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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
  • Justin Jager, PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Clay Mash, PhD, Psychologist
  • Diane Putnick, PhD, Statistician
  • Joan Suwalsky, MS, Research Psychologist

The Child and Family Research Section (CFRS) was established with the broad aim of investigating the ways in which human development is affected by variations in the conditions under which humans are reared. We investigate dispositional, experiential, and environmental factors that contribute to physical, mental, emotional, and social development in humans across the first three decades of life. Our research goals are to describe, analyze, and assess (i) the capabilities and proclivities of developing children and youth, including their physiological functioning, perceptual and cognitive abilities, emotional and social growth, and interactional styles; (ii) the nature and consequences of interactions within the family and the social world for offspring and parents; (iii) the consequences for development of exposure to areas of childhood vulnerability (to illness, to accidents, in risk taking); and (iv) influences on development of children's exposure to and interactions with the natural and designed environments. Research topics concern the origins, status, and development of psychological constructs, structures, functions, and processes across the first three decades of life; effects of child characteristics, activities and vulnerabilities on parents; and the meaning of variations in parenting and in the family across different socio-demographic and cultural groups as well as across variations in health conditions in the child. Laboratory and home-based studies employ a variety of approaches, including psycho-physiological recordings, behavioral observations, standardized assessments, rating scales, interviews, and demographic/census records in both longitudinal and cross-sectional designs. Socio-demographic comparisons under investigation include, for example, family socio-economic status, maternal age and employment status, parenthood status (adoption, birth), child parity, and daycare experience. Our research program also investigates developmental sequelae of cancer in infancy; children's understanding and coping with medical experiences; parental depression and child development; development following preterm birth; the deaf culture; and behavior problems in adolescence. In addition to the United States, cultural study sites include Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Cameroon, Chile, England, France, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Peru, and the Republic of South Korea; in all places, we pursue intra-cultural as well as cross-cultural comparisons.

To meet this multifaceted charge, we pursue two integrated multi-age, multi-variate, multi-cultural research programs that are supplemented with a variety of ancillary investigations. These research programs represent an en bloc effort. The first program is a prospective longitudinal study designed to explore multiple aspects of child development in the context of major socio-demographic comparisons. The second program broadens the perspectives of the first to encompass cultural influences on development within the same basic longitudinal framework. The ultimate aims of these research programs are to promote aware, fit, and motivated children who will grow into knowledgeable, healthy, and happy adults.

The child, the parent, and the family across the first two+ decades

The stability of language across childhood is traditionally assessed by exploring longitudinal relations between individual language measures. However, language encompasses many domains and varies with different sources (child speech, parental report, experimenter assessment). This study evaluated individual variation in several age-appropriate measures of child language derived from multiple sources as well as stability between their latent variables in young children across more than two years. Structural equation modeling demonstrated the loading of several measures of child language from different sources on single latent variables of language at ages 20 and 48 months. A large stability coefficient (r = .84) obtained between the two language latent variables. The stability obtained even when accounting for family socioeconomic status, maternal verbal intelligence, education, speech, tendency to respond in a socially desirable fashion, and child social competence. Stability was also equivalent for children in diverse childcare situations and for girls and boys. Across age, from the beginning of language acquisition to just before school entry, aggregating several age-appropriate methods and measures at each age and multiple reporters, children show strong stability of individual differences in general language development.

Another study, incorporating the perspectives of adolescent, mother, and father, examined each family member's unique perspective or nonshared, idiosyncratic view of the family. We used a modified multitrait-multimethod confirmatory factor analysis that (i) isolated for each family member's six reports of family dysfunction the nonshared variance (a combination of variance idiosyncratic to the individual and measurement error) from variance shared by one or more family members and (ii) extracted common variance across each family member's set of nonshared variances. Each family member's unique perspective generalized across his or her different reports of family dysfunction and accounted for a sizable proportion of his or her own variance in reports of family dysfunction. In addition, after holding the level of dysfunction constant across families and controlling for a family's shared variance (agreement regarding family dysfunction), each family member's unique perspective was associated with his or her own adjustment.

Five-month-old infants of clinically depressed and non-depressed mothers were familiarized to a wholly novel object and then tested for their discrimination of the same object presented in the familiar and in a novel perspective. Infants in both groups were adequately familiarized, but infants of clinically depressed mothers failed to discriminate between novel and familiar views of the object, whereas infants of non-depressed mothers successfully discriminated. The difference in discrimination between infants of depressed and non-depressed mothers is interpreted in light of infants' differential object processing and maternal sociodemographics, mind-mindedness, depression, stress, and interaction styles that may moderate opportunities for infants to learn about their world or influence the development of their perceptual-cognitive capacities.

To investigate neurodevelopmental consequences of non-CNS cancers and treatment, we initiated a prospective study of very young children with cancer, comparing them with matched healthy children. Children (less than 42 months) with non-CNS cancers and matched controls underwent an identical age-appropriate neuropsychological test battery. Compared with healthy controls, children with cancer manifested deficits in motor, mental, and language development, but were similar to controls in cognitive representational abilities and emotional relationships in interaction with their mothers. Better physician-rated health status at diagnosis and mother-rated behavioral status one month prior to assessment were associated with better motor and mental performance in the cancer group. The study identifies deficits as well as spared functions in children with non–CNS cancers; the results suggest ways parents and healthcare professionals may plan specific remedies to enhance quality of life for young cancer survivors.

Child development and parenting in multicultural perspective

It is often assumed that young bilinguals are lexically delayed compared with monolinguals. A comprehensive comparison of comprehension and production vocabulary in firstborn bilingual and matched monolingual children fails to find any empirical foundation for this assumption. Several raters completed Dutch and French adaptations of the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventories for children aged 13 and 20 months. At 13 months, bilinguals understood more words than monolinguals; at 20 months, monolinguals knew more Dutch words than bilinguals (combining comprehension and production). There were no group differences for word production or for Dutch word comprehension. Both groups understood and produced the same number of lexicalized meanings; ratios of word comprehension to word production did not differ; inter-individual variation was similar. This study underscores the importance of conducting bilingual-monolingual comparisons with matched groups and suggests that, if individual bilingual children appear to be slow in early vocabulary development, other reasons than their bilingualism should be investigated.

In another in a series of studies of acculturating parents in the United States, cultural variation in relations and moment-to-moment contingencies of infant-mother person-oriented and object-oriented interactions were compared in Japanese, Japanese American immigrant, and European American dyads with 5.5-month-olds. Infant and mother person-oriented behaviors were related in all cultural groups, but infant and mother object-oriented behaviors were related only among European Americans. Infant and mother behaviors within each modality were mutually contingent in all groups. Culture moderated lead-lag relations: Japanese infants were more likely than their mothers to respond in object-oriented interactions while European American mothers were more likely than their infants to respond in person-oriented interactions. Japanese American dyads behaved like European American dyads. Interactions, infant effects, and parent socialization findings are set in cultural and accultural models of infant-mother transactions.


  • Bornstein MH, Cote LR, Haynes OM, Bakeman R, Suwalsky JTD. Modalities of mother-infant interaction in Japanese, Japanese American immigrant, and European American dyads. Child Dev 2012;in press.
  • Bornstein MH, Putnick DL. Stability of language in childhood: a multiage, multidomain, multimeasure, and multisource study. Dev Psychol 2012;48:477-491.
  • Bornstein MH, Scrimin S, Putnick DL, Capello F, Haynes OM, de Falco S, Carli M, Pillon M. Neurodevelopmental functioning in very young children undergoing treatment for non-CNS cancers. J Pediatr Psychol 2012;37:660-673.
  • De Houwer A, Bornstein MH, Putnick DL. A bilingual-monolingual comparison of young children's vocabulary size: evidence from comprehension and production. Appl Psycholinguist 2012;in press.
  • Jager J, Bornstein MH, Putnick DL, Hendricks C. Family members' unique perspectives of the family: examining their scope, size, and relations to individual adjustment. J Fam Psychol 2012;26:400-410.


  • Martha E. Arterberry, PhD, Colby College, Waterville, ME
  • Roger Bakeman, PhD, University of Georgia, Athens, GA
  • Erin Barker, PhD, Concordia University, Montreal, Canada
  • Robert Bradley, PhD, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ
  • 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
  • Kirby Deater-Deckard, PhD, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA
  • Gianluca Esposito, PhD, RIKEN Brain Science Institute, Saitama, Japan
  • Derya Güngör de Bruyn, PhD, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, Leuven, Belgium
  • Chun-Shin Hahn, PhD, Independent Contractor
  • Lana Karasik Vishnevetsky, PhD, College of Staten Island, City University of New York, New York, NY
  • Keumjoo Kwak, PhD, Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea
  • Jennifer E. Lansford, PhD, Duke University, Durham, NC
  • Nanmathi Manian, PhD, Child Trends, Rockville, MD
  • A. Bame Nsamenang, PhD, The Institute of Human Sciences, Bameda, Cameroon
  • Yoonjung Park, PhD, Children's Defense Fund, Washington, D.C.
  • Sara Scrimin, PhD, Universitá degli Studi di Padova, Padua, Italy
  • Beate Sodian, PhD, Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität, Munich, Germany
  • Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, PhD, New York University, New York, NY
  • Paola Venuti, PhD, Università di Trento, Trento, Italy


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