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Engaged and Attuned with our Children

by added on 4 December 2017, Comments Off on Engaged and Attuned with our Children , posted in Blog

By Cecile Culp Mielenz, Ph.D.
Director, Woodinville Family Preschool
Licensed Mental Health Counselor

Over 40 years ago as a young professional in the field of child development, I attended a national
conference where Dr. Ed Tronick presented his “still face” research. His video footage of babies
and their mothers attuned and engaged helped to increase emphasis on parent-infant interaction at
that time. Recently I attended the 2017 Zero to Three Annual Conference, where the keynote
speaker (and winner of the Zero to Three Lifetime Achievement Award) was Dr. Tronick. He
shared the history of his research, which was a walk down memory lane for me. Included was an
updated video explaining the still face research, which you can see here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0

Dr. Tronick’s research illustrates the vital importance to a baby’s development of parental
engagement: eye contact, soothing voice, tender touch, following the baby’s lead or interest.
However, when parents take on a “still face,” not responding to the infant in these significant ways,
the baby disregulates. Although all parents experience moments where we are not attuned to our
children, babies (and anyone!) need for us to repair those moments. This is critical for the infant’s
long-term development and mental health.

The Zero to Three Conference began with Dr. Tronick’s reminder of the vital importance of
parental engagement with children, and this theme continued throughout. The Science Plenary
presentation by Dr. Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek was titled “How High-Quality Language Environments
Create High-Quality Learning Environments.” Dr. Hirsh-Pasek is the author of the recent
publication, Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children. She
supported Dr. Tronick’s concept of the dance between parent and child, describing it as “the
language duet.” From her distillation of thousands of research studies, Dr. Hirsh-Pasek concluded
that “language is the single most important skill for children, and it begins in a social space.”
Although we have known for a long time that strong language skills form the basis for strong
reading skills, Dr. Hirsh-Pasek noted that a child’s language at school entry is the best predictor
of school outcomes in grades one and three. Language skills are even more predictive of school
success than executive function skills.

Like Dr. Tronick’s research, Dr. Hirsch-Pasek’s information stresses how important the seemingly
insignificant daily interactions are between parent and child. She described a story from the
Foundation for Child Development (2009) about “three mothers and an eggplant.” The story goes
that a mother and young child are shopping in the grocery store. The child spots an eggplant,
points, and asks the mother, “What’s that?” The mother could give three possible responses:

• You won’t like it.
• That’s eggplant. We don’t eat that.
• Oh, that’s an eggplant. It’s a purple vegetable. Isn’t it beautiful? How much does it
weigh? I love eggplant parmesan; would you like to try some today?

Although hopefully the mother isn’t rapid-firing these sentences and questions at the child, the
point is that the mother takes time to respond to something the child is interested in, building both
cognitive and language skills in her child. Dr. Hirsch-Pasek noted that the child will learn more if
we follow the child’s lead rather than asking the child to follow what we are interested in. She
used the example of a child playing with blocks and the vocabulary that can be developed as we
simply describe and comment on their activity rather than trying to get them to build what we want
to build.

Dr. Hirsch-Pasek also discussed research on the effect of cell phone use while a toddler learns a
new word through playing with the parent. She shared a video clip from the research study in
which the parent was engaged with the child, and the child began using the new vocabulary. In
the next video clip, we saw the parent turn away from the engagement when the cell phone rang.
As the mother talked on the phone, the child began to wander off to play with a toy. In this second
scenario the child lost the opportunity for vocabulary enrichment.

Both Dr. Tronick’s and Dr. Hirsch-Pasek’s research highlight the importance of simply engaging
with our children. By being fully present and attuned, we provide our children with a strong
foundation for their development, mental health, and educational success. As Dr. Hirsch-Pasek
noted, “Look at what your kids are looking at. Talk about it.” That’s it!

Many thanks to Woodinville Family Preschool for the opportunity to attend the 2017 Zero to Three
Annual Conference!

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