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Parents’ Contribution

We turn now to how parents contribute to the various developments just discussed. In what follows, I divide the coverage into the same four general headings used in the first part of this chapter: namely, early social interest and responsiveness, joint attention, social referencing, and understanding of intention. Most of the relevant studies have in fact focused on just one of these developments. As we will see, however, research suggests what we might expect: namely, that the same parental practices are important across a range of theory-of-mind outcomes.

Early Social Interest and Responsiveness

Some of the clearest evidence for the importance of parents comes when parents do not behave as parents normally do. As noted in Chapter 4, mothers who are suffering from depression often show forms of parenting that are nonoptimal in various ways, including low involvement with the child, low responsiveness to signals from the child, low levels of tactile and vocal stimulation, infrequent expressions of warmth, and a preponderance of either no affect or negative affect (Field, 2010). Furthermore, these departures from normal parenting may be evident very early, indeed from birth in many cases.

Effects of such distorted parenting may also be evident very early. Newborns of depressed mothers are less responsive to faces and voices than are newborns in general (Field, Diego, & Hernandez-Reif, 2009). They are also less responsive to other animate stimuli, such as newborn cry sounds and vocal music (Field, Hernandez-Reif, & Diego, 2011). Later in infancy children of depressed mothers show deficits in the ability to discriminate facial expressions (Bornstein, Arterberry, Mash, & Manian, 2011), and they laugh less and fuss more in interaction with their mothers (Field et al., 2007).

Variations within the range of normal parenting may also affect babies’ early social responsiveness. The Still-Face Paradigm is one source of evidence for this conclusion. Although most infants find the still-face procedure upsetting, infants vary in how upset they become and in how readily they resume normal interaction in the final phase of the procedure. One determinant of these variations is parenting behavior. The parent’s immediate behavior can be important. When the mother interacts sensitively with the infant in the initial phase of the procedure, infants show less negative affect during the still-face episode, they are more successful at regulating their affect, and they show less resistant and avoidant behavior during the reunion phase (Braungart-Rieker et al., 2014; Mesman, van IJzendoorn, & Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2009). The more long-term parent-child relation can also be important. A history of sensitive parenting by the mother is associated with less negative affect and more self-soothing in response to the still-face episodes (Tarabulsy et al., 2003). We might also expect that a history of maternal depression would affect still-face responding; research to date, however, provides a mixed picture, with negative effects in some but not all studies (Mesman et al., 2009).

The Still-Face Paradigm examines what happens when there is a disruption in the usual contingency between the infant’s behaviors and those of the mother. Another way to examine the same question is the replay task, a procedure introduced by Murray and Trevarthen (1985). The replay task contrasts infant behaviors under two conditions: a normal face-to-face interaction with the mother, and a subsequent video replay of the mother’s part of this initial interaction. The two conditions are therefore identical in maternal behavior (same smiles, same vocalizations, etc.); the difference is that in one condition the behaviors are tied to the infant’s ongoing behavior and in the other condition this contingency has disappeared. As with the Still-Face Paradigm, infants find the lack of contingency upsetting; they tend both to attend less and to smile less when the mother’s behaviors are not in synchrony with their own. And as with the Still-Face Paradigm, parenting history affects the infant’s response. Infants with a history of warm, sensitive, and responsive parenting show a clear differentiation between the two conditions, responding with more smiles, gazes, and vocalizations to the live than to the replay version of the mother; infants who lack such a parenting history show little differentiation between conditions (Markova & Legerstee, 2006). A relative lack of differentiation between live and replay is also characteristic of infants of depressed mothers (Skotheim et al., 2013).

I turn now to joint attention. Although all typically developing infants master joint attention, some do so more quickly than others, and some deploy their joint attention skills more readily and effectively than others. The question now is where such differences come from—in particular, of course, how parents contribute to their infant’s development.

Relevant evidence divides into two general categories. Some studies have explored how well general approaches to parenting, most of which have already been discussed in other contexts, can account for the emergence of joint attention. I begin with work under this heading. Other studies have concentrated on the joint attention context itself and specific experiences that may nurture infants’ understanding. This work makes up the second part of the coverage.

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