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Parents motivated but confused about baby's first 1,000 days

Posted June 14

New parents underestimate how much a child's first year shapes his future. And they are often confused about what happens and when developmentally over the course of the first few years.

But they're motivated and eager to parent well, according to a large survey of millennial and Gen X parents sponsored by Zero to Three and the Bezos Family Foundation. Topics in the nationally representative poll ranged from child development to discipline, support networks to where to find solid parenting information.

In a press briefing Wednesday, experts explained twin challenges that can keep children from thriving: "a missing year" in crucial child development and an "expectation gap" where parents believe children are more capable than they are capable of being, which may subvert discipline.

Parents worry about discipline. Fifty-eight percent of parents said they wish they knew more effective ways to discipline their child and nearly half said they would like to better control their own emotions and reactions, while six in 10 pine for more patience.

The bottom line is simple, according to the report, "Tuning In: Parents of Young Children Speak Up About What They Think, Know and Need." Children who are well understood and nurtured reap lifelong benefits that include healthier relationships and better social and academic results. A child's first years are vital because interactions with adults "can shape brain architecture for life," the report said.

Faulty timeline

A baby's brain is busy. Research shows 700 neural connections form every second during the first 1,000 days.

But when it comes to understanding developmental milestones, "a notable portion" of parents "get it wrong by months and sometimes by years," said Claire Lerner, licensed clinical social worker and senior parenting strategist for Zero to Three.

This is the "missing first year": Parents generally know that what happens in early childhood can change a child's entire life, but they underestimate and overestimate the ages at which key developmental milestones and behaviors happen, missing opportunities to act and react in life-enhancing ways. A big part of what they miss is what happens before a baby's first birthday.

A sizable chunk of parents surveyed said the greatest time of growth and development occurs between ages 3 and 5. Science says the correct answer is between 0 and 3 years, the crucial developmental time period for which the organization is named.

• Half of parents said starting at six months, the quality of care a parent provides has "long-term impact" on a child's development. The report emphasized that impact starts at birth. Lerner said parental responsiveness is critical and the quality of care parents provide is a "powerful" indicator of a child's future success.

• Fifty-nine percent of parents said children first feel sadness or fear at a year or older; it starts as young as 3 months.

• Nearly half said a year-old child can begin to "sense and be affected by a parent's mood, such as angry or sad." It actually starts at 3 months old.

• Similarly, as early as 6 months a young brain's development can be altered by witnessing repeated violence, while parents may think babies are unaffected.

Lerner said parents underestimate, sometimes by more than a year, when kids can benefit from certain interactions like talking directly to them, that should start at birth.

But parents can also overestimate a child's development. For example, almost half the parents surveyed think children can share and take turns before age 2. It's a skill that develops between ages 3 and 4. That misunderstanding can set up unrealistic expectations and inappropriate punishment as parents mistakenly assign meaning to a child's behavior and then react based upon it. Parents may not understand that a child is not being willful or disobedient or selfish.

"The way parents approach discipline shapes the whole nature and quality of the relationship with the child," Lerner said.

The lack of awareness about what children experience and the gap between what parents expect and what kids are capable of creates what Zero to Three executive director Matthew Melmed calls "an explosive mix."

"It provides us collectively with an important role in helping parents and the public understand what babies are capable of and what they are not capable of."

Discipline

The survey found most parents view discipline as both a way to curb unwanted behavior and a way to nurture and benefit their children. But most moms and half of dads said managing a child's misbehavior is one of their greatest challenges. Another is figuring out effective discipline.

Among disciplinary methods parents said they sometimes use even though they don't believe they're very effective are yelling, put-downs, saying "because I said so," swatting, spanking and embarrassing. A third said they spank although they "don't feel OK about it." And three-fourths who spank regularly doubt its effectiveness.

When parents view behaviors in terms of a child's developmental stage and know the child is not trying to misbehave, they can approach changing behavior with empathy, in a calm, supportive and more effective way, Lerner said.

Men and women approach parenting differently. It is a "very lucky child" who has both sexes weaving his safety net, said Dr. Kyle Pruett, clinical professor in the Child Study Center at Yale School of Medicine.

Scrutinized

The vast majority of parents — 90 percent — feel others are judging how they raise their children, Melmed said during the briefing.

The survey found mothers feel judged by other parents and family members more than dads do. Dads are more likely than moms to feel judged by the child's other parent.

Lerner said that a feeling of being judged doesn't boost parental competence and it's not good for the kids, either.

"Parenting is stressful enough," said Lerner. "It's important to encourage and do what we can to come together and commiserate."

Email: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco

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