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January/February 2001Vol. 2, No. 1Survey Shows Parents Confused About Child Development

How much do American adults know about child development? Not enough, indicates a national benchmark survey.

Civitas, Zero to Three, and BRIO Corporation jointly sponsored the survey of 3,000 American adults last July. Respondents were asked questions to measure their knowledge about development in children ages 0 to 6 and to gauge their opinion on selected policies that affect children and families. DYG, Inc. conducted the survey.

What Grown-Ups Understand About Child Development found that parents and other adults are most misinformed about discipline and spoiling, expectations of children at different ages, the most beneficial forms of play, and a child's ability to sense what is going on in his environment.

"This lack of accurate child development information among adults has very real implications for American society," said Kyle Pruett, MD, president of Zero to Three. "We're potentially raising overly aggressive children who react to situations with intimidation and bullying, instead of cooperation and understanding; children who won't be able to tolerate frustration, wait their turn or respect the needs of others."

Large percentages of adults did not know that developmental research has shown that:

  • Children begin to react to the world around them at birth.
  • Young babies are affected by the mood of others.
  • Babies as young as 4 months experience depression.
  • A child as young as 6 months can suffer long-term effects from witnessing violence.
  • Flashcards, educational TV, and solitary play on the computer are not particularly beneficial to intellectual development.
  • Play is as beneficial to social development as to intellectual and language development for children of all ages.
  • A 6-year-old who shoots and kills a classmate cannot truly comprehend what he did.
  • A 15-month-old is not developmentally ready to share.
  • A 3-year-old is not developmentally ready to sit quietly for an hour.
  • A young child's behavior is not based on revenge.
  • A 6-month-old cannot be spoiled.
  • Picking up a 3-month-old every time he cries, letting a 2-year-old get down from the dinner table to play before the rest of the family has finished, and letting a 6-year-old choose what to wear are non-spoiling activities.
  • Spanking as a form of punishment can lead children to act more aggressively and will not lead to better self-control.
  • Working parents can develop a bond with their children as strong as that of stay-at-home parents.

Although adults lack significant information about some aspects of child development, most accurately identified the following key issues:

  • Children's capabilities are not predetermined at birth.
  • Brain development can be affected very early on and experiences in the first years of life have a significant impact on abilities that appear much later in children's lives.
  • Emotional closeness is related to a child's intellectual development.
  • Reading and talking to a child, providing a sense of safety and security, feeding a healthy diet, and providing quality child care are critical in promoting intellectual development in young children.
  • Play is important in child development.
  • Constant change of caregivers has a negative impact on children.
  • Dads who are active in their children's lives have a powerful impact on their children.

Survey respondents also were asked about their feelings regarding preparation for parenthood and public policies related to children and families. Parents were evenly split on the issue of preparation, with one-third feeling very prepared, one-third feeling somewhat prepared, and one-third feeling very unprepared. They most frequently sought parenting and child development information from their spouse, their own mothers, and their pediatricians. The Internet was also cited as a source of information for 4 in 10 adults. The study found that the majority of all adults support paid parental leave and government assistance to help families pay for quality childcare.

The survey revealed significant differences in levels of knowledge among particular groups of respondents. For example, parents who have 4-year college degrees know more about child development than less educated groups, and dads know less than moms. Parents with household incomes above the median know more about child development than less wealthy parents. Grandparents know less than parents, especially about which activities are non-spoiling. Childless adults who were planning to have children soon showed the highest level of confusion and misinformation among all subgroups.

A copy of the executive summary, full report, questionnaire, and press release are available online at:

Related Items

For more information related to early brain development, see these articles in the current issue of the Children's Bureau Express:

  • "Pediatricians Advised About Enhancing Brain Development in Young Foster Children"
  • "Study Calls for Reexamining How We Treat Young Children"

Search for more CB Express articles on early childhood development using the Search feature on this website.

Visit the National Governors' Association Center for Best Practices new website, "The First Three Years: A Governor's Guide to Early Childhood," for tools to convey the importance of investing in a child's first three years to legislators, parents, businesses, and other community members at: