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The law, broadly conceived, touches the lives of increasing numbers of children in a variety of different ways. For example, legal authorities intervene when parents appear incapable of caring for their children appropriately, when parents are required to work or are incarcerated and thus must place their children in the care of others, when parents cannot agree with one another regarding the custody and care of their children following divorce, and when children have been victimized. Although legal intervention in these cases is often justified by reference to children’s best interests, the interventions themselves are seldom informed by reference to developmental theory or the results of scientific research. Indeed, political ideology and cultural values, rather than scientific knowledge, tend to guide the development of policies like those requiring parents to seek employment or job training in exchange for public support, those that emphasize family preservation rather than the removal and adoption of children who have not received adequate care from their parents, or even those that permit the prosecution of juvenile offenders as though they were adults.
That policy makers and enforcers fail to take advantage of a burgeoning and increasingly sophisticated understanding of child development is unfortunate because superior public policy and law would surely emerge if they were better informed. Researchers actually know a great deal about young children’s ability to tolerate separations or be influenced by variations in the quality of their parents’ and care providers’ behavior (R. A. Thompson, 1998). They are increasingly aware of the variability among children with respect to their vulnerability and resilience (Masten & Garmezy, 1985; Rolf, Masten, Cicchetti, Naechterlein, & Weintraub, 1990), and they have documented age-related changes in children’s awareness of their responsibility for the consequences of their actions as well as the inconsistency and fallibility of their moral and causal reasoning (Levesque, 2001; Schwartz, 2001). All of this information could be of value to policy makers and jurists.
In at least two areas, however, legal practice has been at least somewhat responsive to scientific input. I examine these two topics closely in this research paper because they illustrate both (a) how applied research and basic research by developmentalists have combined to offer compelling recommendations to those practitioners whose efforts can have crucial implications for the lives and futures of vulnerable children and (b) how slowly the insights gleaned from scientific research affect first the letter of the law and then, much later, practices in the field. In the first half of the paper I review research on the extent to which children of different ages are capable of providing detailed information about their experiences—particularly their experiences of child abuse—and the ways in which interview procedures informed by developmental research improve the quality of information provided by children about their alleged abuse. In the second half I discuss the ways in which research on parent-child relationships and on the effects of divorce create a knowledge base that can be used to guide those professionals who must make decisions about children’s living arrangements when their parents no longer live together. In both cases, we see how scholarly research can indeed inform practice in the real world, promoting children’s welfare and best interests in the process. In both cases, furthermore, close study of children’s actual experiences and performance in real-world settings (the court room, the forensic interview, the disintegrating family) has enhanced our cumulative understanding of developmental processes, often in unique ways. This point deserves emphasis because academic psychologists too often view applied research as intellectually and methodologically inferior, unlikely to enhance our broader understanding. I hope to demonstrate in this research paper how basic research and applied research can complement one another and thus that a complete understanding of developmental processes may only be obtained when we are able to learn from the close study of children in experimental, analog, and real-world contexts.
Maximizing the Informativeness of Child Sex Abuse Victims
Although sex crimes against children are alleged with some—albeit declining—frequency (L. Jones & Finkelhor, 2001; Sedlak & Broadhurst, 1996), such crimes are extremely difficult to investigate because corroborative physical or medical evidence is rarely available, leaving contradictory accounts by the alleged victims and suspects as the only available evidence. This difficulty has increased the importance of obtaining and evaluating information provided by children, and as a result many researchers have studied the capacity of young children to provide reliable and valid information about their experiences (for recent reviews, see Kuehnle, 1996; Lamb, Sternberg, Orbach, Hershkowitz, & Esplin, 1999; Memon & Bull, 1999; Milne & Bull, 1999; Poole & Lamb, 1998; Westcott, Davies, & Bull, 2002). The research summarized in this section has helped identify children’s strengths, weaknesses, and characteristics, thereby facilitating improvements in the quality of forensic interviewing and our evaluation of the information elicited from children in this way.
Factors Influencing Children’s Informativeness
Linguistic and communicative immaturity clearly make it difficult for children to describe their experiences intelligibly, especially because so many interviewers fail to recognize the gradual pace of communicative development and thus overestimate children’s linguistic capacities. The more impoverished the children’s language, the greater is the likelihood that their statements will be misinterpreted or that children will misinterpret the interviewers’ questions and purposes (King & Yuille, 1987; Perry & Wrightsman, 1991; Walker, 1999). Most children say their first word by early in the second year of life, begin to create two-word sentences by 20 months, and can draw upon an average vocabulary of 8,000 to 14,000 words by the time they are 6 years old (Carey, 1978). The vocabularies of young children are often much more limited and less descriptive than those of adults, however (Brown, 1973; Dale, 1976; de Villiers & de Villiers, 1999). Adjectival and adverbial modifiers are especially likely to be absent in their accounts, which tend to be extremely brief and sparse (Marin, Holmes, Guth, & Kovac, 1979), perhaps in part because syntactical development is so slow. Unlike adults and older children, furthermore, young children cannot draw on an array of past experiences to enrich and clarify their descriptive accounts (Johnson & Foley, 1984). In addition, children do not articulate individual sounds consistently even after they seem to have mastered them (Reich, 1986), and thus it is not uncommon for interviewers to misunderstand children’s speech. Misunderstandings occur also because children’s rapid vocabulary growth often leads adults to overestimate their linguistic capacities. Despite their apparent maturity, young children—especially preschoolers—frequently use words before they know their conventional adult meaning, use words that they do not understand, and often misunderstand some apparently simple concepts, such as “any,” “some,” “touch,” “yesterday,” and “before” (Harner, 1975; Walker, 1999).
The informativeness of conversations with children is greatly influenced by the linguistic style and the complexity of the language addressed to them by investigators. A particularly widespread problem involves compound questions, responses to which are inherently uninterpretable (Walker & Hunt, 1998), but other poorly worded questions pose problems as well. Mismatches between children’s abilities and the language addressed to them are not limited to preschoolers, furthermore. Brennan and Brennan (1988) showed that fewer than two thirds of the questions addressed to 6- to 15-yearold children during cross-examination in court were comprehensible to their peers, and lawyers seemed especially likely to overestimate the abilities of 10- to 15-year-olds. Similarly, inappropriate questioning strategies also characterize the vast majority of forensic interviews, as shown later. To make matters worse, Roberts and Lamb (1999) showed that when interviewers misrepresent what children say, they are seldom corrected, and thus the mistakes, rather than the correct information, are recalled later in the interview. Overall, as Poole and Lamb (1998, p. 155) warned, “we cannot assume that the question the child ‘heard’ was the one the adult asked. Consequently, if the child later answered a similar question differently, we could not assume that the event had not really happened or that the child was an unreliable witness.” Children’s accounts of abusive experiences are also influenced by social or pragmatic aspects of communication, particularly their expectations regarding the goals of the forensic interview. In the process of learning words and the rules for combining words into sentences, children learn how to participate in conversations and how to structure story narratives (Warren & McCloskey, 1997). Children’s conversations often lack the logical structure that adults expect, with many loose association and digressions, but individual differences are large and developmental changes rapid. Like adults, furthermore, young witnesses are typically unaware of the amount and type of information being sought by forensic investigators and are most likely to be guided by the everyday experience of conversing with adults who already know answers to the questions they ask (e.g., “What color are daddy’s shoes?”) or are interested in rather brief responses (“What did you do at the playground?”). As a result, interviewers need to communicate their needs and expectations clearly, motivating children to provide as much information as they can, and it is often valuable to train young witnesses explicitly to provide detailed narrative responses before starting to discuss the substantive issues under investigation (Saywitz, Snyder, & Nathanson, 1999; Sternberg et al., 1997). The fact that communicative clarity and careful explanation of the alleged victim’s role as a potential source of unique information can affect children’s informativeness illustrates that children can indeed remember details of their experiences, although the interviewer’s inability to elicit information and the child’s unwillingness or inability to express it may obscure the child’s ability to remember it.
Nevertheless, most doubts about the informative capacities of young witnesses focus on the presumed fallibility of their memories, although both their capacities and their weaknesses are frequently misunderstood and misrepresented.
Research on memory development suggests that as children grow older, the length, informativeness, and complexity of their recall memories increase, but the basic structure remains the same (Schneider & Bjorklund, 1998; Davies, Tarrant & Flin, 1989; Flin, Boon, Knox, & Bull, 1992; Nelson & Gruendel, 1981; Saywitz, 1988). Flin and her colleagues (1992) reported that 6-year-old children reported less information than did 9-year-old children and adults and that, like adults, 6- and 9-year-olds reported less information five months after the event. Of particular note is that the amount of incorrect information provided did not increase over time. Memory is a reconstructive process, however: Like adults, children actively work on memory traces in order to understand and organize them. Thus when children are repeatedly interviewed, as is often the case when sexual abuse has been alleged, this is likely not only to consolidate the memory (facilitating subsequent recall) but also to shape it (Ornstein, Larus, & Clubb, 1992). In a recent field study of investigative interviews, Lamb, Sternberg, and Esplin (2000) found that both delay and age affected the amount of information recalled, although in this study it was of course impossible to assess the accuracy of the children’s accounts.
In general, young children tend to provide briefer accounts of their experiences than do older children and adults, but their accounts are equivalently accurate (e.g., Goodman & Reed, 1986; Johnson & Foley, 1984; Marin et al., 1979; Oates & Shrimpton, 1991). As time passes, information is forgotten by children just as it is forgotten by adults (Flin et al., 1992). Errors of omission are much more common than errors of commission among both adults and children (Oates & Shrimpton, 1991; Steward, 1993), but the former are a special problem where children are concerned because their accounts—especially their recall narratives— are often so brief.
It is important to distinguish between memory performance and memory capacity, however. Young children’s accounts may be brief not only because their memories are poor or because their limited experiences do not provide a rich network of associations from which to draw analogies or metaphors but also because their vocabularies are much more limited and less elaborate than those of adults and because they may not be motivated to reveal what they do remember.
Whenever events recur with any regularity, both children and adults tend to blur distinctions among incidents and establish script memories (representations of averaged or typical events rather than particular incidents). Accounts based on script memories are likely to contain fewer distinctive details than are memories of discrete incidents (Nelson & Gruendel, 1981), and the passage of time between experience and recall increases the tendency to rely on scripts (MylesWorsley, Cromer, & Dodd, 1986). Scripts are useful because they help individuals to focus on and remember the important features of repetitive events or sequences while enabling them to ignore less central or repetitious elements (Nelson, 1986; Shank & Abelson, 1977). In addition, scripts may provide the temporal sequence or structure that makes the accounts of specific experiences more comprehensible.
However, scripts lead reporters to use general knowledge about a class of events to describe specific events incorrectly. For example, Ornstein, Staneck, Agosto, and Baker-Ward (2001) reported that after a 12-week delay 6-year-olds incorporated into their memory details that were typical of medical checkups but had not actually been experienced during a specific checkup. The tendency to embellish restatements of stories with items and events that were part of the children’s scripts generally declines with age (Collins, 1970; Collins & Wellman, 1982; Collins, Wellman, Keniston, & Westby, 1978), and script-based errors can be reduced by preinterview counseling or instruction (Saywitz & Snyder, 1993). Children also tend to remember unusual specific events better than specific events that are congruent with their general or script memories (Davidson, 1991).
Experimental research in the last two decades makes clear that the distinction between recall and recognition testing is crucial when evaluating children’s memory capacities and the ways in which memories are accessed (Dale, Loftus, & Rathbun, 1978; Dent, 1982, 1986; Dent & Stephenson, 1979; Goodman & Aman, 1990; Goodman, Hirschman, Hepps, & Rudy, 1991; Hutcheson, Baxter, Telfer, & Warden, 1995; Oates & Shrimpton, 1991; Peterson & Bell, 1996). These researchers have shown that when adults and children are asked to describe events from free recall (“Tell me everything you remember . . . ”), their accounts tend to be incomplete and sketchy but are likely to be very accurate. When prompted for more details using open-ended prompts like “Tell me more about that” or “And then what happened?” children often recall additional details, and their accuracy remains high. However, when interviewers prompt with focused questions—especially option-posing questions such as “Did he have a beard?” “Did he touch you with his private?” or “Did this happen in the day or in the night?”— they shift from recall to recognition testing, and the probability of error rises dramatically. Open-ended prompts encourage respondents to provide as much relevant information as they remember, whereas recognition probes focus the child on categories of information or topics of interest to the investigator and exert greater pressure to respond, whether or not the child is sure of the response, often by confirming or rejecting information provided by the interviewer. Such probes are also more likely to elicit erroneous responses from respondents who recognize details that are not remembered from the actual incident but were mentioned in previous conversations (or interviews) or are inferred from the gist of the experienced events (Brainerd & Reyna, 1996). Effective interviewers must thus maximize the opportunities for recall by offering open-ended prompts to minimize the risk of eliciting erroneous information. Recall memories are not always accurate, of course, especially when the events occurred long before the interview or when there have been opportunities for contamination (Leichtman & Ceci, 1995; Poole & Lindsay, 1995, 1996; Poole & White, 1993; Warren & Lane, 1995), but accounts based on recall memory are much more likely to be accurate than those elicited using recognition cues or prompts, regardless of the informants’ages.
Forensic investigators often dismiss the relevance of experimental research on children’s memory by arguing that the stressful nature of sexual abuse makes memories of abuse distinctlydifferent.Infact,considerablecontroversypersistsin the experimental literature concerning the effects of increased arousal or stress on the accuracy of children’s memory. Some researchers argue that stress improves children’s accuracy (Goodman, Bottoms, Schwartz-Kenney, & Rudy, 1991; Goodman, Hirschman, et al., 1991; Ochsner & Zaragoza, 1988; Steward & Steward, 1996). Steward and Steward (1996), for example, reported that children’s ratings of distress were correlated with the completeness and accuracy of their descriptions of medical examinations that they had experienced. Other researchers (Oates & Shrimpton, 1991; Ornstein, Gordon, & Larus, 1992; D. P. Peters, 1987, 1991; D. P. Peters & Hagan, 1989; Peterson & Bell, 1996;Vandermaas, 1991) reported that arousal either reduces accuracy or has no effect. In most of these studies, unfortunately, the children experienced low levels of stress, and the ability to recall central elements of experienced events was not assessed. In addition, researchers have not yet studied the effects of social support, which presumably reduces stress (Greenstock & Pipe, 1996; Moston & Engelberg, 1992).
Children are certainly more likely to remember personally meaningful and salient as opposed to meaningless items and events (see Ornstein, Gordon, et al., 1992, for a review) but this does not mean that incidents of maltreatment will necessarily be recalled better. First of all, not all incidents of sexual abuse are distinctive or traumatic, and thus the potentially facilitative effects of arousal on the process of encoding information cannot be assumed. Second, the context in which the child is asked to retrieve information about the experienced event—during interviews with a child protection service worker, a police officer, an attorney, or a judge—may be stressful regardless of whether the target event itself was (Goodman et al., 1992). Third, stress may affect memory encoding, processing, and retrieval in different ways.
Most researchers agree that the manner in which children are questioned can have profound implications for what is “remembered,” and this increases the importance of careful interviewing, particularly in light ofstudies demonstrating the deleterious (and sometimes devastating) effects of suggestion (Ceci & Bruck, 1993, 1995). Misleading or suggestive questioning can manipulate both young and old witnesses, but the very young are especially vulnerable (Ceci & Bruck, 1993). Suggestibility is a multifaceted concept that involves social, communicative, and memory processes. Children may respond inaccurately because they (a) infer that the interviewer would prefer a particular response (Ceci & Bruck, 1993), (b) do not understand the questions but are eager to be cooperative (e.g. Hughes & Grieve, 1980), (c) retrieve the most recently acquired information about the event in question although they might be able to retrieve information about the actual event if prompted to do so (Newcombe & Siegal, 1996, 1997), or (d) suffer from genuine source-monitoring confusion that prevents them from discriminating between the original event and misinformation about it (Poole & Lindsay, 1997).
Because so many processes underlie suggestibility, it is not surprising that, at first glance, research on children’s suggestibility appears to reveal a mixed and confusing picture. These apparently contradictory findings are not difficult to reconcile, however. In the studies documenting the resistance to suggestion by 3- to 4-year-olds (Goodman & Aman, 1990; Goodman, Aman, & Hirschman, 1987; Goodman, Bottoms, et al., 1991; Goodman, Wilson, Hazan, & Reed, 1989), researchers have not repeated misleading questions over a short period of time, exposed children to misleading stereotypes about target individuals, provided incentives to respond falsely, or instructed children to think about nonevents, pretend, or guess. All of these conditions increase the susceptibility to suggestion (e.g. Bruck, Ceci, Francouer, & Barr, 1995; Bruck, Ceci, Francouer, & Renick, 1995; Cassel, Roebers, & Bjorklund, 1996; Ceci, Huffman, Smith, & Loftus, 1994; Ceci, Ross, & Toglia, 1987a, 1987b; Garven, Wood, Malpass, & Shaw; 1998; King & Yuille, 1987; Leichtman & Ceci, 1995; W. C. Thompson, Clarke-Stewart, & Lepore, 1997; Toglia, Ceci, & Ross, 1989). Likewise, suggestive interviewing is most likely to be influential when the memory is not rich or recent, when the content was imagined rather than experienced, when the questions themselves are so complicated that the witness is confused, and when the interviewer appears to have such authority or status that the witness feels compelled to accept his or her implied construction of the events. By contrast, suggestions are less likely to affect children’s accounts when they pertain to central or salient details (Dent & Stephenson, 1979; Dodd & Bradshaw, 1980; King & Yuille, 1987) and when interviewers counsel children to report personally experienced events only (Poole & Lindsay, 1997). Unfortunately, little research has been conducted on suggestibility regarding memories of incidents that traumatized or affected individuals profoundly, although Goodman, Hirschman, et al. (1991) found that children who were more distressed by inoculations were less suggestible than were children who appeared less stressed by the inoculations.
Implications for Practice
As evidence regarding children’s linguistic, communicative, social, and memorial capacities and tendencies has accumulated, a surprisingly coherent international consensus has emerged concerning the ways in which children should be interviewed forensically (e.g., American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children [APSAC], 1990/1997; Bull, 1992, 1995, 1996; Fisher & Geiselman, 1992; D. P. H. Jones, 1992; Lamb, Sternberg, & Esplin, 1994, 1995, 1998; Lamb, Sternberg, et al., 1999; Memorandum of Good Practice, 1992; Poole & Lamb, 1998; Raskin & Esplin, 1991; Raskin &Yuille, 1989; Sattler, 1998). Clearly, it is possible to obtain valuable information from children, but doing so requires careful investigative procedures as well as a realistic awareness of their capacities and tendencies. In particular, experts recommend that questions and statements be worded carefully, with due consideration for the child’s age and communicative abilities. They further recommend that as much information as possible should be obtained using broad openended prompts, like the invitations defined in the next section.
When recall memory is probed using open-ended prompts, respondents attempt to provide as much relevant information as they remember; whereas when recognition is probed using focused questions, children may have to confirm or reject information or options provided by the interviewer. Such probes refocus the child on domains of interest to the investigator and exert greater pressure to respond, whether or not the respondent is sure of the response. Recognition probes are more likely to elicit erroneous responses in eyewitness contexts because of response biases (e.g., tendencies to say “yes” or “no” without reflection) and false recognition of details that were only mentioned in previous interviews or are inferred from the gist of the experienced events (Brainerd & Reyna, 1996). For these reasons, open-ended questions are assumed to yield the most information and the fewest errors in forensic contexts as well. When more focused questions, especially option-posing questions, are necessary, they should be used as sparingly as possible, and only after openended prompts have been exhausted. Suggestive and coercive questions and practices should be avoided completely. As we have just seen, all of these recommendations flow directly from the accumulating body of research—most of it conducted in laboratory analog experiments—on children’s capacities and tendencies.
Research on Investigative Interviews
Of course, consensus among experts about the manner in which interviews should be conducted does not mean that interviews are typically conducted in accordance with these recommendations, and thus my colleagues and I have undertaken a series of studies designed to determine how forensic interviews are actually conducted by social workers, investigators, and police officers in the everyday course of their work. Our research in this area has all been conducted using verbatim transcriptions of forensic interviews conducted in Israel, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Sweden by social workers, sheriffs, or police officers. For purposes of the analyses summarized here, we focused on the portion of each interview concerned with substantive issues by having coders review the transcripts and tabulate the number of new details identifying and describing individuals, objects, or actions relevant to the alleged incident. Coders also categorized each interviewer utterance, focusing particularly on four common types of utterances:
- Invitations request an open-ended response from the child. Such utterances do not delimit the child’s focus except in the most general way (e.g., “And then what happened?”).
- Directive utterances focus the child’s attention on details or aspects of the event that the child had previously mentioned. Most of these are wh-questions (e.g., “What color was that shirt?”).
- Option-posing utterances focus the child’s attention on aspects of the event that the child had not previously mentioned and prompt the child to choose among two or more possible answers (e.g., “Did you see a knife?” or “Were his clothes on or off?”).
- Suggestive utterances are stated in such a way that the interviewer strongly communicates what response is expected (“It hurt, didn’t it?”) or assumes details that have not been revealed by the child (e.g., “Did he touch your breasts or your vagina?” when the child has not mentioned being touched). Most of these utterances would be called leading by lawyers, jurists, and researchers.
Directive, option-posing, and suggestive utterances are sometimes grouped as focused questions, although they lie along a continuum of risk, varying with respect to the degree of suggestive influence they exert on children’s responses.
When used in forensic interviews, invitations consistently yield responses that are three to four times longer and three times richer in relevant details than responses to focused interviewer utterances (e.g., Lamb, Hershkowitz, Sternberg, Boat, & Everson, 1996; Lamb, Hershkowitz, Sternberg, Esplin, et al., 1996; Orbach et al., 2000; Sternberg et al., 1996). The superiority of open-ended utterances is apparent regardless of the age of the children being interviewed; unfortunately, however, focused utterances are much more common in the field than are open-ended questions. In the field sites we studied initially, for example, around 80% of the interviewer utterances were focused, whereas fewer than 6% were invitations, and the overreliance on focused questions was evident regardless of the children’s age, the nature of the offenses, the professional background of the interviewers, or the utilization of props such as anatomical dolls (Craig, Sheibe, Kircher, Raskin, & Dodd, 1999; Davies, Westcott, & Horan, 2000; Lamb, Hershkowitz, Sternberg, Boat, et al., 1996; Lamb, Hershkowitz, Sternberg, Esplin, et al., 1996; Sternberg et al., 1996; Walker & Hunt, 1998). Similar findings were obtained in diverse sites across the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Israel.
Furthermore, despite research-based warnings concerning the risks of asking option-posing and suggestive questions, analyses of investigative interviews conducted at sites in the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, and Israel all reveal that the majority of the information obtained from child victim-witnesses is typically elicited using focused questions (e.g., Aldridge & Cameron, 1999; Cederborg, Orbach, Sternberg, & Lamb, 2000; Craig et al., 1999; Davies et al., 2000; Davies & Wilson, 1997; Lamb, Hershkowitz, Sternberg, Boat, et al., 1996; Lamb, Hershkowitz, Sternberg, Esplin, et al., 1996; Lamb et al., 2000; Sternberg et al., 1996; Sternberg, Lamb, Davies, & Westcott, 2001; Walker & Hunt, 1998; Warren, Woodall, Hunt, & Perry, 1996). These descriptive data are noteworthy because they reveal widespread similarities in forensic interview practices across countries and cultures. Interview practices are at considerable variance with the practices recommended by experts and professional advisory groups from around the world. In other words, despite consistent research documenting the superiority of certain ways of obtaining information from children about their experiences, forensic interviewers continue to employ inferior and potentially dangerous practices when they interview alleged victims.
Enhancing Children’s Informativeness
Fortunately, forensic interviewers can be trained to conduct better interviews—interviews in which fewer suggestive questions are asked and in which greater proportions of the information are elicited using open-ended prompts, ideally before any focused or leading questions are asked. In one early study, Sternberg et al. (1997) had forensic interviewers train Israeli children to give narrative responses by asking them a series of open-ended questions about recent neutral events. When later questioned about alleged incidents of abuse, these children provided responses that were 2.5 times more detailed than did children who were (like children in most forensic interviews) trained to respond to focused questions in earlier discussions of neutral events. Comparable findings were obtained when similar training was given by police investigators to alleged victims in the United States (Sternberg, Lamb, Esplin, & Baradaran, 1999).
These findings prompted the development of a fully structured investigative interview protocol designed to translate empirically based research guidelines into a practical tool to be used by investigators conducting forensic interviews (Orbach et al., 2000). The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s (NICHD) investigative interview protocol covers all phases of the investigative interview and is designed to translate research-based recommendations into operational guidelines in order to enhance the retrieval of informative, complete, and accurate accounts of alleged incidents of abuse by young victim-witnesses. This is accomplished by creating a supportive interview environment (before substantive rapport building), adapting interview practices to children’s developmental levels and capabilities (e.g., minimizing linguistic complexity and avoiding interruptions), preparing children for their tasks as information providers (by clarifying the rules of communication and training children to report event-specific episodic memories), and maximizing the interviewers’reliance on utterance types (e.g., invitations) that tap children’s free recall memory. When following the protocol, interviewers maximize the use of open-ended questions and probes, introduce focused questions only after exhausting open-ended questioning modes, use option-posing questions only to obtain essential information later in the interview, and eliminate suggestive practices. Interviewers are also encouraged to use information provided by the children themselves as cues to promote further freerecall retrieval. In essence, the protocol is thus designed to maximize the amount of information elicited using recall memory prompts because information elicited in this way is more likely to be accurate. In addition, the structured interview protocol minimizes opportunities for contamination of the children’s accounts.
Analyses revealed dramatic improvements in the organization of interviews, the quality of questions asked by interviewers, and the quality of information provided by children when Israeli youth investigators followed the protocol when interviewing 50 4- to 13-year-old alleged victims of sexual abuse (Orbach et al., 2000). Almost all of the children interviewed using the structured protocol made a disclosure and provided a narrative account of the alleged abuse in response to the first invitation, and the interviewers offered more than five times as many open-ended invitations as they did in comparable interviews conducted before the structured protocol was introduced. The number of option-posing questions dropped by almost 50% as well, and much more of the information was obtained using free recall rather than investigator-directed recognition probes in the protocolguided interviews. Children in the protocol condition provided proportionally more of the total number of details in their first narrative response than did children in the nonprotocol condition, and they also provided significantly more information before being asked the first option-posing question. More of the details they provided were elicited by openended prompts, whereas fewer were elicited by directive, option-posing, and suggestive utterances. Although this was not studied systematically, the interviewers using the NICHD interview protocol also became better critics of their own and of their colleagues’ interviews.
Similar results were obtained when investigative interviews conducted by police officers in the western United States were studied (Sternberg, Lamb, Esplin, Orbach, & Hershkowitz, 2002; Sternberg, Lamb, Orbach, Esplin, & Mitchell, 2001). In addition to being better organized, interviewers using the structured protocol used more openended prompts and fewer option-posing and suggestive questions than in the comparison (baseline) interviews. In the baseline condition, only 10% of the interviewers’ questions were invitations, whereas in the protocol interviews a third of the interviewers’ questions were invitations. The total amount of information elicited from free recall memory also increased dramatically; whereas only 16% of the information was elicited using free recall in the preprotocol interviews, about half of the information was obtained using free recall in the protocol interviews. The protocol also reduced the use of directive, option-posing, and suggestive prompts. In the baseline interviews, 41% of the information was obtained using option-posing and suggestive questions compared with 24% in the protocol interviews. Furthermore, this pattern of results was similar regardless of the children’s age. Although younger children provided shorter and less detailed responses than did older children, analyses of interviews with 4- to 6year-old children revealed that the interviewers relied heavily on invitations (34% of their questions) and succeeded in eliciting a substantial amount of information (49% of the total) using free-recall prompts.
To further clarify the ability of preschoolers to address open-ended questions, Lamb et al. (2002) studied forensic interviews of 130 4- to 8-year-olds. Like Sternberg et al. (2001), they showed clearly that children as young as 4 years of age can indeed provide substantial amounts of information about alleged abuse in response to open-ended questions included in well-structured and planned forensic interviews. On average, one half of the information provided by the children came in response to open-ended utterances. Even though the older children reported more details in total and in response to the average invitation than the younger children did, furthermore, the proportion of invitations eliciting new details did not change, suggesting that preschoolers are not uniquely incapable of responding to open-ended prompts. As in other studies, more forensically relevant details were elicited by individual invitations than by other types of utterances at all ages. Because both laboratory analog and field studies consistently show that the information provided in response to invitations is more likely to be accurate, these results suggested that open-ended invitations are superior investigative tools regardless of the interviewees’ ages.
Lamb et al. (2002) found that many interviewers made effective use of cued invitations (e.g., “You said that he touched your vagina; tell me more about that”) rather than risky focused questions (“So did he put his finger in your vagina?”). An interesting point is that action-based cues (“Tell me more about him touching you”) were consistently more effective than were time-segmenting cues (e.g., “Tell me more about what happened after he came into the room”) at all ages. Developmental improvements were especially dramatic with respect to time-segmenting cues, however, and these were extremely effective when addressed to 8-yearolds. With younger children, by contrast, Bibliography: to actions already mentioned by the child proved more effective, presumably because such cues are less cognitively demanding than cues that required awareness of temporal sequences. At all ages, furthermore, more information would likely have been elicited if the interviewers had made greater use of cued invitations.
Clearly, forensic interviewers need to provide children of all ages with opportunities to recall information in response to open-ended prompts before assuming that special (i.e., more risky) interview techniques are needed. This admonition is important especially in light of repeated demonstrations that younger children are more likely than older children to give inaccurate responses to yes-no questions (Brady, Poole, Warren, & Jones, 1999), to respond affirmatively to misleading questions about nonexperienced events (Poole & Lindsay, 1998), and to acquiesce to suggestions (e.g., Cassel et al., 1996; Ceci & Huffman, 1997; Ceci et al., 1987b; Robinson & Briggs, 1997). Risky questions are even riskier when addressed to children aged 6 and under, and forensic investigators must thus make special efforts to maximize the amounts of information elicited from such children using less risky, open-ended prompts.
These findings are particularly encouraging in light of the difficulties that interviewers frequently encounter when interviewing young children, and they illustrate the ways in which applied research can sometimes raise doubts about the interpretation and generalization of the results obtained in experimental laboratory analog settings. In this instance, students of memory and communicative development had long believed that preschoolers were incapable of providing narrative responses to invitations (Bourg et al., 1996; Hewitt, 1999; Kuehnle, 1996). The field research has demonstrated, however, that when invitations are carefully formulated and children are appropriately prepared for their role as informants, even very young children are capable of providing detailed responses to narrative questions. Through a combination of applied and basic research, it has thus been possible to enhance our understanding both of normative developmental processes and of the forensic interview process. In addition, careful research has made it possible to enhance the value of children’s testimony in ways that should enable law enforcement, child protection, and judicial agencies to protect children better from further maltreatment.
Studies demonstrating that children can be much more useful informants when they are effectively interviewed have also documented how difficult it is to alter the ways in which forensic interviewers typically perform. As noted earlier, professional consensus regarding the ways in which children should be interviewed did not translate into changes in interviewers’behavior even when they knew what they should do and believed that they were following these recommendations (Aldridge & Cameron, 1999; Warren et al., 1999). My colleagues and I have demonstrated that improvements occurred only when forensic interviewers reviewed transcripts of their interviews and received critical feedback from expert consultants and fellow interviewers (Lamb, Sternberg, Orbach, Hershkowitz, et al., 2002). Somewhat disconcertingly, furthermore, improvements derived from this close monitoring and feedback rapidly diminished when the interviewers stopped attending regular feedback sessions (Lamb, Sternberg, Orbach, Esplin, & Mitchell, 2002). Within six months after the training/supervision ended, police officers in the United States were conducting forensic interviews that resembled their original interviews more than the interviews conducted with the assistance of the NICHD interview protocol and the expert feedback.
Protecting the Children of Divorce
Researchers can also offer scientific advice to legal practitioners grappling with complex issues while attempting to ensure that children are protected and well cared for when their parents divorce. Although the rates of divorce have leveled recently, about half of the children in America are still likely to experience the separation of their parents before they reach adulthood, and most of them will experience the loss of meaningful contact with their fathers. Common sense and scientific research tell us that these experiences are likely to have psychological costs.
There is substantial consensus that children are better off psychologically and developmentally in two- rather than oneparent families (see reviews by Amato, 2000; Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1997, 1999; Lamb, 1999; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994; McLanahan & Teitler, 1999). As these reviewers have shown, children growing up in fatherless families are disadvantaged relative to peers growing up in two-parent families with respect to psychosocial adjustment, behavior and achievement at school, educational attainment, employment trajectories, income generation, involvement in antisocial and even criminal behavior, and the ability to establish and maintain intimate relationships. For researchers, of course, it is important to determine why these differences emerge.
The Development of Infant-Parent Attachments
The effects are best understood in the context of normative developmental processes. Scholars have long recognized that the attachments formed to parents are among the most critical achievements of the first year of life (Bowlby, 1969). Bowlby (1969) proposed that there is a sensitive period during which attachments are most easily formed, and early research on adoptions lent support to this belief (Yarrow & Goodwin, 1973) even though scholars have come to believe that the sensitive period is actually quite extensive (Rutter, 1972).
Attachment formation depends on reciprocal interactive processes that foster the infants’ ability to discriminate their parents from others and to develop emotional relationships with their parents. These relationships or attachments are consolidated by the middle of the first year of life and are characterized by the onset of separation anxiety and separation protest (Ainsworth, 1969). Infants who receive sensitive, responsive care from familiar adults in the course of feeding, holding, talking, playing, soothing, and being physically close become securely attached to them (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978; DeWolff & van IJzendoorn, 1997; R. A. Thompson, 1998). Even adequate levels of responsive parenting foster the formation of infant-parent attachments, although some of these relationships may be insecure. Children are nonetheless better off with insecure attachments than without attachment relationships because these enduring ties play essential formative roles in later social and emotional functioning. Infant-parent attachments promote a sense of security, the beginnings of self-confidence, and the development of trust in other human beings (Ainsworth et al., 1978; Lamb, 1981).
Most infants form meaningful attachments to both of their parents at roughly the same age (6 to 7 months; see Lamb, 1997a, in press a, for reviews) even though most fathers in our culture spend less time with their infants than mothers do (Pleck, 1997). This indicates that the amount of time spent together is not the only factor affecting the development of attachments, although some threshold level of interaction is necessary. Rather, opportunities for regular interaction, even when the bouts themselves are brief, appear sufficient. Most infants come to prefer the parents who take primary responsibility for their care (typically their mothers), but this does not meanthatrelationshipswiththeirfathersareunimportant.The preference for primary caretakers appears to diminish with age and by 18 months has often disappeared.After this age, in fact, many infants seem to prefer their fathers, especially in emotionally undemanding situations. There is no evidence that the amount of time infants spend with their two parents affects the security of either attachment relationship.
Although some studies of both infant-mother and infantfather attachment fail to reveal significant associations between the quality of parental behaviors and the security of infant-parent attachment, meta-analyses reveal that in both cases the quality of parental behavior is reliably associated with the security of infant-parent attachment (DeWolff & Van IJzendoorn, 1997; Van IJzendoorn & DeWolff, 1997). The association between the quality of paternal behavior and the quality of infant-father attachment appears to be weaker than the parallel association between maternal behavior and the security of infant-mother attachment, however. In neither case does the quality of parental behavior explain more than a small proportion of the variance in the security of attachment, although the quality of maternal and paternal behavior and of both mother- and father-child interaction remains the most reliable correlate of individual differences in psychological, social, and cognitive adjustment in infancy, as well as in later childhood (R. A. Thompson, 1998). Not surprisingly, therefore, children in both two- and one-parent families appear better adjusted when they enjoy warm positive relationships with two actively involved parents (Amato & Gilbreth, 1999; Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1999; Lamb, 1999b, 2002b; R. A. Thompson & Laible, 1999).
The empirical literature also shows that infants and toddlers need regular interaction with their attachment figures in order to foster and maintain the relationships (Lamb, 2002a; Lamb, Bornstein, & Teti, 2002). Extended separations from either parent are undesirable because they unduly stress developing attachment relationships (Bowlby, 1973). In addition, infants need to interact with both parents in a variety of contexts (feeding, playing, diapering, soothing, putting to bed, etc.) to ensure that the relationships are consolidated and strengthened. In the absence of such opportunities for regular interaction across a broad range of contexts, infant-parent relationships fail to develop and may instead weaken. For the same reason, it is extremely difficult to reestablish relationships between infants or young children and their parents when these have been disrupted. Instead, it is considerably better to avoid such disruptions in the first place.
In general, relationships with parents play a crucial role in shaping children’s social, emotional, personal, and cognitive development (Lamb, Hwang, Ketterlinus, & Fracasso, 1999), and there is a substantial literature documenting the adverse effects of disrupted parent-child relationships on children’s development and adjustment. Children who are deprived of meaningful relationships with one of their parents are at greater risk psychosocially, even when they are able to maintain relationships with their other parents (Amato, 2000; Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1997, 1999; Lamb, 1999; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994; McLanahan & Teitler, 1999). Stated differently, there is substantial evidence that children are more likely to attain their psychological potential when they are able to develop and maintain meaningful relationships with both of their parents, whether or not the two parents live together. If the parents lived together prior to the separation and the relationships with both parents were of at least adequate quality and supportiveness, the central challenge is to maintain both infant-parent attachments after separation or divorce.
Maintaining Relationships With Parents Who Live Apart
Influenced by Freud (e.g., 1954) and others following in his tradition (e.g., Spitz, 1965), developmental psychologists initially focused exclusively on mothers and infants, presuming fathers to be quite peripheral and unnecessary to children’s development and psychological adjustment. When parents separated, therefore, neoanalysts emphasized the importance of continuity in the relationships between infants and mothers, with children living with their mothers and having limited contact with their fathers (Goldstein, Freud, & Solnit, 1973). When such recommendations were implemented, infants or toddlers who were accustomed to seeing both parents each day abruptly began seeing one parent, usually their fathers, only once every week (or two weeks) for a few hours. Such arrangements were often represented by professionals as being “in the best interests” of the child due to the mistaken belief, based on Freud’s (1948) and Bowlby’s (1969) speculation, that infants had only one significant or primary attachment. The resulting custody arrangements sacrificed continuity in infant-father relationships, with long-term socioemotional and economic consequences for children.
Very large research literatures now document the adverse effects of severed father-child relationships as well as the positive contributions that nonresidential fathers can make to their children’s development (see Lamb, 1999, 2002b, for reviews). It is thus preferable to seek arrangements that preserve the continuity of relationships with both parents. The quality of the relationships between both parents and their children remains important in the majority of divorcing families, just as in the majority of two-parent families. Unfortunately, however, most contemporary custody and visitation decrees do not foster the maintenance of relationships between children and their noncustodial parents (e.g., Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992; H. E. Peters, 1997). Furthermore, initially restrictive awards are typically followed by declining levels of paternal involvement over time, with increasing numbers of children having less and less contact with their noncustodial parents as time goes by (Furstenberg & Cherlin, 1991; Furstenberg, Nord, Peterson, & Zill, 1983). To the extent that contact is beneficial, of course, such data suggest that many children are placed at risk by the withdrawal or apparent disappearance of their noncustodial fathers. Many fathers drift away from their children after divorce, perhaps because they are deprived of the opportunity to be parents rather than visitors. Most noncustodial parents are awarded visitation, and they function as visitors, taking their children to the zoo, to movies, to dinner, and to other special activities in much the same way that grandparents or uncles and aunts behave. Children may well enjoy these excursions and may not regret the respite from arguments about getting homework done, getting their rooms cleaned up, behaving politely, going to bed on time, and getting ready for school, but the exclusion of fathers from these everyday tribulations is crucial, ultimately transforming the fathers’ roles and making these men increasingly irrelevant to their children’s lives, socialization, and development. Many men describe this as a sufficiently painful experience that they feel excluded from and pushed out of their children’s lives (Clark & McKenry, 1997). Among the experts who drafted a recent consensus statement on the effects of divorce and custody arrangements on children’s welfare and adjustment, there was agreement that parents not only need to spend adequate amounts of time with their children, but also need to be involved in a diverse array of activities with their children:
To maintain high-quality relationships with their children, parents need to have sufficiently extensive and regular interactions with them, but the amount of time involved is usually less important than the quality of the interaction that it fosters. Time distribution arrangements that ensure the involvement of both parents in important aspects of their children’s everyday lives and routines . . . are likely to keep nonresidential parents playing psychologically important and central roles in the lives of their children. (Lamb, Sternberg, & Thompson, 1997, p. 400)
The ideal situation is one in which children have opportunities to interact with both parents every day or every other day in a variety of functional contexts (feeding, play, discipline, basic care, limit setting, putting to bed, etc.). The evening and overnight periods (like extended days with naptimes) with nonresidential parents are especially important psychologically for infants, toddlers, and young children. They provide opportunities for crucial social interactions and nurturing activities, including bathing, soothing hurts and anxieties, bedtime rituals, comforting in the middle of the night, and the reassurance and security of snuggling in the morning that one- to two-hour-long visits cannot provide. Theseeverydayactivitiespromoteandmaintaintrustandconfidence in the parents while deepening and strengthening child-parent attachments, and thus they need to be both encouraged when decisions about custody and access are made.
One implication is that even young children should spend overnight periods with both parents, even though neoanalysts have long counseled against this. As Warshak (2000) pointed out, the prohibition of overnight “visitation” has been justified by prejudices and beliefs rather than by any empirical evidence. As noted here, however, parents who are not allowed overnight periods with their children are excluded from an important array of activities, and the strength or depth of their relationships suffer as a result. Again, empirical research on normative child development can guide the design of policies that promote better child adjustment, even in the face of the stresses imposed by parental separation and divorce. To minimize the deleterious impact of extended separations from either parent, furthermore, attachment theory tells us there should be more frequent transitions than would perhaps be desirable with older children. To be responsive to the infant’s psychological needs, in other words, the parenting schedules adopted for children under age 2 or 3 years should actually involve more transitions, rather than fewer, to ensure the continuity of both relationships and to promote the child’s security and comfort during a potentially stressful period. From the third year of life, the ability to tolerate longer separations begins to increase, so most toddlers can manage two consecutive overnights with each parent without stress. Schedules involving separations spanning longer blocks of time, such as 5 to 7 days, should be avoided, as children this age may still become upset when separated from either parent for too long.
Interestingly, psychologists have long recognized the need to minimize the length of separations from attachment figures when devising parenting plans, but they have typically focused only on separations from mothers, thereby revealing their presumption that young children are not meaningfully attached to their fathers. To the extent that children are attached to both of their parents, however, separations from both parents are stressful and at minimum generate psychic pain. As a result, parenting plans that allow children to see their fathers “every Wednesday evening and every other weekend” clearly fail to recognize the adverse consequences of weeklong separations from noncustodial parents. It is little wonder that such arrangements lead to attenuation of the relationships between noncustodial parents and their children.
The adverse long-term effects of divorce on children appear to be associated with the disruption of one or both of the child-parent relationships, typically the father-child relationship, and it is important to recognize that divorce is associated with a number of other adverse circumstances as well. First, the family’s financial status is adversely affected by the loss of a major source of income, usually the principal breadwinner. Even in the best of circumstances, furthermore, it is more expensive to maintain two households than one, and the standards of living thus tend to decline. Second, because mothers need to work more extensively outside the home when their partners leave, adults are less likely to be present, and the supervision and guidance of children becomes less intensive and reliable in one- than in two-parent families. Fourth, conflict between the parents commonly precedes or emerges during the divorce process. Fifth, single parenthood is associated with a variety of social and financial stresses with which individuals must cope, largely on their own.
Researchers have shown that all of these factors have adverse effects on children’s adjustment, and it is thus not surprising to find that the co-occurrence of these factors at the time of divorce has adverse consequences for children (Amato, 2000; Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 1997, 1999; Lamb, 2002b; McLanahan & Teitler, 1999). Less clear are the specific processes by which these effects are mediated, yet an understanding of how divorce and custody arrangements affect child development is absolutely crucial if we as a society are to minimize or reverse the adverse effects of divorce on children. Stepparenthood and remarriage further complicate efforts to understand the effects of diverse postdivorce custody arrangements on child well-being because these shape family dynamics and child adjustment in complex ways (Hanson, McLanahan, & Thomson, 1996; Hetherington & Henderson, 1997).
As Amato (1993, 2000; Amato & Gilbreth, 1997) showed with particular clarity, the associations between father absence or postdivorce father-child contact and their contrasting effects on child adjustment after divorce are much weaker than one might expect. In part this may well reflect variation in the exposure to the other pathogenic circumstances described earlier, but it likely reflects the diverse types of father-child relationships represented in the samples studied, with abusive, incompetent, or disinterested fathers likely to have much different effects than devoted, committed, and sensitive fathers. In addition, high-quality contacts between fathers and children are surely more beneficial than encounters that lack breadth and intensity. Consistent with this, Amato and Gilbreth (1997) reported following a metaanalysis that children’s well-being was significantly enhanced when their relationships with nonresidential fathers were positive and when the nonresidential fathers engaged in active parenting. As explained earlier, most children do not simply need more contact, but rather contact of an extent and type sufficient to potentiate rich and multifaceted parentchild relationships. Clearly, then, postdivorce arrangements should specifically seek to maximize positive and meaningful paternal involvement because regular but superficial contact appears unlikely to promote either the maintenance of relationships between noncustodial fathers and their children or the children’s psychological adjustment and well-being.
Of course, several factors affect the development of children when parents divorce, including the level of involvement and quality of relationships between residential or custodial parents and their children, the level of involvement and quality of the relationships between nonresidential parents and their children, the amount of conflict between the two parents, the amount of conflict between the children and their parents, and the socioeconomic circumstances in which the children reside. These factors are interrelated, however, and in the absence of intensive and reliable longitudinal data, it is difficult either to discern casual relationships unambiguously or to establish the relative importance of different factors. In addition, these factors may operate together in complex ways, such that, for example, contact with noncustodial parents may not have the same positive effect on children when there is substantial conflict between the parents that it is does when levels of conflict are lower (Johnston, Kline, & Tschann, 1989).
Because high conflict is associated with poorer child outcomes following divorce (Johnston, 1994; Kelly, 2000; Maccoby & Mnookin, 1992), it is preferable that interparental conflict be avoided, but it is important to understand how high conflict is conceptualized in the relevant research because the findings are often misunderstood. Almost by definition, of course, custody and access disputes involve conflict, but it is clear that such conflict in and of itself is not necessarily harmful. Conflict localized around the time of divorce is regrettable but is unlikely to have adverse effects on the children, and its occurrence should not be used to justify restrictions on the children’s access to either of the parents. The high conflict found harmful by researchers such as Johnston (1994) typically involved repeated incidents of spousal violence and verbal aggression and continued at intense levels for extended periods of time, often in front of the children.As a result, Johnston emphasized the importance of continued relationships with both parents except in those relatively uncommon circumstances in which intense, protracted conflict occurs and persists.
If noncustodial parents are to maintain and strengthen relationships with their children, they need to participate in a range of everyday activities that allow them to function as parents rather than simply as regular, genial visitors. Unfortunately, those constructing custody and visitation awards do not always appear to understand what sort of interaction is needed to consolidate and maintain parent-child relationships; as a result, their decisions seldom ensure either sufficient amounts of time or adequate distributions of that time (overnight and across both school and nonschool days) to promote healthy parent-child relationships. The statistics popularized by Furstenberg and Cherlin (1991) may show fathers drifting away largely because they no longer have the opportunities to function as fathers in relation to their children and because decision makers have failed to recognize the knowledge of children’s needs and developmental trajectories that has been compiled over the last few decades of intensive research. In this case, research on normative developmental processes, supplemented by the results of descriptive studies designed to elucidate the effects of divorce and various access arrangements on child development, have combined to identify the deficiencies of common practices and to articulate ways in which child adjustment could be promoted.
Conclusions and Recommendations for Research, Policy, and Practice
When developmental psychology emerged as a distinct subdiscipline about a century ago, it focused very heavily on applied issues, with prominent scholars offering generous and often definitive advice to parents, pediatricians, and teachers (Clarke-Stewart, 1998; Sears, 1975). By the middle of the century, however, many psychologists shifted their focus to basic research questions, often implying in the process that the concern with applied issues made developmental psychology less credible as a science. Today, we see a new appreciation of applied research, which may provide a forum for meaningful contributions to children’s welfare and at the same time permit insight into normative developmental processes that could not be obtained by conducting basic research alone.
Both of the topics discussed in this research paper illustrate well the multifaceted value of applied developmental science. In one instance, basic research on the development of memory, communication, and social perceptions allowed researchers to devise and implement forensic interview processes that greatly improved the informativeness of child witnesses. Research on investigative interviews in turn fostered an enhanced understanding of basic developmental processes, such as the richness and reliability of children’s memories, and we can expect these lessons to affect many aspects of research in the years ahead.
Developmental psychologists have learned a great deal about memory development from experimental research, and many of those findings (e.g., those concerning the superior accuracy of information obtained using recall rather than recognition prompts) clearly apply outside the experimental laboratory. There are limitations to the validity and generalizability of experimental research, however. The memorableness of experiences varies depending on the salience and meaningfulness of those experiences: Experienced events are not the same as nonsense syllables or tokens, and the motivation to remember or recall information or events clearly influences the amount of information retrieved. Only through field studies of forensic interviews have researchers come to recognize how much young children can recall when the importance of complete reporting is stressed and when they are urged in diverse ways to recount detailed episodic information, not simply asked a single question (“Can you tell me what happened?”). Both laboratory analog and field studies of these processeshaveclearlyadvancedourunderstandingofmemory development more generally (Lamb & Thierry, in press).
Meanwhile, basic research on early social development and descriptive research on the multifaceted correlates of divorce have together yielded a clearer understanding of the ways in which divorce affects children. This has in turn helped us to understand better the multidetermined complexity of socialization processes while offering legal practitioners practical advice regarding ways in which they can minimize the adverse effects of divorce on child development. In particular, psychologists have been reminded how complex the socialization process really is. In order to make their studies interpretable and manageable, researchers have tended to oversimplify, typically focusing on single issues, such as early experiences or mother-child relationships. The literature reviewed in this research paper makes clear not only that children are shaped by relationships with both of their parents (and others) but also that these are dynamic relationships that must be nourished through continuing interactions in order to ensure that the benefits continue to flow. Many other social relationships, as well as many other social, emotional, and cognitive experiences, shape development as well. Furthermore, children are not inoculated from psychological harm by positive early experiences—their susceptibility to influence and change continues throughout the life span. This fact notwithstanding, the burgeoning literature on divorce and its effects underscores the resilience of many children and the fact that children can thrive in diverse contexts, some of which would appear pathogenic.
The research on forensic interviews of alleged abuse victims has clear implications for policy and practice. In particular, researchers have shown that children are capable of providing considerable amounts of forensically valuable information about their experiences, provided that they are carefully interviewed by investigators who explain the importance of the interviews, empower the children to correct them or admit ignorance, motivate the children to be as informative as possible, use age-appropriate terms, and help children to recall information rather than to select from among options generated by the interviewers. Such practices have been incorporated into the NICHD Investigative Interview Protocol, which increases the quality of information provided by alleged victims when implemented in the field. Unfortunately, simply understanding the components of an effective interview does not guarantee that interviewers will continue to interview effectively. Clearly, then, investment in intensive training and ongoing supervision can permit practitioners to benefit from the fruits of many years of research. This, in turn, can permit the legal system to intervene more judiciously on behalf of children.
Similarly, research on the effects of divorce, viewed in the context of research on socialization, also has implications for policy and practice. The most important fact we have learned is that children benefit from supportive relationships with both of their parents, whether or not those parents live together. We also know that relationships are dynamic and are thus dependent on continued opportunities for interaction. In order to ensure that both adults become or remain parents to their children, postdivorce parenting plans need to encourage participation by both parents in as broad as possible an array of social contexts on a regular basis. Brief dinners and occasional weekend visits do not provide a broad enough or extensive enough basis for such relationships to be fostered, whereas weekday and weekend daytime and nighttime activities are important for children of all ages. In the absence of sufficiently broad and extensive interactions, many fathers drift out of their children’s lives. Their children are thereby placed at risk psychologically and materially, because involved fathers are much more likely to contribute financially to the costs of raising their children.
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