To become healthy and successful adults, children need to persist with tasks that they might not necessarily consider easy or fun, like studying, exercising, or brushing their teeth. Throughout childhood, persistence behaviour changes daily, but the factors that shape this variability in persistence are understudied.
Now a new study published in Child Development by US researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, Yale University and the Sante Fe Institute has analysed daily toothbrushing behaviours in three-year-old children and examined the relationship between their persistence on the task and parental praise.
“Our work is the first to show that fluctuations in parent praise relate to fluctuations in child persistence,” A/Prof Allyson Mackey said.
“We examined how variations in parent talk and stress, and child mood and sleep, separately impacted fluctuations in brushing time. “Surprisingly, parents were not able to accurately predict which variables shaped brushing in their own children.”
Families were recruited through partnerships with local preschools and through social media.
Parents submitted videos of nightly toothbrushing over 16 days, capturing both children’s persistence and parent talk.
The findings showed that children’s persistence fluctuates from day to day and is related to parent talk. Children brushed longer on days when their parents used more praise and less instruction. Parent praise during toothbrushing mostly consisted of generic praise and process (e.g. “nice” and “great job”), with few instances of person praise (e.g. “good girl”). Children varied in their sensitivity to mood, sleep, and parent stress.
“Our work provides a path towards identifying the specific factors that impact individual children’s persistence to design targeted interventions, some of which parents may not find obvious,” A/Prof Julia Leonard said.
“Our work also demonstrates a new approach to studying children’s healthy development—instead of focusing on what factors make one group of children different from another, our study asked which factors make individual children more like the best version of themselves.”