Tuesday, June 18 2024

Through an empirical study carried out by Nathanson and Rasmussen from Ohio
State University (USA), reading has been demonstrated to be the most
enriching activity for the mother-toddler relationship. Playing with the
child (under 3 years old) ranked as the immediate runner up.

Watching TV together, on the other hand, impoverishes the communication
between mother and child: “TV Viewing Compared to Book Reading and Toy
Playing Reduces Responsive Maternal Communication with Toddlers and
Preschoolers”, in Human Communication Research 37 (2011), pp.

Up until now, many studies have demonstrated the negative effects (on the
cognitive, educational, social, and even physical level) of excessive
television exposure for children. Naturally, there are other studies that,
on the contrary, reveal the positive effects from educational programs. In
the recent years, some studies have begun to analyze the effects of other
forms of entertainment, such as playing with toys or reading books, almost
always demonstrating positive effects of each activity. The study reported
herein is the first to confront these three types of entertainment, in
terms of communicative interaction with the purpose of learning, which
happens precisely when mother and child share the activities together.

The indicators of the experiment that measure maternal responsiveness were: the affirmation that
approves the actions of the child and encourages him to continue what he is
doing; imitation of the child’s expressions that assures him in
his use of language; description of the objects, activities, or
events that increase the knowledge of the child; the questions
that lead him to provide answers, thus building a simple “dialogue”; and
lastly, the mother’s contingent responses to the expressive
manifestations of the child that encourage or discourage him to continue
the shared activity. For example, a mother’s silence in response to a
comment, to a change of subject, or to a verbal expression of the child
before the scene of a television show would be considered an inappropriate
response because it discourages communication between them.

One would expect, at least intuitively, a greater degree of interaction,
and therefore a better communication, between mother and child when they
play together. However, the study demonstrated that the highest degree of
interaction is verified in the activity of reading a children’s
age-appropriate book together. It was already known, and has been confirmed
by empirical studies, that reading favors the acquisition of more complex
vocabulary, grammatical structures, and syntax in the everyday life of
children. The novelty of the Nathanson and Rasmussen’s study lies in their
demonstration that shared reading of a book elicits a greater maternal
responsiveness and reduces the gaps in communication with the child. In
other words, reading does not isolate those who are reading together,
unlike what occurs with television.

To what extent does the responsiveness of the mother not depend on the
child’s “linguistic competence”, rather on the activity in itself (whether
reading, playing or watching TV together)? One may suppose that the smaller
the child’s expressive capacity is, the more difficult it will be for the
mother to “maintain the train of thought”; in other words, the mother’s
“maternal responsiveness” will be decreased. The authors, however, in
analyzing the variable of the “linguistic competence” of the child,
conducted a test of the influence of this factor. It is not an important
factor: the linguistic competence of the child influences communication
only in some cases, and in different ways according to age.

About the Method

The study was conducted in the laboratory and with all the usual guarantees
on the sociological level to ensure reliability of the results. These
measures included careful choosing of the 73 mother-child pairs, who were
filmed and not advised on the purpose of the study, accurately coding the
filmed records, and selecting the indicators of “maternal response” through
the statistical studies. Moreover, the statistical treatment of the
relationship between the studied variables and the results was excellent.
The only problematic aspect, noted by the authors themselves, was that the
“artificial” conditions specific to the experiment, insofar as their
ability to elicit spontaneous behavior in the subjects analyzed, may
provoke a positive oriented response.

The results of the study, a pioneer in its field, should encourage family
educators, especially parents, to reflect upon and limit the use of
television as a form of shared entertainment; and, to find other richer
ways of communication between parent and child, like reading and playing
together. Unfortunately, studies that measure the potential impact of video
games in this relationship do not yet exist, perhaps due to their novelty
or the generational gap.


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