Some infants are called difficult, challenging parents because they cry frequently, are very active, and may not adapt well to new situations or people. Other infants are described as easy, full of smiles, adaptable, and not very active. Conventional wisdom suggests that easy babies will do better in first grade than difficult ones. The results of a new study tell us otherwise, with the key being the type of parenting the children receive.
The study, which followed infants from birth to first grade, found that first graders who were difficult as infants and whose mothers provided excellent parenting had as good or better grades, social skills, and relationships with teachers and peers as first graders who were less difficult as infants and had excellent parenting from their mothers.
"The key to first-grade adjustment for both difficult and easy infants was good parenting," said Anne Dopkins Stright, associate professor of human development at Indiana University and the study's lead author.
The study was conducted by researchers at Indiana University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is published in the January/February 2008 issue of the journal Child Development.
The researchers followed children taking part in the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Study of Early Child Care from birth to first grade. The 1,364 families came from 10 geographic areas in the United States and included ethnic minorities (24 percent) and single mothers (14 percent).
When the children were six months old, their mothers filled out a questionnaire on their babies' temperament. Children who did not respond well to new situations and people, were very active, had intense emotions, cried a lot, and did not adapt well were classified as having difficult temperaments. The researchers observed mothers' parenting (specifically, mothers' warmth and age-appropriate control) six times from infancy to first grade.
When the children reached first grade, their teachers filled out questionnaires on the children's adjustment to school, including their academic competence; social skills such as cooperation, assertion, and self control; and relationships with teachers and peers.
The results of the study support the notion that infants may vary in the degree to which their nervous systems are sensitive to input from their surrounding environment, with more sensitive infants more likely to have difficulties, according to the researchers. Because of their more sensitive nervous systems, infants who have more difficult temperaments may be more likely to be irritable and cry more frequently. But these infants also may be more positively affected by excellent parenting and more harmed by poor parenting. And for this reason, the quality of the parenting they receive may mean more for these children's development than for other children.
"This study may have important implications for early intervention, in that early identification of difficult temperament during infancy may help to more effectively plan and implement interventions," according to Stright. "For example, physicians can identify parents who perceive their children as temperamentally difficult in infancy and refer these parents for supportive services.
"The findings also provide support for parents of difficult infants. These infants may exhaust and frustrate their parents, but with high-quality parenting, these infants may become the most academically competent and socially skilled students in the first grade, compared to infants who are easier to parent."
Data collection for the study was funded by NICHD.
Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 79, Issue 1, Infant Temperament Moderates Relations Between Maternal Parenting in Early Childhood and Children's Adjustment in First Grade by Stright, AD (Indiana University), Gallagher, KC (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill), and Kelley, K (Indiana University). Copyright 2008 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved.