Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Social Referencing Part 2 - Different Roles for Mom and Dad

Last time, we described "social referencing" behavior in older infants and toddlers. Since babies can't understand all the words that their parents' say, they learn about the world around them by watching the expressions on their parents' faces and listening to the tone of their voices. When mom and dad are happy and relaxed and their voices are soft or sing-song, babies can assume that the new toy is safe and something they will enjoy. When parents' voices are sharp and their faces reflect fear or concern, babies instinctively back off. Scientists that study babies have learned that moms and dads often differ in their interactions with their babies and that these differences influence how babies see the world. In this post, we'll share research about differences in social referencing with moms and dads. BUT, we know that these generalizations don't apply to every family.

Mom as Safe-Haven
Traditionally, women have taken on the bulk of the responsibilities for infant care. That means that for many generations, women have been responsible for feeding, changing, washing, protecting, and soothing their children. As a consequence, many babies and children tend to see their mothers as the "safe-haven" and as the source of daily routines and comfort. Mothers' emotional signals are powerful practical guides for day-to-day dos and don'ts. For example, a mom's strong negative emotions about an object may keep her toddler away from it even when mom leaves the room (don't count on this, though). Mothers tend to be quite protective, limiting babies' play and activity more than many dads would. This makes practical sense, especially if mothers have other children to watch.

Dad as Playmate
When dad is in the room, an infant or toddler will use dad as much as mom as a social reference. Dads tend to be more encouraging of wider exploration and activity than moms. When compared with playing with mom, toddlers play with dad tends to be louder and more physical. Dads tend to try to surprise their babies with new games and activities - leading to more excitement, more laughter, and more tears than when babies play with mom. This kind of play may be related to infants' development of motor skills and exploratory behavior. While looking back at his parents, a baby might see a look of concern on mom's face while dad may look excited and encouraging. Which social reference is more powerful? That would depend on the baby. With more and more dads taking on traditional care giving roles, it would be interesting to try the studies again, to see if playtime changes with dads who are providing more of the basic care for their babies and other children. Maybe some of you already know?  


1. Hirshberg LM, Svejda M. When infants look to their parents: I. Infants’ social referencing of mothers compared to fathers. Child Dev 1990; 61: 1175-86.

2. Mumme D, Fernald A, Herrera C. Infants’ responses to facial and vocal emotional signals in a social referencing paradigm. Child Dev 1996; 67: 3219-37.

3. Berger KS. The Developing Person. New York, Worth Publishers, 2003.

4. Carver LJ, Vaccaro BG. 12-month-old infants allocate increased neural resources to stimuli associated with negative adult emotion. Dev Psychol. 2007 Jan;43(1):54-69.

5. Vaish A, Striano T.Is visual reference necessary? Contributions of facial versus vocal cues in 12-month-olds' social referencing behavior. Dev Sci. 2004 Jun;7(3):261-9.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this series! I've learned a lot about social development. I too wonder what studies would find today. My husband is a stay-at-home dad and so takes on much/most of the day-to-day basic child care tasks. I have noticed that I tend to encourage our baby to explore more freely and play more physically with her than her dad does, but that may be due to our parenting personalities as well. After reading these posts, I started thinking about how peer interactions influence infants' and toddlers’ social development. My husband and I don't have many friends who have children so our 7-month old doesn't get a lot of interaction with other kiddos. I would love to see some posts about the role of peer interactions in the social development of infants and toddlers as well as some suggestions for increasing our daughter's opportunities for interactions with peers.