Our study brings an innovative method to research on the family life of young, preschool children (about 3 years old). Past research has shown that children’s characteristics when they start school, such as focus, persistence, and math and reading ability, can have long-ranging effects on their success in life. Families build different skills and sources of knowledge in their children in these early years, and we want to learn more about the wide range of approaches that they use.
In this study we use direct observations of parent-child interactions as a way to deepen our understanding of the early origins of, and ultimately solutions to, learning gaps. We plan to recruit a small sample of 12 families, differentiated by race and social class backgrounds, in the Princeton-Trenton, New Jersey area and conduct a close and continuous observation of family dynamics over a two-week period. Unobtrusive technologies in the form of baby cams placed strategically in participants’ homes and activated only during well-defined hours of the day and evening will constitute the primary means of data collection. We are particularly interested in children’s diet and nutrition, the amount of talking and reading parents do with their children, forms of discipline, children’s exposure to electronic “screen time,” sleep routines, and the way stress affects parenting, among other things. Data from the video ethnography will be supplemented by a series of standard survey instruments that will, among other things, permit us to assess children’s cognitive development and to compare what parents say they do with what they actually do.
We anticipate that information acquired using these newer technologies will be superior to data collected in more traditional ways, such as interviewing adults about their childrearing behaviors. The video ethnography we are proposing removes the social desirability bias that can sometimes surface in survey responses, when respondents give answers either to make themselves appear in a more favorable light or that they believe researchers want to hear. Moreover, this newer mode of data collection does not require participants to remember what happened or when. Finally, viewing families in their daily routines has the potential of serendipitously capturing events and behaviors that investigators might not have thought to ask about in standard surveys.