Researchers in California have uncovered preliminary evidence for the way children acquire scientific “habits of thought” from their parents. Megan Luce and her colleagues recruited 35 parent-child pairs of various ethnic backgrounds (22 girls, 13 boys; 16 fathers, 19 mothers) at a children’s museum, and videoed them as they read through a book designed to encourage discussion about scientific, social and moral issues – including global warming, gender differences, the planetary status of Pluto, and whether it is OK to steal. The children were aged from 4 to 8 years.
Parents’ comments on these topics were categorised according to whether they were “absolutist” (one side of an argument is stated dogmatically as fact), “multiplist” (a relativist stance, where each side’s view is equally valid), or “evaluativist” (a scientific stance that integrates evidence to decide on an issue).
The book also contained pages on whether germs and angels are real, and the extinction of mammoths. Here the researchers focused on the children’s utterances, and in particular on whether they mentioned evidence (e.g. “I know germs are real because I can see them under a microscope”) or requested evidence (e.g. “How do you know that’s how mammoths died?”).
The researchers found that the parents’ approach varied according to the topic, as well as their child’s age and gender. For instance, parents of girls tended to be more absolutist when talking about morals than were the parents of boys. In contrast, boys’ parents were more absolutist when talking about global warming than the parents of girls. Meanwhile, younger children were more likely to hear absolutist statements about Pluto than older children. “These findings show that children of different ages and genders may be likely to hear different patterns of absolutist talk depending on the topic,” the researchers said.
Ultimately, Luce and her colleagues were interested in how the parents’ stance towards knowledge (absolutist, multiplist or evaluativist) was related to their children’s talk about evidence. The key finding is that parents’ greater use of an evaluativist stance was strongly related to the amount that their children talked about evidence, explaining 49 per cent of the variance. Surprisingly, parents’ scientific background was not related to their child’s mentions of evidence.
“This surprising pattern of findings encourages further study of parents’ conversation as a possible mechanism for children’s developing habits of mind,” the researchers said. “Children who are familiar with ‘habits of thinking’ that focus on evidence or justifications for ‘how you know’ may resist learning new information that is not backed up by evidence.”
An obvious limitation of the study is its correlational design. There’s no conclusive evidence here that parents’ conversational style causes the children’s interest in evidence.
Luce, M., Callanan, M., and Smilovic, S. (2013). Links between parents’ epistemological stance and children’s evidence talk. Developmental Psychology, 49 (3), 454-461 DOI: 10.1037/a0031249