Research Reveals – Chapter Seven

RR7.1: Important Aspects of Family Time
The report published in 2008 by the US-based Society for Research in Child Development, authored by Barbara Fiese and Marlene Schwartz,[i] suggests that infrequency of family mealtimes, a negative climate during shared mealtimes, and poor quality food choices are related to children’s health issues such as depression, worry, fear, self-injury, social withdrawal and poor academic achievement.[ii] Specifically regarding regular family dinners and nutrition, the two wrote:

A medical study of children ages nine to fourteen found that children who have more regular dinners with their families and have more healthful dietary patterns, including more fruits and vegetables and less saturated and trans fat, fried food and soda, have better mental health and are less likely to suffer from pediatric obesity. (Findings held up after statistical controls for household income, maternal employment, body mass index, physical activity, and other factors.)[iii]

The report also stated that conflicting schedules is the number one reason for not sharing a meal.[iv] Another study found that on days when adults felt hassled and stressed, they consumed more high fat/sugary snacks and spent fewer minutes having regular meals.[v] Given that more households are now two income households, less time is available to plan and cook healthy meals. Since meals at home are lower in calories and fat than meals in restaurants, the nutritional value of family meals has degraded.[vi] For example, kids’ menus usually offer hamburgers, hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches, deep-fried meat dishes and sugar heavy desserts.

The environment of the mealtime is also a predictor of a child’s well-being, the report said. The absence of television is significantly related to the child’s well-being. When the family comes together at the table, there should be a certain expectation to serve, listen and give to each other, not just to eat. Families that communicate in a considerate, direct, and clear manner during mealtimes are also less likely to have children with internalizing symptoms, such as depression, worry, fear, self-injury, and social withdrawal.[vii]

Finally the report revealed that parents giving attention to their children, responding to questions from their children, and keeping everyone’s behaviour at the table well regulated is associated with enriched language development and academic achievement.[viii] However, if either parent employs one or more of the various exasperation interactions, then the mealtime will serve as an example of an unhealthy parenting experience for their children, i.e. the process will backfire.

RR7.2: Attachment Research and Connection
John Bowlby changed this thinking. His study of ethology, psychology and other related fields revealed results that went against mainstream thinking and challenged this view. He hypothesised that infants would experience loss and suffering when separated from their primary caregivers, and as a result of his own observations, put forward the theory of the importance of attachment of infants to mothers from birth. His writings were influential and caused many changes in hospitals and in the childcare practises of his day. Mary Ainsworth was a student of Bowlby and later became his colleague. She studied the nature of infant separation in Uganda and came up with a method of research used for identifying different attachment styles between mothers and infants.

Children between six and 30 months are very likely to form emotional attachments to familiar caregivers, especially if the adults are sensitive and responsive to child communications.

The emotional attachment of young children is shown behaviourally in their preferences for particular familiar people, their tendency to seek proximity to those people (especially in times of distress), and their ability to use familiar adults as a secure base from which to explore the environment.

The formation of emotional attachments contributes to the foundation of later emotional and personality development, and the type of behaviour toward familiar adults shown by toddlers has some continuity with the social behaviours they will show later in life.

Events that interfere with attachment, such as abrupt separation of the toddler from familiar people or the significant inability of caregivers to be sensitive, responsive or consistent in their interactions, have a short-term and possible long-term negative impact on the child’s emotional and cognitive life.

Attachment according to Bowlby is defined as, “Lasting psychological connectedness between human beings”.[ix] This means an affectionate bond or tie between an individual and an attachment figure, usually the parents. Such bonds may be reciprocal between two adults, but between a child and a caregiver, these bonds are based on the child’s need for safety, security and protection, all of which are paramount in infancy and childhood.[x]

Other research stemming from attachment theory has shown that a child’s development is also affected by the quality of earlier bonds and relationships with caregivers.[xi] We know from the principles and empirical evidence mentioned earlier in the book that early and later experiences will also shape a person’s view of him or herself and that of others. Here are some important broad findings on the importance of early attachment:

  • Secure infants are more likely to become socially competent than are insecure ones.[xii]
  • Insecure infants are placed at risk of developing future pathology such as mental health issues.[xiii]

In 1991, the US Department of Health and Human Services posted these findings regarding early attachment between infants and caregivers:[xiv]

  • Children with secure attachments have more basic trust than those whose attachments are insecure and marred by anxiety.
  • Children with secure attachments have more ego resiliency through early and middle childhood, meaning their self-esteem will be healthier, unless they experience significant negative changes. They can also cope with setbacks and recover more quickly.
  • Securely attached children have more flexibility in processing current information and in responding appropriately in new situations and relationships.

According to the research above, children with secure attachments have better self-esteem, are more trusting and more resilient during difficult times, handle relationships better, and are more flexible learners.

RR7.3: Changing the Protocol for Premature Babies
Tiffany Field, who gave birth to a premature baby, realised that incubators did not allow parents to touch their babies. She later invented an incubator that helped parents touch their new-born. The research that put Field and her organisation on the map showed that massage caused premature infants to gain more weight than their non-massaged peers—thereby improving the infants’ health and potentially saving millions of dollars each year in health-care costs. That study was published in 1988. Today, more than 100 studies and 350 medical journal articles later, Field is recognized as the premier expert in touch research and advocate for touch therapy.[xv]

RR7.4: Mozart Effect
Researchers at Appalachian State University believe that they have debunked what has been called the “Mozart effect”, i.e., a temporary increase in intelligence experienced after listening to a piano sonata written by the famed composer.[xvi]

RR7.5: Decline in Time Spent between Parents and Children
Take a look at the general trend of the amount of time between parents and children over the years in America, which is probably also the case in many first world nations. These findings are taken from a wonderful website resource for parents called “Putting Family First”[xvii] (, which was created by William Doherty and Barbara Carlson. In a detailed article highlighting some very important trends related to the lack of connection that is all too common in America in recent years, the authors note the following:[xviii]

(Findings from national time diary surveys conducted in 1981 and 1997 by the Survey Research Center at the University of Michigan.[xix] All findings reported below are from this study unless otherwise footnoted.)

1.  A major decline in the free time of children ages three to twelve between 1981 and 1997.

  • Free time: A decline of twelve hours per week in overall free time for children
  • Play time: Decreased by three hours per week (a 25% drop from about sixteen hours to about thirteen hours for the whole group—less than nine hours per week for older children)
  • Unstructured outdoor activities: Fell by 50% (includes activities such as walking, hiking or camping).

2.  A decline in family and religious participation time.

  • Household conversations: Dropped by 100%, which means that in 1997 the average American family spent no time per week when talking altogether as a family was the primary activity.  (The 1981 baseline was already low.)  Overall, children in 1997 averaged about 45 minutes per week in conversation with anyone in the family, when the conversation was the primary activity.
  • Family mealtime: Declined by nearly an hour per week from 1981 to 1997, from about nine hours per week to about eight hours per week.
  • Family dinners: A 33% decrease over three decades in families who say they have dinner regularly. (This finding is from repeated annual surveys of American families.[xx] In a 1995 national poll, only one-third of U.S. families said they “usually have their evening meal together on a daily basis.”)[xxi]
  • Vacations: A 28% decrease over the past twenty years in the number of families taking a vacation (from annual surveys of American families).[xxii]
  • Religious participation: A decline of 40% in hours per week in children’s (ages three to twelve) religious participation time from 1981 to 1997[xxiii]; and a decline of 24% of high school students with weekly religious attendance (from 40% in 1981 to 31% in 1997, based on annual surveys of high school students).[xxiv]

3.  A major increase from 1981 to 1997 in children’s time spent on:

  • Structured sports: Doubled from 2 hours and 20 minutes per week to 5 hours and 17 minutes per week. Boys and girls increased equally in structured sports time, but boys still spent twice as much time as girls in sports.
  • Passive, spectator leisure (not counting television or other forms of “screen time”): A fivefold increase from a half hour per week to over three hours per week. This includes watching siblings play structured sports.
  • Studying: Increased by almost 50% from 1981 to 1997.
  • The same research also highlighted the value of family time in raising well-adjusted children, which is shown below:
  • Mealtime: More mealtimes at home was the single strongest predictor of better achievement scores and fewer behavioural problems. Regular mealtimes were far more powerful than time spent in school or studying, at church, playing sports, and doing art activities. Results were statistically controlled for age and gender of child, race and ethnicity, education and age of the head of the family, family structure and employment, income, and family size.[xxv]
  • Regular family dinners and teen adjustment: The largest ever federally funded study of American teenagers found a strong association between regular family meals (five or more dinners per week with a parent) and academic success and psychological adjustment, as well as lower rates of alcohol use, drug use, early sexual behaviour, and suicidal risk. (After controlling for social class factors, results held for both one parent and two parent families.)[xxvi]

Teens’ concerns: In a national YMCA poll of a representative sample of American teens in 2000, 21% rated “not having enough time together with parents” as one of their top two concerns. (The other was “educational worries”.)[xxvii]

RR 7.6: Childhood Games Better Than Flashcards
Researchers at Oregon State University have found that, rather than focusing on things like tuition classes, flashcards and math drills, playing typical childhood playground games may be the best way to help kids do better in school. A New York Times article, entitled “Simon Says Don’t Uses Flashcards”, states, “Variations on games like Freeze Tag and Simon Says require relatively high levels of executive function, testing a child’s ability to pay attention, remember rules, and exhibit self-control—qualities that also predict academic success.” Megan McClelland, who has led much of the research, says, “Play is one of the most cognitively stimulating things a child can do.” One study of 814 children between three and six showed that “children who do well in Simon Says-like games do better in math and reading. A smaller study of 65 preschool children found that those who started the school year with low levels of self-control showed improvement after playing games in class, including a version of Red Light, Green Light.” What makes the Oregon State study so exciting is that it was a longitudinal study that followed 430 subjects from preschool to the age of 25. “It turns out that a child’s ability at age 4 to pay attention and complete a task, the very skills learned in game play, were the greatest predictors of whether he or she finished college by age 25.”[xxviii]

RR7.7: The Hurried Child
Elkind frequently speaks up about how parents today are hurrying children to grow up too fast. One of the obvious ways is by making them plunge into the learning of mathematics and advanced reading that is not appropriate for their age. In The Hurried Child he states:

Advanced reading, like advanced number understanding, is quite different from beginners reading, although again our language provides no markers of the difference. We talk about children reading or not reading as if children either read or do not read. But there are many different levels of reading attainment. The young child who has memorized all of the words in a book has learned to sight read, but like learning the numbers two and three sight reading is a much easier mental activity than decoding new words using syntactic structure to infer meaning. That level of reading does not usually emerge until the age of six or seven. These levels of competence are often ignored when children are hurried…Mastering the basic skills means acquiring an enormous number of rules and learning to apply them appropriately. Hurrying children academically, therefore, ignores the enormity of the task that children face in acquiring basic math and reading skills. We need to appreciate how awesome an intellectual task learning the basics really is for children and give them the time they need to accomplish it well.[xxix]

[i] Fiese, B., & Schwartz, M. (2008). Reclaiming the family table: Mealtimes and child health and wellbeing. Social Policy Report: Giving Child and Youth Development Knowledge Away, 22(4), 1-19.

[ii] Fiese, B. H., Foley, K. P., & Spagnola, M. (2006). Routine and ritual elements in family mealtimes: Contexts for child wellbeing and family identity. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 111, 67-90.

[iii] Gillman, M. W., Rifas-Shiman, S. L., Frazier, A. L., Rockette, H. R. H., Camargo, C. A., Field, A. E., Berkey, C. S., & Colditz, G. A. (2000).  Family dinners and diet quality among older children and adolescents. Archives of Family Medicine, 9, 235-240.

[iv] CASA. (2007). The importance of family dinners III. New York: Columbia University.

[v] O’Connor, D. B., Jones, F., Conner, M., McMillan, B., & Ferguson, E. (2008). Effects of daily hassles and eating style on eating behavior. Health Psychology, 27, 20–31.

[vi] Lin, B., Guthrie, J., & Frazao, E. (1999). Quality of children’s diets at and away from home: 1994-1996. Food Review, 22, 2-10.

[vii] Fiese, Foley & Spagnola (2006), Routine and ritual elements in family mealtimes.

[viii] Beals, D. E. (2001). Eating and reading: Links between family conversations with preschoolers and later language and literacy. In D. K. Dickinson & P. O. Tabors (Eds.), Beginning literacy with language: Young children at home and school. (pp. 75-92). Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing; Fivush, R., Bohanke, J., Robertson, R., & Duke, M. (2004). Family narratives and the development of children’s emotional well-being. In M. W. Pratt & B. H. Fiese (Eds.), Family stories and the life course across time and generations (pp. 55-76). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

[ix] Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and Loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books. 194.

[x] Bowlby, J. (1988). A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development. Tavistock professional book. London: Routledge.

[xi] Rutter, M. (1995). Clinical implications of attachment concepts: Retrospect and Prospect. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 36 (4), 549-571.

[xii] Berlin, L. J., Cassidy, J., & Appleyard, K. (2008). The influence of early attachments on other relationships. In Handbook of attachment, theory, research, and clinical applications. New York: The Guilford Press.

[xiii] Pearce, J. W., & Pezzot-Pearce, T. D. (2007). Psychotherapy of abused and neglected children (2nd ed.). New York & London: Guilford Press. 17-20.

[xiv] Colin, V. L. (1991, June 28). Infant attachment: What we know now. Retrieved May 21, 2012, from Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

[xv] Menehan, K. (2006). Tiffany Field on massage research. Retrieved May 20, 2012, from Massage Magazine exploring today’s touch therapies:

[xvi] Sweeney, D. (n.d.). The Mozart effect: Classical music and your baby’s brain. Retrieved May 20, 2012, from BabyCenter:

[xvii] Putting Family First:

[xviii] Doherty, W., & Carlson, B. (n.d.). Overscheduled kids, underconnected families: The research evidence. Retrieved May 21, 2012, from Putting Family First:

[xix] Hofferth, S. L. (1999). Changes in American children’s time, 1981-1997. University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, Center Survey; Hofferth, S. L. (2001). How American children spend their time. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63, 295-308.

[xx] Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community.  New York: Simon & Schuster.

[xxi] RGA Communications, The 1995 Kentucky Fried Chicken Family Dinner Survey.

[xxii] Putnam (2000), Bowling alone.

[xxiii] Hofferth (1999), Changes in American children’s time; Hofferth (2001), How American children spend their time.

[xxiv] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (1999). Trends in the well-being of America’s children and youth, 1999. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of HHS.

[xxv] Hofferth (1999), Changes in American children’s time; Hofferth (2001), How American children spend their time.

[xxvi] Council of Economic Advisers to the President. (2000). Teens and their parents in the 21st century: An examination of trends in teen behaviour and the role of parental involvement. Washington, DC: Council of Economic Advisors to the President.

[xxvii] YMCA. (2000). Talking with teens: The YMCA parent and teen survey final report. New York: The Global Strategy Group, Inc.

[xxviii] McClelland, M. M., Acock, A. C., Piccinin, A., Rhea, S. A., & Stallings, M. C. (2012). Relations between preschool attention span-persistence and age 25 educational outcomes. Early Childhood Research Quarterly; Parker-Pope (2012, August 23), Simon says don’t use flashcards.

[xxix] Elkind (2007), The power of play, 149; Piaget, J. (1950). The moral judgement of the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.