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Maternal Contributions to the Development of Contamination Sensitivity

  • Author(s): Beebe, Heidi
  • Advisor(s): Gauvain, Mary
  • et al.

Knowing whether food and water is safe to consume, referred to as contamination sensitivity, is vital to the sustainability of our species. Children 3 years of age may have rudimentary understanding of contamination, which develops until the age of 10-12 years. Contamination sensitivity is related to biological concepts because contamination involves biological entities, such as bacteria. Sociocultural theory suggests that children learn about important concepts through social interactions and joint discussions with more experienced social partners. Biological concepts and contamination knowledge may be learned from other people, but research has not explored social contributions to the development of biological knowledge pertaining to contamination. Research suggests children learn about biological concepts through psychological concepts, such as explaining biological phenomenon (illness) using social constructs (misbehaving). This study examines whether mothers spontaneously discuss contamination concepts with their children during an interaction involving picture books, if these discussions differ by child age, and whether these interactions improve children's contamination sensitivity.

Seventy-eight mother-child dyads were divided into two child age groups, 5-year-olds and 8-year-olds. A child-only pretest and posttest involving 13 images depicting contaminated or uncontaminated food and water were presented. Children were asked if each item was safe to consume and to explain why. Three short vignettes using two dolls were used to test for the use of immanent justice. The mother-child interaction consisted of seven stories about events involving contamination (or not) based on previous research. A sociomoral story was included to examine whether mothers use immanent justice to explain potential illness when a person is misbehaving. Mother and child looked at each story separately and discussed the events of each story.

Overall, results revealed that during these interactions, mothers provide contamination related information to their children, such as making specific reference of contamination and decontamination. Mothers made very few references to immanent justice. Child age-related differences were found. Mothers demonstrated higher level biological concepts with 8-year-olds and were more encouraging of 5-year-olds. These discussions improved children's biological concepts, specifically for contaminated items. References to immanent justice and the absence of contamination were found specifically to predict children's increase in biological concepts.

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