Beth Russell

Exploring Cultural Influences in Early Childhood Emotional Development

May 5, 2008
By: WSU News

Beth Russell (Psychology) has been studying parental behavior for years, most recently for her doctoral work in Human Development and Family Studies.

She studied shaken baby syndrome, which she defines as caregivers’ efforts to deal with a baby’s inconsolable crying.  “The caregivers are unable to regulate their response to this increasing emotional display,” Russell said.

This work led Russell, who is in her second year at Worcester State, to her current research question: How do parents think about their babies’ emotional lives?

To answer this question, she is using 90-minute interviews with parents of children under the age of three. During these semi-structured interviews, Russell asks open-ended questions about such practices as sleep, eating, early education and soothing.

“You can’t do paper and pencil surveys to find out how parents feel about these things,” Russell said. How parents report their thoughts has been historically dominated by paper and pencil survey methods. These don’t help parents articulate what is a complicated and subtle process of decision making.

Interviews, she notes, are our “best way of understanding the nuanced tapestry parents have to weave to take care of their children. They are the social sciences’ best methodological bet for supporting parents’ expression of the practices they use with their young children.”

During the interview, this support comes in the form of prompts, examples and a reframing of questions when parents seem unsure or less confident of their response.

Russell hopes to ferret out parents’ cultural understandings of the way the world works. Sometimes, their understandings are different from the cultural values of the larger society.

For example, in U.S. culture, there’s a value of independence, Russell said. We believe babies should get through the night alone, and therefore we do not support co-sleeping, which is a practice with a negative, positive value. “These children are perceived as clingy,” she said.

Academics might label co-sleeping as a practice that fosters interdependence. This mirrors the feelings of some parents, Russell says, for whom the practice is a positive value. “They like the closeness. They like the quiet time they have with the baby. They can provide comfort when the baby is restless,” she said.

Her 2007-08 mini-grant, “Reliability of the Parental Interview of Caregiving—Infancy,” supports this research. She has recruited 11 parents so far; her goal is 30. The mini-grant paid for a Sony Voice recorder and voice transcribing software as well as small stipends for the interviewees.

“I hope to determine the reliability of the measure of such interviews,” Russell said.  Her aim is to develop one of the very few interviews that will improve on the data collection methods in her field.

She also hopes to use her findings as the basis for a symposium on meta-parenting she will propose for the 2009 conference of the Society for Research in Child Development, which will be in Denver. 

Written by Barbara Zang, Ph.D.

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