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Study: City babies behave better than rural babies

A new study finds the temperament of infants can vary based on where they live.

Photo by Fairfax Media via Getty Images via Getty Images

Which ones are raised where?
Key Takeaways
  • A new study finds that children raised in urban areas have better temperaments than those living in rural areas.
  • Despite this, parents everywhere are equally stressed.
  • Further studies will look into why this happens.

The question of how urban life compares to rural life has been debated since writing began. The Epic of Gilgamesh comments on it, Marcus Aurelius mentioned the town mouse and the country mouse in his philosophical work Meditations, and debates between which lifestyle should be encouraged have lingered in American politics for more than 100 years.

A new study adds another dimension to the question. Its findings suggest the behavior of babies is dramatically different depending on if they are in an urban or rural environment.

The town baby and the country baby? Doesn’t have the same ring to it

The study, coming out of Washington State University, looked at two previous studies that observed the behaviors of 68 participants and their infants in the Bay area and 120 participants and their infants in two inland Pacific Northwest counties. The parents were asked to fill out a questionnaire to record the frequency of nearly 200 different behaviors displayed by their children at both 6 and 12 months of age. A session of parent-child interaction during playtime filmed for later examination by the researchers was also used.

On the whole, urban babies were found to have calmer temperaments than their rural counterparts. Rural parents reported more expressions of negative emotions, like anger and frustration, than urban parents did. Babies living in big cities were less bothered by limits set by their parents. During the playtime sessions, urban parents were quicker to detect their children’s needs and were better at determining when the child no longer wanted to play.

However, some things are the same all over. There was no evidence to suggest that either group of parents were more stressed than the other.

Getting Inside the Mind of an Infant
Why is this important?

Right now, we don’t know. The cause of these findings remains unknown, though the authors of this study suggest that more investigation be put into the subject to explain them. While previous studies have looked at the differences in urban and rural parenting on older children, this is one of the first studies that looks at the effects on infants, leaving this area of study utterly uncharted.

As lead author Maria Gartstein told the WSU Insider:

“The fact that rural mothers in our study reported more frequent expressions of anger and frustration from their infants may be consequential as higher levels of frustration in infancy can increase risk for later attentional, emotional, social and behavioral problems.”

This could be huge. If a large group of children are starting life behind because of some factor that can be applied to all rural children, then knowing exactly what it is and what causes it could be a way to help fix the problem or at least mitigate the effects. If you don’t think this is something anybody is worried about, just look at how much time, debate, and energy have been put into trying to establish universal pre-kindergarten.

How and why parents end up equally stressed is another big question. Is it that the issues facing urban parents end up filling the gap left by their well-behaved babies? Are these issues less stressful or equal to the stress caused by the isolation that often comes with rural life? These areas will also have to be explored in further studies.

The findings of this study will be featured on the Netflix series “Babies” this summer.


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