Two longitudinal studies have provided insight into the effects of parents and the home environment on cognitive and language development in infancy and early childhood. The Harvard Preschool Project, conducted by Burton White and Jean Carew Watts (White, 1973; White et al., 1973) was initiated in 1965 to study the relationship between the quality of mothering during the second year of life and the development of children's competence during the preschool years. Detailed observations of mothers in direct interaction with their children in the home showed that mothers of more competent children

......talk a great deal to their children....They provide
access to many objects and diverse situations. They lead
the child to believe that he can expect help and encourage-
ment most, but not all the time. They demonstrate and
explain things to the child, but mostly on the child's
instigation rather than their own.....They are imaginative,
so that they make interesting associations and suggestions to
the child when opportunities present themselves. They very
skillfully and naturally strengthen the child's intrinsic
motivation to learn. They also give him a sense of task
orientation, a notion that it is desirable to do things
well and completely. (White, 1973, p. 242)

Surprisingly, the more effective mothers made little effort to actively stimulate their children. Rather, they played the role of consultant, responding to questions and requests for help in relatively brief episodes of 30 seconds or less. While sharing their children's excitement and offering advice, they avoided solving problems for their children. These mothers created a home environment that recognized the child's active role in cognitive development. They facilitated their children's exploration by providing a variety of interesting toys and by allowing the children access to most areas of the home. These mothers recognized that keeping the house clean and neat was incompatible with the toddler's curiosity and need to explore.

Similar results were reported in a second longitudinal study of parent-child interaction and cognitive development (Bradley & Caldwell, 1976, 1980; Elardo, Bradley, & Caldwell, 1977). Using an observational procedure called HOME that they had developed for studying the quality of the home environment (Caldwell & Bradley, 1984), the researchers found significant relationships between selected aspects of the home environment and later intellectual development. In general, the children whose mothers were more verbally and emotionally responsive to them between 6 and 24 months of age had higher IQs (Bradley & Caldwell, 1976) and were more advanced in language development (Elardo et al., 1977) at 3-4 years of age.

While the results of these longitudinal studies support the re active or re sponsive role of parents, other studies point to a more pro active role for parents in promoting cognitive development (Hess & Shipman, 1965; Brophy, 1970). Jere Brophy compared middle-class and working-class mothers' approaches to teaching a sorting task to their 4-year-old children. Middle-class mothers used a proactive approach that involved taking time to orient the child to the experimental task, focusing the child's attention to relevant aspects of the task, and providing appropriate labels. Working-class mothers gave brief and inadequate instructions focused on their children's errors. The middle-class mothers' proactive approach was associated with greater success in the sorting task.

These studies suggest that the opportunity for optimal cognitive and language development in the home is actively created by the enterprise of competent parents. Competent parents organize the home environment to encourage children to actively and safely explore and experiment (Wachs & Green, 1982). They are prepared to be responsive consultants and active teachers, flexibly adjusting their roles to their children's needs.


The home environment offers excellent opportunities for young children's cognitive learning but parents must be sensitive to what is enough and what is too much in promoting cognitive development at home. A noisy environment or an over-stimulating regimen of planned activities can overwhelm the child's ability to process information, with much the same effect as an under-stimulating, restrictive environment. Try to achieve a balance. Provide both educational toys and safe access to the objects and events natural to the home. Common household events such as cooking, wash dishes, or fixing a faucet provide excellent opportunities for learning concepts, if your child is an active participant and if you engage in relevant conversation during the experience.

Most important, be a good consultant to your children. Respond to their interests and motivations. Answer their questions enthusiastically, add stimulating ideas where appropriate, and avoid abstract explanations. Don't solve problems for them that they are capable of solving by themselves. Bottom Line: Promote cognitive development at home by being a good consultant rather than a teacher, and by providing a stimulating environment rather than implementing a curriculum.