Book awards

Professor Lynne Murray and Michael Bond both win the British Psychological Society's award. Ella Rhodes reports.

A book that challenges received wisdoms about parenting, using solid research evidence, and that emphasises the benefit of what parents do naturally, has been awarded a BPS Book Award. Lynne Murray’s The Psychology of Babies is aimed at parents and the professionals who support them, as well as students of child development, and shows the importance of everyday interactions with babies from birth to the age of two.

Professor Murray (University of Reading), who is passionate about early development and social interactions in babies, said she felt a responsibility to write the book after working in the field for many years and realising evidence-based information for parents was often hidden away in the academic literature. The book covers four areas: social understanding and cooperation, attachment, self-regulation and control and cognitive development. For the book Murray filmed babies carrying out every day activities, such as playing peek-a-boo or encountering a stranger, and used these films to present photographic narratives to illustrate how babies develop and how interactions affect their behaviour.

She told The Psychologist that the first two years of a baby’s life can set the pathway a child will follow, affecting them into adulthood. She added: ‘There’s so much evidence showing babies adjust very quickly to the way they experience the world. By the age of two they’ve generally established quite clear patterns of responsiveness and interest in the world, and attachments to their key caregivers are relatively stable.’

Surprisingly, a child’s IQ by the age of two is also quite stable, Murray said: ‘It’s a good predictor of GCSE performance. Emotion regulation and control is also established in this time – if a child has developed a persistent, pervasive and aggressive pattern of responses by the age of two to three, it’s more likely they’ll show a pattern of aggression later on. Similarly, babies with early theory of mind skills by 18 months to two years, will be likely to have better social responsiveness later on. These things aren’t set it stone, but it does mean a child will be on a certain path.’

Also an extra-ordinary professor at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, where she spends a few months per year, Murray works with parents in the developing world where it is sometimes believed that babies can’t see or hear for the first few weeks. She said: ‘The realisation that they do have these abilities changes everything for parents – they start to interact with their babies and speak to them. Parents might not realise that babies are very geared up to respond to certain tones of voice and intonation patterns. I think the evidence base can help in myriad ways to support what parents do naturally.’

And this, perhaps is the key message from Murray’s book – that while parents are overwhelmed with potentially dubious information in some baby books, the evidence shows that simply interacting with your baby in an ordinary way during everyday tasks, is the best thing for a baby in many ways. She said that a ‘good enough’ parent is what babies need, and added: ‘I try to show in the book that little things going wrong can actually be quite helpful for babies. They then have the experience of things not being perfect. Actually just muddling through life in a normal way is probably better for them than having helicopter parents. That mid-range level, ordinary responsiveness is really helpful. By doing ‘ordinary’ things parents are already doing something amazing.’

Book-sharing is one of Murray’s main passions, and proceeds from her book will go to a charity she set up to support book-sharing in the developing world, the Mikhulu Trust. She said: ‘Babies can learn a lot from being read to. It is one of the very best ways to promote attention span as well as cognitive and language development, and it’s such an easy thing to incorporate into daily life.’

Murray said she was delighted to receive the BPS Book Award in the Textbook category and added: ‘I’m very glad to make what I have learned myself available to students, but I also hope that the evidence base represented in the book will be of interest, and help, to parents and the professionals who support them.’

The second book to receive a Society award, in the Popular Science category, was The Power of Others: Peer Pressure, Groupthink, and How the People Around Us Shape Everything We Do by Michael Bond. As he writes in the prologue to the book, ‘[m]uch of human behaviour is only understandable at the level of the collective’, The Power of Others examines how behaviour is influenced far more by others than we realise. Michael Bond said: ‘We like to think we’re in control of our lives, but more than 50 years of psychological research shows that most of the time we’re not. It pays to be aware of the power of groups.’

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