Why Kids With Supportive Moms Do Better In School And In Their Future

How you treat your kids when you're overwhelmed has the power to affect them for the rest of their lives.

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It can be strange and terrifying to consider how deeply parenting affects children for the rest of their lives. Whether you’re a parent or a (grown) child, one leap down the rabbit hole of psychological exploration can leave you with the sense that there is literally no way to not screw up parenting. And you wouldn’t be wrong!

Thankfully, there is hope. For those of us who have already been effectively mussed by our parents, early friendships, or romantic partners—which, let’s be honest, is probably all of us—we’ve got therapy.

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For those of you who are thinking of having your own children, you should know that studies continue to reveal the power that parenting style can have in infant brain development, counteracting negative environmental influences, and children’s capacity for innovation later in life.

Poorer Children Are Less Likely To Receive Parental Support

A supportive parent is an emotionally responsive parent. What does “emotionally responsive” look like? Not unlike a game of tennis, according to childhood development experts

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The “serve and return” mode of communication between an adult caregiver and an infant is an interaction much like a tennis ball going back and forth, with the baby “serving” a gesture like smiling or babbling, and the adult caregiver “returning” it with affirmative behavior like eye contact or touch.

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As part of an ongoing study, Joan Luby, MD, conducted an experiment in St. Louis. A group of children between the ages of 4 and 7 were invited into the lab along with their primary caregivers—usually their mothers—to observe the pair’s dynamic during a stressful situation. The child was put within arm’s length of a brightly wrapped gift and told that they could open it as soon as their caregiver filled out a stack of questionnaires that would take about eight minutes to complete.

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Researchers, trained to measure hostility and supportiveness, observed how moms responded to their children’s whines. Some of them reassured them by telling them they knew it was hard to wait or praising them for their patience; some ignored their children, even snapping at or hitting them for being annoying as they filled out the forms.

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Luby’s team had uncovered a pattern: the poorer children were more likely to be met with hostility from caregivers.

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“Parents can be less emotionally responsive for a whole host of reasons,” Luby said. “They may work two jobs or regularly find themselves trying to scrounge together money for food. Perhaps they live in an unsafe environment. They may be facing many stresses, and some don’t have the capacity to invest in supportive parenting as much as parents who don’t have to live in the midst of those adverse circumstances.”

Toxic Stress Can Damage Children’s Brains

If you remember reading about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in an intro to psychology class, you can probably guess why a parent living in poverty has fewer emotional resources to offer her child. When your ability to fulfill your most basic needs—like shelter, food, and safety—is under threat, stress levels skyrocket. Your fuse is shorter. Brain chemicals go all out of balance.

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To complicate matters, where there is financial insecurity and high stress, there is often addiction and abuse. As Denise Dowd, who mentors victims of poverty and domestic violence in Kansas City, Missouri, told The Atlantic, “The very resources the moms need to handle those stressors—the ability to predict, the ability to remain calm and think through a set of problems—that’s the prefrontal cortex, and that really takes a hit when you’ve been exposed to abuse and neglect.”

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A child inevitably picks up on these cues that the world is unsafe and responds with his own heightened stress responses, which stunts the brain’s development. This is a huge problem when trying to stop the cycle of poverty.

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“It has long been known that low socioeconomic status is linked to poorer performance in school, and recent research has linked poverty to smaller brain surface area,” Diana Kwon writes in Scientific American, referencing a study published in 2015 about lower test scores among poorer children. “The current study bridges these converging lines of evidence by revealing that up to 20 percent of the achievement gap between high- and low-income children may be explained by differences in brain development.”

But, Supportive Parenting Can Counteract The Damage Of Toxic Stress

Luby’s experiment—part of a larger study of depression in early childhood—involved some children who were depressed. What they found was that parental supportiveness was more important to brain development than whether or not a child was depressed.

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“When Luby and her colleagues conducted an MRI four years later, they found that the non-depressed children whose mothers had not been nurturing had smaller hippocampuses than the kids who were depressed but had levels of high maternal support,” Olga Khazan writes for The Atlantic.

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“In other words, it was better for the kids to be depressed with supportive moms, than not depressed with unsupportive ones. Since the hippocampus governs things like memory, cognitive function, and emotion, the smaller hippocampal volume suggested to Luby that the children with the non-supportive moms were doing worse both cognitively and emotionally.”

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What experts believe, then, is that a caregiver equipped with better nurturing skills could counteract some of the negative effects poverty has on early brain development. Of course, this leaves us with one question: How do we provide parents who are barely scraping by financially the tools to be better nurturers?

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According to Andrew Garner, a pediatrician in Westlake, Ohio, one answer might be in increasing government spending on social services, and improving how social programs are integrated into our healthcare system—areas the U.S. is characteristically lagging behind in.

Supportive Parenting Vs. Overbearing Parenting

It’s worth noting in a discussion about the importance of supportive parenting that there is a big difference between nurturing and helicoptering, which can be its own kind of emotional abuse.

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Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success and former dean of Stanford University’s mental health task force, offers an extreme (we hope) example of a (monstrous) father who told his daughter he would divorce her mother if she refused to major in economics. But even overbearing parenting that does not wade into such overtly dysfunctional territory can have lasting effects on children’s minds.

Author and academic Adam Grant, writing for The New York Times last year, points to studies suggesting that the attempt to jam children into parents’ preconceived notions of who they should be—artistically, academically, or philosophically—limits children’s creative growth, and can, in fact, have the opposite effect of what parents desire for them in terms of professional success.

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As Grant points out, few child prodigies go on to be “adult geniuses who change the world.” Of course, individual identity fears and academic complacence stemming from society’s incorrect messaging about what it means to be “smart” likely play a huge role in this, but part of the equation in many cases is whether parents allow joyful curiosity to exist in their children. For many helicoptered kids, the message is that life is primarily about excellence and duty—and this isn’t very good for cultivating intellectual freedom.

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“What holds them back is that they don’t learn to be original,” Grant writes. “They strive to earn the approval of their parents and the admiration of their teachers. But as they perform in Carnegie Hall and become chess champions, something unexpected happens: Practice makes perfect, but it doesn’t make new.”

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