In this important chapter of the Handbook of Child Well-Being, the authors review the findings from research on the cognitive and social-emotional development of children exposed to various natural experiments in which the quality of parenting or family environment could be placed on a continuum. The authors first review findings on the social-emotional and cognitive development of children reared in institutional care. As an illustration they present two studies involved children reared in institutions in Ukraine and Greece. Worth noting is that the institutions selected were described as well-regulated, clean, with enough medical care and adequate nutrition, with the institution in Greece, a Baby Center, encouraging better rearing conditions with minimum turnover and caregivers supported to form attachment relationships to specific children. Both studies used comparison groups of children who were family reared, including some growing up in adverse family environments.
Following this the authors examine the evidence from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project where formerly institutionalized children were placed in foster care families and their development compared to children remaining in institutional care and children who had never been institutionalized. The authors then turn to adoption and present meta-analytic evidence in which the development of adoptees is compared to the development of children growing up in institutional care and in normative biological families. Finally, the influence of parenting is examined in more detail in a longitudinal adoption study in which the children were adopted shortly after birth (early adoption) and as a consequence did not experience severe early adversity (the Leiden Longitudinal Adoption Study).
The authors conclude that the findings strongly support the notion that the family environment and high quality parenting do matter for children’s well-being. They note that the lack of stable and continuous parenting in institutional care appears to have dramatic negative effects on child development and well-being, and that the major delays found in institutionally reared children’s cognitive and social-emotional development might have their roots in the experiences of structural neglect in institutions. On the other hand, the transition from institutional care to family foster care proved to be an effective intervention for children’s cognitive and social-emotional development, although the experiences of the early adversities during institutionalization had some lasting effects and resulted in incomplete catch-up in the foster children compared to their never-institutionalized peers. They note that developmental outcomes of children placed in adoptive families confirm the importance of family care experiences for children’s healthy development and well-being, with better developmental outcomes for earlier placement in adoptive families.
Finally they conclude that
plasticity of the brain is not limitless, and therefore interventions in rearing environments with substandard parenting quality should happen at the earliest possible time, either by improving standards in institutional care or – better still – by offering alternative family settings to enhance children’s well-being.”