Mothers' Behavior Seems to Influence Child's Problem-Solving Abilities

by Beverly I. Fagot, Ph.D., and Mary Gauvain, Ph.D.


Temper tantrums are common among many 18- month-olds who get frustrated while learning new skills. If mothers become more cautious or overly critical when this happens, it could cause problems for the child later on, says new research on the role social influences play in later cognitive development.

A new study in the May issue of the American Psychological Association's (APA) journal Developmental Psychology found that a child's temperament -- difficult, moody, withdrawn, physically active -- can affect how the mother will view him/her and then have an influence on their interaction. This in turn could hinder a child's problem-solving abilities in the future.

Co-authors Beverly I. Fagot, Ph.D., and Mary Gauvain, Ph.D., found that if the mothers rated their child as difficult, their child would have more errors on laboratory performance tasks taken at 18 months and at 30 months. Disapproving behavior by the mother when the child was 30 months increased the child's likelihood of developing learning problems at age five according to kindergarten teacher ratings. Also, children whose mothers gave disapproving looks, criticized them and gave support had lower verbal and math scores on the IQ test.

Both the mother's behavior and the mother's perception of their child's temperament seemed to influence the problem-solving capacities of these children over time, said the authors. "It appears that children perceived as more difficult were more likely to give up on the problem-solving tasks. Some mothers would intervene and offer help while others would become more demanding that the child finish the task. Ultimately, these children were given less opportunity to discover strategies on their own and learn how to problems solve," said Dr. Fagot.

Drs. Fagot and Gauvain discovered this by first assessing 93 children's temperament at 18 months old and the mothers' behavior toward her child --favorable comments, smiling, criticized and harsh looks -- in the home. One year later, the mothers and children were observed while working on two problem-solving tasks in a laboratory when the children were 30 months old.

The mothers were observed offering their child help, praising him or her or disapproving of his or her performance. The children either became frustrated and didn't want to complete the task, completed the task or wandered off to another part of the room without completing the task. At five, the children were asked again to complete two other problem-solving tasks in the laboratory and take an IQ test. Their kindergarten teachers were asked to determine if any learning problems were apparent.


Article: "Mother-Child Problem Solving: Continuity Through the Early Years" by Beverly I. Fagot, Ph.D., University of Oregon and Oregon Learning Center and Mary Gauvain, Ph.D., University of California, Riverside, in Developmental Psychology, Vol. 33, No. 3.
(Full text available from the APA Public Affairs Office.)

The American Psychological Association (APA), in Washington, DC, is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 151,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 50 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 58 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance psychology as a science, as a profession and as a means of promoting human welfare.

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