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Child and Family Development Across the First Decades of Life

Marc H. Bornstein, PhD
  • Marc H. Bornstein, PhD, Head, Child and Family Research Section
  • Maurice Haynes, PhD, Statistician
  • Charlene 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 the developmental sequelae of cancer in infancy; children's understanding of 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. The 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. Our ultimate aims 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 2+ decades

Experiences with their own infant attune parents' nervous system to infant stimuli. To explore the effects of motherhood on brain activity patterns, EEG was recorded while primipara mothers of three- and six-month-olds viewed images of faces of their own child and an unfamiliar but appearance-matched child (1). Mothers of three- and six-month-olds showed equivalent early-wave (N/P1 “visual” and N170 “face-sensitive”) responses to own and unfamiliar baby faces but differentiating late-wave (N/P600 “familiar/ novel”) activity to own versus unfamiliar infant faces. Based on three months experience with their own infant’s face, mothers’ brain patterns give evidence of distinctive late-wave (recognition) sensitivity.

Two independent prospective longitudinal studies that cumulatively spanned the age interval from four years to 14 years used multi-wave designs to investigate developmental associations between language and behavioral adjustment (internalizing and externalizing behavior problems) (2). Altogether, 224 children, their mothers, and teachers provided data. We used series of nested path analysis models to determine the most parsimonious and plausible paths among the three constructs over and above stability in each, across age and their covariation at each age. In both studies, children with poorer language skills in early childhood had more internalizing behavior problems in later childhood and in early adolescence. These developmental paths between language and behavioral adjustment held after taking into consideration children’s nonverbal intellectual functioning, maternal verbal intelligence, education, parenting knowledge, and social desirability bias, as well as family socioeconomic status, and they applied equally to girls and boys.

In another four-wave prospective longitudinal study, we evaluated stability of language in 324 children from early childhood to adolescence (3). Structural equation modeling supported loadings of multiple age-appropriate multi-source measures of child language on single-factor core language skills at 20 months and 4, 10, and 14 years. Large stability coefficients (standardized indirect effect = .46) were obtained between language latent variables from early childhood to adolescence and accounting for child nonverbal intelligence and social competence and maternal verbal intelligence, education, speech, and social desirability. Stability coefficients were similar for girls and boys. Stability of core language skill was stronger from 4 to 10 to 14 years than from 20 months to 4 years, so early intervention to improve lagging language is recommended.

Child development and parenting in multicultural perspective

Caregiving practices contribute in important ways to the course and outcome of child development. We compared two developmentally significant domains of caregiving—cognitive and socioemotional—in more than 127,000 families with under-five-year children in 28 developing countries (4). Mothers varied widely in cognitive and socioemotional caregiving and engaged in more socioemotional than cognitive caregiving. More than half the mothers took their children outside and played with them, but only a third or fewer read books and told stories to their children. The GDP index of countries related to caregiving after controlling for life expectancy and education. The majority of mothers report that they do not leave their under-fives alone. Policy and intervention recommendations were elaborated.

Using nationally representative samples of 45,964 two- to nine-year-old children and their primary caregivers in 17 developing countries, we examined the relations between children’s cognitive, language, sensory, and motor disabilities and caregivers’ use of discipline and violence (5). Primary caregivers reported on their child’s disabilities and whether they or anyone in their household had used nonviolent discipline, psychological aggression, or physical violence toward the target child or believed that using corporal punishment is necessary. Logistic regression analyses supported the hypothesis that children with disabilities are treated more harshly than children without disabilities. The findings suggest that policies and interventions are needed to work toward the United Nations’ goals of ensuring that children with disabilities are protected from abuse and violence.


  1. Bornstein M H, Arterberry ME, Mash C. Differentiated brain activity in response to faces of "own" versus "unfamiliar" babies in primipara mothers: an electrophysiological study. Dev Neuropsychol 2013;38:365-385.
  2. Bornstein MH, Hahn C-S, Suwalsky JTD. The role of language in behavioral adjustment in independent community samples of normally developing children: replicative developmental cascade analyses. Dev Psychopathol 2013;25:857-878.
  3. Bornstein MH, Hahn C-S, Putnick DL, Suwalsky JTD. Stability of core language skill from early childhood to adolescence: a latent variable approach. Child Development 2013;in press.
  4. Bornstein MH, Putnick DL. Cognitive and socioemotional caregiving in developing countries. Child Dev 2012;83:46-61.
  5. Hendricks C, Lansford J, Deater-Deckard K, Bornstein MH. Associations between child disabilities and caregiver discipline and violence in low- and middle-income countries. Child Dev 2013;Epub ahead of print.


  • 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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