To Understand children, their development, needs, and uniqueness is vital for parents. Each child is different not only in abilities but also in the extraordinary way that he or she sees the world. Understanding children can result in less conflict in relationships with them. Understanding is also an important part of helping children become secure and healthy people. Children are not likely to become caring, loving people if they have not experienced understanding from people who are close to them.

Critical Understand Practices

  • Observe and understand one’s children and their development.
  • Recognize how children influence and respond to what happens around them.

Examples of Specific Program Objectives for Understand

The following parent behaviors serve as examples of more specific outcome objectives based on the critical practices for Understand:

  • Describe the stages of physical, cognitive, and social development of childhood and adolescent development.
  • Understand how parents and children influence each other in different ways throughout childhood and adolescence.
  • Evaluate the reasonableness of expectations in terms of a child’s developmental level.
  • Create a developmentally appropriate environment for children that allows for movement, play, and creativity.
  • Know when children can be expected to be toilet trained, to stay at home alone, to prepare meals alone, to leave home for short periods, to go on dates, or to drive a car.
  • Understand that infants and preschoolers are naturally curious and active and that sitting quietly for a long time is unreasonable.
  • Match the difficulty of learning activities to the developmental levels of children.
  • Understand the basic needs of children: physical needs (sleep, food), emotional needs (love, acceptance, security, guidance, control, independence, and respect for self and others), social needs (friendship, companionship), intellectual needs (intellectual stimulation, thinking new thoughts), spiritual needs (the need to know that we are part of something bigger than ourselves), and creative needs (need to express self).
  • Draw on one’s own childhood experiences to respond with more compassion and understanding of children.
  • Observe and interpret children’s behavior and use that information to make adjustments in parenting behavior.
  • Understand that each child is different and unique from others.
  • Observe children and the purposes underlying their behavior (i.e., looking at their faces, watching their actions, listening to them, being attentive to their feelings, and identifying patterns of behavior).
  • Listen to nonverbal indicators as well as verbal language of children.
  • Consider external factors that affect children’s behavior.
  • Evaluate parenting behavior and use this insight to change behaviors.
  • Identify consequences of substance use and abuse (including smoking, alcohol, and drugs) for a developing fetus.
  • Identify the consequences of nutritional decisions for a developing fetus.

What We Know about Understand

Different parents have different beliefs about the causes of their children’s behavior. Mothers of only children are more likely to view their own childrearing as influential while parents of multiple children are more likely to see genetic causes as significant. Parents are also more likely to emphasize their own childrearing if the child is perceived as doing well and deny self-attribution when the child has problems. Attributing a child’s behavior to environmental forces or genetics may be self-protective for a parent but could discourage direct action by the parent to help the child (Himelstein et al., 1991).

Parents will be more effective if they are knowledgeable about their own child, child development, and childrearing. What parents know about children’s development is positively related to their skills in designing a supportive learning environment and to their ability to interact in ways that stimulate development. Providing parents with information about child development is a highly cost-effective human service that enhances the knowledge base of parents and others in the parent’s personal social network who also interact with the child (Stevens, 1984; Schmitt, 1987). In addition, being perceptive about a child’s individuality and the fit between a child’s temperament and the environment are critical for enhancing a child’s development and well-being (Lerner, 1993).

In a summary of the research, Belsky (1984) concluded that “sensitive” parenting, attuned to children’s capabilities and to the developmental tasks they face, promotes emotional security, behavioral independence, social competence, and intellectual achievement. After his examination of the literature, Powell (1991) concluded that children’s intellectual performance is better when mothers hold accurate judgments about their child’s intellectual abilities. Parents’ knowledge of difficult developmental phases can help them provide for their children’s needs while preventing abuse. Schmitt (1987) identified seven developmental problems with children that are likely to cause problems for parents: colic, awakening at night, separation anxiety, normal exploratory behavior, normal negativism, normal poor appetite, and toilet training problems. A parent’s knowledge of the range of normal child behavior and appropriate responses is very important.

Fulton et al.,(1991) found that adolescent mothers gained significant knowledge of infant development as a result of their participation in a parent education program. By the conclusion of the program, the adolescent mothers also demonstrated lower scores on a test measuring inappropriate interactions with children. Researchers concluded that knowledge of child development could prevent potential child abuse.

Cook (1991) found four parental attributes that contributed to expertise with infants: awareness of the child’s goals and needs in a problem situation; developmentally sensitive understanding of the child and developmentally appropriate childrearing responses; responsiveness to cues from the child; and providing opportunities for the child to be self-directive.

Parents use observation and comparison to understand their children. When asked about their sources of information about their children, parents will use comparisons to other children of the same age. Such comparisons may be favorable (“She’s advanced compared to other kids,” or “He’s doing what his brothers did at that age”) or unfavorable (“He can’t do what other kids can do,” or “My other kids could do that when they were her age”). These informal appraisals allow parents to conclude whether their child’s development is typical or atypical (Glascoe and MacLean, 1990).

A parent’s knowledge of child development is affected by culture, family, and generation. These systems are interdependent. A parent’s knowledge is affected by culture, family, and generation which then influences his or her behavior. For example, a mother whose family has excessively high or low expectations of children may treat her child differently from the mother who receives more appropriate expectations from her family. A mother’s knowledge is often based on her own mother’s knowledge. Parents from different cultures will respond differently to information they receive about children (Sistler and Gottfried, 1990). Cultural context does influence the way parents think about their children, their parenting goals, and values (Okagaki and Divecha, 1993).

Children thrive when the environment suits their own personal style. Children choose the environments that are most comfortable for them. Being aware of different children’s needs for stimulation may be very important for their development. One child may need a very active, stimulating environment while another (even within the same family) may thrive in a very orderly, peaceful environment. Much of the difference in styles between children is temperamental and not subject to outside change (Scarr and McCartney, 1983).

Parents who understand their children are likely to create an environment that challenges them, one that is neither boring because it expects too little nor distressing because it expects too much (Hunt and Paraskevopouls, 1980).

Difficult child temperament, especially during infancy, can undermine parental functioning. If they view their infant as having a difficult temperament, parents are likely to spend less time with them and be less responsive to their cries. Some parents may be better prepared because of their own temperament to manage children who cry frequently and react negatively to environmental stimuli (Belsky, 1984).

Parental beliefs and expectations influence a child’s experience and behavior. Phillips (1987) identified parent appraisals of a child’s academic performance as more influential in the child’s academic self-perception than even objective indicators such as report cards. Judgments of children’s performance made by parents are clearly very important to a child’s developing self-perception. The practice of labeling problem behavior may be disabling, even self-fulfilling. Such labeling may be very common in family settings (Philips, 1987; Valins and Nisbett, 1987; Harter, 1982; Covell and Abramovitch, 1987).

Several researchers found that children were likely to see themselves as the cause of parental anger but not for parental happiness, sadness, or fear. Perhaps the stresses of family living may make parental anger prominent in the child’s experience of the parent. Parents may, unfortunately, blame children more frequently for their anger than for other emotions. Children may overreact to messages of parental anger, generalizing it to broad disapproval. Such perceptions and misperceptions may maintain a damaging family cycle of misunderstanding and hurt (Harter, 1982; Covell and Abramovitch, 1987).

Publication year

DeBord, K., Bower, D., Goddard, W. H., Kirby, J., Kobbe, A. M., Myers-Walls, J. A., Mulroy, M., & Ozretich, R. A.