Our findings are that parents show a shift in parental supervision during typical home distractions. Compared with parents who were not experimentally distracted, all distractions significantly reduced parental engagement and the parents’ visual attention was reduced while the parents were engaged with the computer. Additionally, parents were significantly more likely to be farther away from their child during TV and phone distractions. These findings largely support our hypotheses that parents would reduce their supervision behaviors during common home distractions. The distractions in the current study were believed to have generalizibility to the real home world of families, given the common experiences of parents talking on the phone, watching TV, or using a computer while supervising their child. This study provides a number of important advancements in explicating the role of parental supervision of preschool children during typical home distractions. In addition, this study empirically addresses methodological concerns often raised during observational investigations, which can be useful when designing future supervision investigations.
Although not statistically reliable, children increased their risk taking behaviors during distractions, except when parents were on the phone, and showed a steady increase in risk taking over time when parents were not distracted. Additionally, there was a negative relation between the variables measuring child age and risky behavior during all three time periods. Even though not systematically evaluated for this study, children who interacted with risky objects most often attempted to bring the object to a parent. Such behavior may be the result of prior parental warnings regarding the dangerousness of similar objects. It remains unclear, how many children become injured by handling objects they have been told are dangerous and attempt to move it to a safer location or to an adult. The fact that children in the No Distraction group gradually increased their risky behavior over time may indicate boredom with the simulated environment and a tendency to explore items, including risky objects initially perceived as “off limits.”
When combined across distraction groups, child risk taking behaviors during the baseline (M
= 3.1; SD
= 4.6), distraction phase (M
= 4.9; SD
= 7.9), and postphase (M
= 3.8; SD
= 6.9) indicates that children showed an average risky behavior about once every 5 min in an unfamiliar environment. Our prior observational investigations without a parent present showed a lower rate of contact with dangerous items (1.78 contacts every 15 min; Boles, Roberts, Brown, & Mayes, 2005
), which may reflect the child's belief that the environment is safer with a parent present. Additional investigations may benefit from including more postobservational interviews with children to address these cognitions.
Contrary to our hypothesis, parents’ eye contact, distance away from, and involvement with their children were not statistically related to child risk taking behaviors. This finding may be due, in part, to the belief that parents may not have considered their child's risky behaviors as actually being dangerous but rather typical child behavior, resulting in minimal systematic changes in parent behaviors. In previous research, for example, parents have reported that childhood injuries are expected during childhood and not likely to be preventable by parents (Morrongiello & Dayler, 1996
). Additionally, parents’ report of the room's risky objects and probability of their child becoming injured showed no significant association with actual supervision behaviors. This finding may show how noninjurious events, despite a danger being present, reinforces the belief that injury is unlikely and that parenting behaviors need to be modified for the environmental conditions.
After a distraction, parents made greater eye contact, were more often close to their child, and were more engaged with their child. Nonetheless, supervision behaviors were significantly intercorrelated during only the first 30 min, suggesting parents may change their supervision practices over time. Thus, the present study provides only limited support of the model of supervision behaviors from Saluja et al. (2004
) for understanding risky behaviors. In particular, parents showed no significant changes in their supervising behaviors related to their child's risky behavior. This finding is particularly striking given the tendency for children to increase risky behaviors during most parent distractions as well as across time. Moreover, during distractions, parents showed significant reductions in their ability to supervise their children, limiting the ability to provide education or to take immediate action necessary to prevent or minimize a possible injury after risky behavior. This finding also provides evidence that the manipulation was effective (and simulated real life).
Additional investigations are needed to assess the impact of environmental modifications on not only risky child behavior but also parental supervision. That is, parents may be likely to modify their supervision behaviors in terms of how close they are, how often they make direct eye contact, and how often they engage in verbal or physical interactions based on how they perceive the environmental risk as well as beliefs about typical child behavior. Clearly, this is a complex model of reciprocal interactions rather than a simple relationship of supervision → risky behavior → injuries.
Assessments regarding parents’ perceptions of child behaviors during observations may also help identify possible reasons parents’ supervision behaviors were not related to risky child behaviors. Further, additional variables such as verbal behavior and parental environmental modifications require analyses to explicate the relationship among supervising behaviors and risky child behaviors in the home environment. For instance, Morrongiello and Dawber (2000
) found that when parents observed children playing on a playground, girls received more verbalizations of concern about their behavior, while boys were given encouragement for risky behavior. Our findings also revealed parents increased their level of engagement following a distraction which may also be a factor of general parenting practices. For instance, parents who show authoritative parenting styles (e.g., high levels of structure and warmth/involvement) may also have an association with positive supervision behaviors. Future supervision investigations may benefit from the inclusion of parental assessments of parenting behaviors that impact other child–parent interactions (e.g., compliance with directions), beyond risk taking behaviors.
The present study provided initial evidence that participant knowledge in fact does not change participant behaviors in regard to socially desirable behaviors. That is, parents who were aware they were being videotaped showed no greater positive supervision behaviors (e.g., using more direct/peripheral eye contact) than parents who were informed the study was about child patience. This finding may make future observational studies, which are potentially an important methodological procedure toward validating supervision as a construct and subsequent supervision questionnaires, more likely to be conducted. Deceptive practices do not appear necessary in order to minimize socially desirable behaviors.
The limitations of the present study should be considered when evaluating the present findings. Most importantly, the observations of parents and children took place in a simulated
home environment. Although precautions were taken to help minimize this potential problem, the simulated environment might have altered some behaviors. For example, parents might have thought the room had been safety proofed before entering with their child. This potential limitation is countered, however, by the fact that 100% of parents identified dangerous items in the room, with an average of 4.75 items listed (ranging from 3 to 9). Parents in the current study were well educated and nearly all Caucasian. However, unintentional injuries remain the leading cause of death in America for individuals between the ages of 1 and 44 years, across gender, race, and economic status (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2005
). Developing the present methodology to obtain these initial findings provided a significant foundation to build on for future studies to determine generalizibility to different types of parents. In particular, there may be differential rates of supervision behaviors related to diverse backgrounds, including ethnic diversity and socioeconomic diversity. Understanding these differences is important to designing tailored interventions for at-risk populations and their associated risky behaviors.
In addition, our sample size may have limited our ability to detect some relationships, despite having adequate power for others. Although using a behavioral observation methodology can be time and labor intensive, which can limit the number of participants for feasibility reasons, additional observation-based research may benefit from using larger samples in order to test multiple numbers of hypotheses that deal with relationships that have varied effect sizes.
As supervision of children continues to be explored as a necessary construct toward identifying active-based injury prevention programs, investigations are still needed to explicate the role of not only nonverbal parent behaviors, but also the way parents interact with their environment to make supervising their children productive, manageable, and within their particular belief systems. In particular, parents potentially use a combination of parenting skills during supervision, including modifying the environment, providing verbal and physical redirections, and making continuous estimates of risk for their children for various contexts. However, given the current number of home injuries still sustained by preschool children each year, parents are likely not implementing such skills each day or recognizing the role they have in reducing the risk of injury for their child. In fact, parents still often report not being able to prevent injuries and “accidents” are merely the result of bad luck (Morrongiello & Dayler, 1996
; Morrongiello & House, 2004
). Therefore, supervision investigations must also consider how best to address such erroneous cognitive beliefs about environmental risk as well as limited knowledge on typical child development that likely impede behavioral interventions that focus only on changing behaviors. Although it is encouraging that supervision is increasingly being empirically investigated as a component of understanding unintentional injuries, much greater attention is needed on the development and assessment of comprehensive models that capture the complex nature of unintentional injuries. Only until such investigations are conducted will the most effective interventions and prevention programs be realized.