers of two-year-olds, we assessed the state of mothers' parenting knowledge, compared parenting knowledge in groups of mothers who varied in terms of parenthood and social status, and identified principal sources of mothers' parenting knowledge in terms of social factors, parenting supports, and formal classes. On the whole, European American mothers demonstrated fair but less than complete basic parenting knowledge, and mothers' age, education, and the rated helpfulness of written materials each uniquely contributed to their knowledge. Adult mothers scored higher than adolescent mothers, and mothers improved in their knowledge of parenting from their first to their second child (and were stable across time). No differences were found between mothers of girls and boys, mothers who varied in employment status, or between birth and adoptive mothers.

Another study used a three-wave longitudinal design to investigate developmental cascades among social competence and externalizing and internalizing behavioral adjustment in a normative sample of children seen at 4, 10, and 14 years, with children, mothers, and teachers providing data. The results are consistent with a broad cascade model by which functioning in one domain of behavior spreads to other domains, both directly and indirectly from early childhood going forward. The delineation of the directions, timing, and processes involved in developmental cascades has implications for intervention as well as developmental theory. Results of this study extend the evidence for developmental cascades from successes (or failures) in one domain of behavior during one period of development to successes (or failures) in other domains across subsequent developmental periods, often through indirect paths. Cross-domain effects may reflect processes with significance for understanding the etiology and consequences of mental health problems and for intervening to promote competence and prevent or ameliorate symptoms of psychopathology.

Experiencing some degree of parenting stress is virtually unavoidable, particularly as children enter early adolescence and assert their independence. In another study, we examined how parenting stress of mothers and fathers changed across their child's transition to adolescence. Participants were European American parents, assessed when their children were 10 and 14 years old. The results indicated that mother and father parenting stress is stable in relative standing and that both parents find parenting 14-year-olds more stressful than parenting 10-year-olds. The source of that increased stress appears to stem from dysfunctional parent-child interaction. Mothers and fathers experience similar mean levels of different kinds of parenting stress and notably affect one another's stress to some degree. Future studies should explore further the qualities of parent-adolescent relationships that lead to increased parenting stress attributable to dysfunctional parent-child interactions. Specifically, studying parent-adolescent conflict and closeness, and adolescent desires for emotional and behavioral autonomy, should help elucidate the new challenges faced by adolescents and parents as adolescence looms.

Culture, children, and parents

Culture defines the ways in which a collection of people process and make sense of their experiences, and it influences a wide array of family processes including family roles, decision making patterns, and cognitions and practices about childrearing and child development. Cross-cultural comparisons show that virtually all aspects of human development—cognitions and practices alike—are informed by their cultural framework. Immigrants face multiple challenges in acculturating within the dominant or existing society—including deciding which cultural cognitions or practices to retain from their culture of origin and which to adopt from their culture of destination. Despite the increasing numbers of migrants in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, research on the influences of acculturation on child development has been relatively scarce. To redress this information void, we study how cultural context influences human development amongst immigrants. Examples of the rich breadth of this line of research follow.

In one study, we employed an intra-national and cross-national, prospective, and longitudinal design to examine age, gender, region, and country variation in group mean-level continuity and individual-differences stability of emotional availability in child–mother dyads. Altogether, 220 Argentine, Italian, and US American metropolitan- and rural-residence mothers and their infants were observed at home when children were 5 and 20 months of age. Similar patterns of continuity and discontinuity of emotional availability from 5 to 20 months were observed across regions and countries, but not between genders. Stability of emotional availability from 5 to 20 months was moderate and similar across genders, regions, and countries.

Child and mother play (113 twenty-month-olds) among South American Latino immigrants, Japanese immigrants, and European Americans in the United States was investigated. Culturally universal patterns of play dominated the findings. For example, no cultural differences in the prevalence of exploratory or symbolic play were found for either children or their mothers. Regardless of their culture, boys engaged in significantly more exploratory and less symbolic play than did girls when they played by themselves. Few relations were found between child play in the two play sessions. Across cultural groups, children's exploratory play was significantly positively related to both maternal demonstrations and solicitations of exploratory play. The results identify which realms of child growth, parenting, and family function call for special attention and cultural sensitivity, as well as which do not, in the dynamics of immigrant families.

Developmental neuroscience

Categorization constitutes a critical and adaptive solution to the challenges posed by both biological instability and environmental diversity. Categories structure and clarify perception and cognition, facilitate the storage and retrieval of information, and supply a principle of organization by which new information is banked efficiently in memory. Categorization is thus a fundamental process by which the brain assigns meaning to sensory stimuli, and categorization is critical for rapidly and appropriately selecting behavioral responses. Categories are especially meaningful and valuable in infancy and, as a consequence, insights into how children first categorize are fundamental to understanding human cognition and development. Two example studies illustrate our research in this area.

In one study, we investigated the processes infants employ when categorizing. Infants might categorize on line as they encounter category-related entities; alternatively, infants might depend on prior experience with entities in formulating categories. These alternatives were tested in 44 five-month-olds. Infants who were familiarized in the laboratory with a category of never-before-seen objects subsequently treated novel objects of the same category as familiar—they categorized on line—just as did infants who were exposed to objects from the same category at home for two months leading to their laboratory assessment of object categorization. Infants with home experience also recognized novel category objects as familiar from the outset—that is, prior experience with category exemplars was brought to bear in laboratory tasks.

In a second study, multiple levels of category inclusiveness in four object domains (animals, vehicles, fruit, and furniture) were examined, using a sequential touching procedure, and assessed in both individual and group analyses in eighty 12-, 18-, 24-, and 30-month-olds. We also investigated the roles of stimulus discriminability and child motor development, fatigue, and actions. More inclusive levels of categorization systematically emerged before less inclusive levels, and we found a consistent advantage for categorizing high versus low perceptual contrasts. Group and individual analyses generally converged, but individual analyses added information about child categorization over group analyses.


  • Bornstein MH, Arterberry M. The development of object categorization in young children: Hierarchical inclusiveness, age, perceptual attribute, and group versus individual analyses. Dev Psychol. 2010;46:350-365.
  • Bornstein MH, Mash C. Experience-based and on-line categorization of objects in early infancy. Child Dev. 2010;81:884-897.
  • Putnick DL, Bornstein MH, Hendricks C, Painter KM, Suwalsky JTD, Collins WA. Stability, continuity, and similarity of parenting stress in European American mothers and fathers across their child's transition to adolescence. Parenting: Science and Practice 2010;10:60-77.
  • Bornstein MH, Suwalsky JTD, Putnick DL, Gini M, Venuti P, deFalco S, Heslington M, Zingman de Galperin C. Developmental continuity and stability of emotional availability in the family: two ages and two genders in child-mother dyads from two regions in three countries. Int J Behav Dev. 2010;34:385-397.
  • Bornstein MH, Cote LR, Haynes OM, Hahn CS, Park Y. Parenting knowledge: experiential and sociodemographic factors in European American mothers. Dev Psychol. 2010;doi: 10.1037/a0020677.


  • Jeffrey J. Arnett, PhD, Clark University, Worcester, MA
  • Martha E. Arterberry, PhD, Colby College, Waterville, ME
  • Nancy Auestad, PhD, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
  • Giovanna Axia, PhD, Universitá degli Studi di Padova, Padua, Italy
  • Hiroshi Azuma, PhD, Shirayuri College, Tokyo, Japan
  • Roger Bakeman, PhD, University of Georgia, Athens, GA
  • Sashi Bali, PhD, Kenyatta University, Nairobi, Kenya
  • Erin Barker, PhD, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI
  • Laura Caulfield, PhD, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
  • W. Andrew Collins, PhD, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN
  • Linda Cote, PhD, Marymount University, Arlington, VA
  • Rodolfo De Castro Ribas Jr., PhD, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • Annik De Houwer, PhD, Universität Erfurt, Erfurt, Germany
  • Janet A. DiPietro, PhD, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD
  • Chun-Sin Hahn, PhD, Independent Contractor
  • Margaret Kabiru, PhD, Kenya Institute of Education, Nairobi, Kenya
  • Shagufa Kapadia, PhD, University of Baroda, Baroda, India
  • Keumjoo Kwak, PhD, Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea
  • Sharone Maital, PhD, University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel
  • Nanmathi Manian, PhD, Independent Contractor
  • A. Bame Nsamenang, PhD, The Institute of Human Sciences, Bameda, Cameroon
  • Liliana Pascual, PhD, Universidad de Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • Marie-Germaine Pêcheux, PhD, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, France
  • Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, PhD, New York University, New York, NY
  • Suedo Toda, PhD, Hokkaido University of Education, Hokkaido, Japan
  • Paola Venuti, PhD, Scienze e Tecniche di Psicologia Cognitiva Applicata, Treneto, Italy
  • Celia Zingman de Galperín, PhD, Universidad de Belgrano, Buenos Aires, Argentina


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