Research Says It’s Better to Follow a Baby’s Lead: Attempts to Teach a Baby Can Backfire - Early Learning Nation

Research Says It’s Better to Follow a Baby’s Lead: Attempts to Teach a Baby Can Backfire

All babies need attention and stimulation. What may be surprising is how little actual instruction they need.

Given that the U.S. is now drenched with advice on how to optimize our children’s learning, language and lives, parents often feel heavy pressure to see that their kids—even at a very early age—are keeping up or even “excelling” (whatever that means for an infant). This can lead to well-intentioned but ultimately unhelpful attempts to steer the young child’s learning.

Observing this overly controlling behavior, even with babies as young as six months, lead researcher Dr. Lucy King, a psychologist specializing in developmental science, to set up a study to observe what factors might influence them to engage in intrusive behavior with their little ones. The study, “Teaching or Learning from Baby: Inducing Explicit Parenting Goals Influences Caregiver Intrusiveness,” published in the journal Developmental Psychology, found that caregivers’ goals influence their interactions with their infants and have a direct effect on intrusive, controlling behavior.

Dr. Lucy King

“Over the course of doing lots of observations of parents interacting with their babies in our labs, my colleagues and I observed that some parents engage in overly controlling, intrusive behavior, even with babies as young as 6 months,” King says. “We wondered whether that was partly due to a sense of pressure or the need to have their babies perform in a certain way.”

She added, “There’s a lot of rhetoric and advice in our society about how to help your kids develop optimally and a lot of pressure for achievement. We were interested in whether we could induce that (intrusive) behavior in the lab.”

For the experiment, 66 mothers and their 6-month-old infants participated in a 10-minute “free play” interaction, observed in two-minute segments for parental intrusiveness. Before the final segment, mothers were randomly assigned to receive instructions to focus on teaching something to their infants or learning something from them. A control group received no instruction.

Caregiving behaviors that are considered overly controlling are based on the caregiver’s agenda rather than the child’s interests and needs. This can look like taking over the focus of the play or task, interrupting the child’s exploration, or overstimulating the baby. For example, a parent might try to get the baby to understand that the little cup goes inside the big cup and be determined to instill that lesson when the baby is more interested in the cup’s mouthfeel and how it sounds when whacked on the floor.

The researchers found that manipulating the parents’ explicit goals by instructing them to teach their baby significantly increased the degree to which they exhibited intrusive behaviors. Mothers’ intrusiveness decreased when they were instructed to focus on learning something from their infants. Mothers in the control group who received no instructions had no significant change in their degree of intrusiveness.

“It can be tempting as an adult to interfere and show the child the right way to do something,” King says. “That’s how we’ve developed as adults, focusing on getting the right information and doing things correctly. But babies are in a completely different stage of life where they’re just exploring.”

The irony of this push to have the baby master the material is that it can have the opposite effect and shut down the child’s natural drive to learn and understand. Infants are full of wonder—they wonder about everything in this world that is so new to them. Their minds are eager, and their brains are elastic. In fact, the researchers write, there is evidence that young children outperform older children and adults on tasks that require cognitive flexibility. Interesting or surprising events cue their brains: There’s something new to learn here. They thrive on exploration, and when an adult interrupts that process to try and impose a lesson on them, “No, no. You need to push the button, not lick it,” it’s not so fun anymore.

Though it wasn’t the purpose of King’s study, it might relieve those stressed parents to know that their child is learning every minute of the day, and relaxing and following their lead is not only more fun, it’s also better for the baby’s development.

“In my experience of watching a lot of these interactions very carefully—we’ve videotaped hundreds of them—if the parent’s controlling behavior is intense, the child can end up checking out,” King says. “Or they get distressed and upset because it overwhelms them.”

The researchers’ findings extend far beyond the laboratory. As U.S. society experiences greater income inequality, competition increases to make certain one’s children have the competitive edge to be a success story. Our society emphasizes formal education as a primary way of determining success and even economic survival, making it unsurprising that we expect our caregivers to practice in a manner thought to promote a child’s early learning, e.g., teaching colors, numbers and social behavior expected in a school setting.

“Pressure on children to perform has continuously increased,” King says, “and we expect children to be learning really quickly at a younger age and reach a desired outcome. It’s stressful for everybody and parents worry that if they don’t push their kids to learn, they’re failing their children somehow.”

Though it wasn’t the purpose of King’s study, it might relieve those stressed parents to know that their child is learning every minute of the day, and relaxing and following their lead is not only more fun, it’s also better for the baby’s development.

Previous studies have shown that infants and toddlers who experience more intrusive caregiving have been found to have smaller vocabularies, more difficulty solving math problems, and less knowledge of colors, letters and numbers when they reach preschool than children who have been allowed to take the lead in their explorations. Other research has found that families with high socioeconomic status may be especially focused on achievement, which can lead to more intrusive interactions and unintended negative consequences.

Earlier studies focusing on the preschool age have shown that mothers engaged in more controlling interactions with their infants when they were told their child would be tested. Caregivers who were told their child’s memory would be tested engaged in more adult-centered conversations than caregivers who were told their children would be asked later about their perspective. King’s study is the first to investigate how directing parents’ goals regarding infant learning influences intrusive caregiving behavior.

Dr. Alison Gopnik argues in her 2020 study “Childhood as a solution to explore–exploit tensions,” published in The Royal Society’s Biological Sciences journal, that the “extended curious childhood” of primates, in general, and humans, in particular, provides a protected time to extract information from the environment and to explore “unlikely hypotheses.”

“Even very young human children learn by formulating and testing structured causal hypotheses about the world,” Gopnik writes, “updating them in the light of new evidence.” In other words, the baby may look like he’s just gnawing the triangle from his shape sorter toy, but in reality, he’s exploring its physical dimensions, textures and, yes, maybe even its flavor. If you leave him be or ask him questions, you can bet he’ll develop a theory about it—Hmm. Not food—after he’s tested his unlikely hypotheses.

An essential pathway to this learning-from-baby approach is our old friend turn-taking, that back-and-forth that transpires between adults and even tiny infants that has been shown to grow the “white matter” of a child’s brain. (Read more about white matter in my Early Learning Nation magazine article.)

“It may be obvious to us as adults that this is how you play with this toy with buttons,” King says. “The baby isn’t at all aware of that purpose. It’s OK for the adult to reach out and press the button and show the baby, but then take a moment to see what the baby does next with the toy rather than continue to instruct them to push the button.

“Maybe they just want to touch in different ways or pick up the toy and look at it. You can build off whatever the baby does and have fun with that back and forth.”

Sometimes, following the baby’s lead means noticing that he’s had it with these buttons and wants to go taste the triangle again. It’s all about paying attention to their cues.

Of course, King notes, there are times when instruction is essential. For safety’s sake, children can’t always lead. And sometimes, they just need to get their socks on so you can get them to child care.

“The reality is that it’s just not possible to do this all the time,” King says with a laugh. The good news is that it isn’t the end of the world if a caregiver sometimes takes control of the conversation.

“There are endless opportunities to follow their lead,” she says.

Authors of “Teaching or Learning from Baby: Inducing Explicit Parenting Goals Influences Caregiver Intrusiveness,” published in the American Psychological Association Journal, are Lucy S. King, Kaylin E. Hill, Elizabeth Rangel, Ian H. Gotlib and Kathryn L. Humphreys.

K.C. Compton worked as a reporter, editor and columnist for newspapers throughout the Rocky Mountain region for 20 years before moving to the Kansas City area as an editor for Mother Earth News. She has been in Seattle since 2016, enjoying life as a freelance and contract writer and editor.

Get the latest in early learning science, community and more:

Join us