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Ask an Expert: Dr. Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, NYU

In the first installment of our Ask an Expert interview series, Tiggly sat down with Professor Catherine “Cathie” Tamis-LeMonda. Dr. Tamis-LeMonda holds a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from New York University. She is a Professor of Applied Psychology at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development.

Tiggly: Your work focuses on the importance of social interaction. What do children learn from engagement with other people and why is this engagement so important to childhood development?

Professor Tamis-LeMonda: Mothers, fathers, grandparents, and siblings are important to children because they typically are thought of as more expert partners. Parents, of course, have larger vocabularies than young children do, and older siblings have more knowledge and expertise than younger siblings have.

The research in developmental psychology emphasizes the point that interactions with more knowledgeable partners benefit children because they are able to use others’ knowledge to build their own knowledge. And we learn things through social interactions that are beyond what a child could learn through solitary engagement.

It’s not to say that playing alone with a toy doesn’t reap learning benefits – it does. Children learn things from turning a given toy, learning its functions, that it has a front side and a backside, that it can be banged, it can make noise, etc. – but interactions with other people provide language and other tools for understanding experiences.

We also see that children can benefit from interactions with younger siblings or younger peers as well, because if they are the ones that are doing some of the scaffolding they have to learn how to accommodate their language to different partners when someone knows more or less than they do.

Tiggly: Can kids discern that their older sibling knows more that they do or that they have more information than their younger siblings?

Professor Tamis-LeMonda: Yes, that’s understanding differences in knowledge. Determining who is skilled at what and who knows more than another person, we call that the field of social cognitive development, or just social cognition, and children are good at that.

There have been experimental studies proving the point. One example is, you put two objects in front of a small child, a toy and a book, and on the far side of the room in one corner you have the child’s parent and in another their young sibling. Even with toddlers who are just starting to walk, what you’ll see is they’ll bring the toy to their young sibling and the book to their parent.

What we learn from this experiment is that even if children can’t figure something out independently, they have an understanding that siblings and parents have different types of knowledge. The sibling might be able to help with the toy, but to figure something else out, like a book, they’ll turn to the parent, almost as though they’re attuned to what other people know and don’t know.

Many types of behaviors can be thought of as bids for assistance – you could call them social bids – and we can use them to gauge how children use others to learn or to teach.

Tiggly: Are there things parents can do to increase their impact in this area?

Professor Tamis-LeMonda: A lot of interventions with parents and people who work with parents emphasize the difference between stimulation, the amount of input you give into the child’s system, and the contingency or responsiveness of that input. That’s the area I publish on.

Being responsive to your child and attuned to your child is very important for the reason that it’s keying into when the child does or doesn’t need assistance. If the child is holding out their arm and pointing and saying “Ba, ga, da” and the parent then responds with the name of the object the child is pointing to, the child is more likely to learn the word, for what they just pointed to, than they are if the parent were looking somewhere else, were inattentive or if they hadn’t signaled, clearly, social interest in their child.

So clear attunement to your child and attending not just to vocalizations but to their gestures, to the pointing, which are communicative signals as to what they are interested in and attending to, and providing language at that time tends to benefit children and build their vocabulary.

There’s also an important difference between using plainer language and using rich language. Imagine a child is pointing at something, and you have a parent who says “oh wow, look at that! Look at that! That’s great!” That’s very responsive and positive and it makes the child feel good, but all of those words don’t build vocabulary. It’s very different from saying “that’s a grey ball!” or “that’s a blue bunny!” or “it’s hopping, it’s running.”

It’s important to provide vocabulary that are not just pronouns or orienting words – “look, see, it, that” – those kinds of words are not as fruitful for child development as actually using the adverbs, the adjectives, the nouns and the verbs. So the point is to not just respond but to respond in ways that are meaningful and that provide what we call “referential language” in my work or “didactic language” – language that’s rich in its diversity.

Tiggly: As far as using rich language goes, are there benefits to using multisyllabic words with young children?

Professor Tamis-LeMonda: It has to be geared toward the child’s developmental level. Think of a child at the emergence of language, which we typically think of as 9 months to about 18 months, when children are beginning to understand words and produce their first words and they’re experiencing a slow growth of their vocabulary.

In this stage, using very simple language is best. If you said something like, “look at the colorful, soft, velvety, green, bunny rabbit sitting on the table,” that actually makes it difficult for a child to discern your meaning at this early stage of language development. Instead, we find that very simple things at this stage like, “bunny? Yes, it’s a rabbit!” are helpful.

Naturally, what we find over the course of a child’s development is that parents increase the level of complexity of their grammar and language. You use longer sentences when children are at later stages of language development and shorter sentences in earlier stages because it makes the learning more task-easier for them.

Parents’ modulation of tone matters as well. If you’ve heard of the term child-directed-speech or “childese” or “motherese” – the benefit is that these serve to make babies more alert. You don’t do motherese with a 4-year-old – you don’t go “Yes! It’s a bunny!” in very stilting up-down tones, but we find these fluctuations and modulations do serve to help attune very young children’s attentions to language, more than they do to more conventional adult-type speech.

Tiggly: What are the key milestones in a child’s socialization process, and why is this process important to them?

Professor Tamis-LeMonda: Somewhere between 9 months to 2 years of age, infants gain in this capacity of understanding that other people are useful sources of information – that they’re reservoirs of knowledge.

Imagine if the only way you could learn was by learning by yourself, by picking objects up and turning them around – self-guided learning. Your learning in that world would be limited by your perceptual exploration of the world.

Once you understand that other people are reservoirs of knowledge that totally opens your world to learning language and learning anything new because now you have a view of “wow, I can learn what that word is from this other person.”

What you see with older kids is they start to say “what’s that? What’s that? What’s that?” In the constant questions they ask parents is a recognition that “this adult knows what that word is or what that thing does or how it works and I don’t – but what I can do is appeal for that information from the adult.”

And that’s a quicker way to learn something than trying to figure it out for yourself or just wait. Imagine you’re a child who sees a vase and you say, “What’s that?” and you get an answer – “it’s a vase” – rather than waiting until you happen to hear the word “vase” in conversation. It enables the child to actively seek information from others.

That seeking of social information begins by the time children are 18 months of age when they point to things and their parents label them, or they’ll bring an object over for the parent to open for them. What they’re starting to do is use other people as ways to build their knowledge of the world.

One of the distinctions made is between using social information and seeking social information. Using social information can be done much earlier in development – sometimes it’s called contagion.

Imagine there’s a scary animal and the parent makes a shocked expression or a fearful face. A young infant already will have social contagion: they’ll start crying, they’ll avoid the animal. And what they’re doing is they’re using that social information others are relaying. They’re linking that emotion with the object the parent was looking at to somehow see that fear is associated with that animal. So that’s using social information, and using occurs before seeking does.

Seeking is more cognitive. Seeking means, I don’t just use the information, but I recognize that other people are useful reservoirs of information so now I’m actually going to ask them.

I’m going to look at this dog I see on the street and look up to dad’s face and see if he’s smiling toward the dog or frowning toward the dog. If he’s smiling toward the dog it means it’s safe and I can approach the dog, if he’s frowning it means I shouldn’t.

But that’s an active solicitation of information. Babies transition from being able to use social information to taking a very active role in turning to others to get their advice.

Tiggly: What is the impact of digital media on this socialization process?

Professor Tamis-LeMonda: At certain ages it can be very useful, but at other ages it’s been found to be less helpful to child learning. For example, you have an e-book where you touch something and a cow goes “moo;” children are found to learn more when parents read a book to them versus when they engage with the electronic version.

One has to distinguish between interest and engagement. Just because a child shows interest in the cow by pressing the button doesn’t mean they’re engaged with it, and it’s when you’re engaged with something that you learn it. So the social interaction piece is very important.

The key is that younger children will benefit from these tools when they engage with them alongside other people who can mediate learning. The extent to which they can learn from digital media without accompaniment is highly questionable at early periods of learning.

Tiggly: Why does the child learn more from mom or dad saying “moo” than if they are able to touch it and produce the same sound?

Professor Tamis-Lamonda: There’s much more multi-modal social contingency that goes on between children and social others. People are more dynamic. They move their bodies, make facial expressions, modify how they say words, and they can pause to ensure others understand and repeat it if they don’t.

Think of a parent with a very young child who says “that’s a doggie” and the child doesn’t respond so they repeat it until the child says something to acknowledge it. In social interactions like these there’s all sorts of teaching that’s linked to a child’s facial expression and very responsive to the cues they send.

To a certain extent digital tools can be built to perform similarly, and they are becoming better at those aspects of contingency, but it will be tough to fully replace parents. There’s a lot of social contingency issues, trusted source, emotional connection, etc., that makes digital learning quite different from other types of learning.

That said, learning is multi-faceted. Certain features of learning, things like vocabulary and knowledge building, are much better with social partners. However, you learn things by manipulating objects, and there’s learning when you discover you can have an effect on an object by pressing a button. You’re learning the medium itself and to the extent that we’re a digital society there’s nothing wrong with learning how to use the medium.

There are other aspects of learning that are going on, that can certainly be beneficial, but one has to be careful that it’s not a replacement tool to social interaction, the way TVs, say, have often been used.

Tiggly: What is the most exciting or unexpected or fulfilling insight about childhood development you’ve gained through your work?

Professor Tamis-LeMonda: That’s a tough one! I could ramble on forever about a million things!

Maybe one of the larger principles – I do a lot of work on culture, on parenting in different cultural contexts. Despite the enormous variability that exists in all these exotic places, I think what’s very interesting is there’s a universal process of learning.

We all share similar features. So this notion of responsiveness and contingency as beneficial to learning is not something that’s only going to apply to a European/American middle class context, you can go to any culture anywhere on the globe and you’ll actually find that it promotes learning. Learning is a very universal phenomenon that follows very common principles no matter where you go.

When I first started doing childhood development work and I was working with white middle class families, I would explain that my research showed that this benefits kids and that benefits kids, etc., and people would always question me and say, “well, that’s because you’re looking at it through the lens of your ivory tower and maybe that works for middle class kids but why would that work for, say, Mexican kids in a rural context,” so we do a lot of work to show it does.

In fact, my argument would be, why would it be any different? Why would how you learn differ? If something promotes learning for Child A then it should promote learning for Child B – and that is in fact the case.

So if you can develop tools or digital media that are useful and shown to promote learning I would have to say they would probably be, based on universal learning principles, generalizable to any income group or any racial group or any ethnic group culturally because you’ve tapped into the learning process.

Tiggly: One of your research areas is Father Involvement. What is the impact of fathers on children’s development and how does it differ from mothers’ impact?

Professor Tamis-LeMonda: People have this notion that only mothers are going to relate to child learning or cognitive development or language development. We find just as strong effect sizes if we look at fathers and how much they predict a child’s outcome as mothers do. So people who think that “oh well, dads don’t matter,” that’s actually incredibly naïve as the correlation and magnitude effects are as strong.

What dads do is they provide unique ways of scaffolding children’s learning relative to mothers. I’ll give you one example in the area of language. Mothers, just by virtue of how much time they spend with children – even in working mom families – are more attuned to how children develop language. A child says “gah” and the mother might say, “oh, you want your pacifier” because she knows that “gah” means “pacifier.”

So now dad comes home and the child says “gah” but dad doesn’t know what the child wants, so he starts saying, “what? What do you want?” What you see is with time, if you keep prompting, kids will actually refine their utterances or their gestures or make other changes to make you understand them. All of a sudden a child might say “pah” for pacifier and dad goes “oh, you want your pacifier!”

Because they have this unique way of interacting with children, dads have been called a bridge to the outside world. What they’re doing is they’re forcing children to accommodate to a different language partner.

If kids live their lives with one person in a vacuum, they’ll only need to communicate for that person. But when we extend our social networks – and this is true of anyone who talks to a friend differently from a boss or a coworker – we have to adjust how we speak, and children do the same by engaging with fathers.

Team Tiggly