The hidden power of mothers: How moms improve their children's lives

May 06, 2011

Ever wonder why it is that mothers seem to have a magical fix for problems? Or always seem to say the right thing? Join Dr. Peter Vishton Friday, May 6 at 1 p.m. ET, as he chats about how scientists are discovering many surprising, and previously unrecognized, ways in which a mother may promote the well-being of her child starting from the child's fetal stage through his/her toddler years.

Have a question? Ask now.

Also, check out The Post's new blog, On Parenting. The blog, written by Janice D'Arcy, will include news stories of interest to parents, family-friendly event reviews, announcements and more.

Hello, everyone. I'm glad you could join this Live Chat today.

I want to start by wishing an early Happy Mother's Day to my grandmother (Bev), my mom (Jodie), and my wife (Jennifer). In this Live Chat, I'll be trying to answer questions about the important roles that mothers play in the lives of children and families in general. All three of you have been so important to me.


My name is Peter Vishton. I'm a psychology professor at the College of William and Mary. For the next 18 months or so, I'm also working as the Program Director for Developmental and Learning Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Here at NSF, I help to support the many tremendous researchers in the developmental science community. When I'm not here, I am one of those researchers myself.


Feel free to submit any questions that you might have about infant and child development and the role that mothers play in that process. I will try to answer as many as I can.

Hello from New Zealand! So what is the single most important thing a mother can do in her everyday actions that will improve their children's life?

Hello, New Zealand! There are so many things that parents can do to improve their children's lives. I don't know that any particular one is the single most important. One that certainly is among the most important is to spend time meaningfully interacting with a child, from the moment he or she is born.


Kids come into the world already able to see, hear, and make some sense of the world around them. They also come into the world craving interaction with other humans. Even though they've been in the dark throughout pregnancy, infants are born with a preference to look at human faces. Their hearing is not quite as good as an adult's, but the range of sound frequencies they hear best is located right around the range of human speech.


Infants develop something psychologists call "attachment" during the first months of life that promotes their health and mental development in many important ways. That can only happen if they have those interactions.

When a child is born, are there some neuropathways which are fully developed; while others mature over the next several years? The reason I ask this is that there seems to be a personality in place soon after birth.

I mentioned that kids are born with some already impressive abilities to sense and make sense of the world. Very early, within the first few months, there is evidence that the foundation of their personalities are in place as well.


For instance, four-month-olds who are very reactive when presented with a salient new stimulus--for instance a bright, shiny, moving mobile--tend to later be more shy than children who calmly watch the new toy.


There is still a lot of personality development that takes place after four months, of course, but some of the foundations for that development seem to be in place even in early infancy.

I am curious to have a couple of examples of the "surprising and unrecognized" ways by which mothers influence their children

If you are an experienced mother, they might not be all that surprising to you. (Some of developmental science has involved scientifically characterizing and testing things that turn out to be close to what many mothers believe to be true all along.)


There have been a variety of studies, however, that have surprised many. One of my favorite recent studies is about the importance of talking to kids, even before the kids can really understand what is being said. There is a correlation, it turns out, between how many words have been said to a child over the course of the first years of life, and that child's later success in school.


There is some evidence that the socioeconomic achievement gap (i.e., kids from poor communities tend to do worse in school) can be largely explained just on this basis. Parents who are having trouble making ends meet don't have as much time to have "conversations" with their pre-verbal kids, and thus will not be able to give them this important experience.

You hear a lot of advertisements for early reading programs for your baby. Is there any reliable long term data that this actually helps children in the long run?

There is good evidence that reading to your children promotes language development, reading skills, and even success in school.


There is really no evidence that spending hours teaching a toddler to respond to flash cards will promote these same things. There has been little to no evaluation of the effectiveness of programs like "Your Baby Can Read." Most researchers are confident that the children are not really reading, but just responding to shapes in a stimulus-response fashion.

I have a child that was born shy. He looks down even when with people he knows rather than look them in the face. I am the cheerleader type. Always asking are you proud of yourself? Look at what a good job you did, etc. Any tips that I might put to use?

The first thing I would urge you to do is not worry about this. It is very typical for kids to be shy in some situations. It doesn't mean that he will remain withdrawn as he gains maturity and confidence. (My own 5-year-old is very much like your son.)


There isn't any concrete research on how to "fix" shyness--although let me be clear that I don't think it's "broken" necessarily to be a bit shy as a kid. With adults, psychologists urge people to pursue activities where they experience success. If there is some game or activity that he is really good at, be sure he has lots of opportunities to interact with others in that context.

I have an eight month old daughter, and her need for love and attention from me is such a sweet and powerful feeling. I can't help but wish that I could bottle up some of this love and take it out for when she is an adolescent and says "I hate you! leave me alone!" Are there any tips for keeping the mother-daughter bond (or parent-children bond) strong? I have a good-but-complicated relationship with my own mother.

There's been some recent work with adolescents that suggests that the parent-teen relationship is not nearly as traumatic, on average, as it is depicted in movies and television. Most teens have times when they strive for greater independence (a nice way to describe "rebelling," I suppose), and that can lead to conflict, but most humans within an extended relationship--teens or not--have times of conflict.


So, I think there might not be anything in particular that you need to do, except what you might do with other people who aren't your kids. Keep channels of communication open. Spend time together doing fun things that you both care about. And enjoy this wonderful time together with your baby.

Go Tribe! As a working mom, in what areas should we put extra effort to ensure that we maximize our limited time with our children? In your opinion what should be the minimum amount of time each parent (tho moms in particular) should spend interacting with a child? From an overwhelmed working mom...

It is frustrating how little time we seem to have some weeks. This is a real challenge for working parents.


I don't think there is any magic, minimum number of hours to ensure that your child will thrive. I think my recommendation would be to try to make sure that the time is regular--ideally every day for at least a little while. I also recommend that parents try to find some time (and energy) each day to engage in active play with their kids. If you only have an hour, it's probably best to not spend that hour in front of the television, for instance. (Even if William and Mary is playing football on that television. Go Tribe!)

What does it mean what a "brain connection" happens, and how important is it that the vast majority of these brain connections occur during the first five years of life?

The brain develops and changes throughout the course of our lives. A great deal of recent research has supported this idea. One longitudinal brain imaging study found that the frontal lobes continue extensive development even into our early twenties.


That said, there is an enormous amount of brain development that takes place during the first years of life. The number of neurons in our brain peaks around age 2. It is during those first years that we are best at learning languages and mastering very new cognitive skills.


So the first five years are important, but mental and physical development continue throughout life.

What are your suggestions for positive discipline for an almost 3 year old who sometimes hits, touches inappropriately (ie. touches strangers' legs in the store). thanks.

There is some interesting research on this, a lot of which builds from those old studies on training rats how to do things by rewarding/punishing them as a function of their behavior. General reinforcement works on humans, including kids, of course, but the positive reinforcement seems to result in much more durable learning.

Sometimes, however, it is inevitable that you need to "correct" a child when they behave inappropriately. Some recent studies have found that if you accompany that correction with an explanation of "why" it's important for the child to change his or her behavior, it works much more effectively. Even if the 3-year-old doesn't seem to understand all of your explanation, he or she does encode some of it. And that can make a lot of difference.

I have two children- a boy and girl who are close in age - with very different personalities. How can I help them develop a loving relationship with each other that is supportive and respectful of each other ? (After all- what better potentially longer lasting gift could I leave them with?) Is there a balance to be had with my level of intervention in their squabbles?

Sometimes, kids argue and fight with each other. If they are brother and sister, that's inevitable. It's important, of course, to make sure that they don't hurt each other as they do this, but as they are squabbling, they are teaching each other some important things. They are learning, hopefully, how to work things out.


I think you say it just right when you use the word "balance." Too much arguing might drive everyone in the house crazy, but allowing some of it to run its course is not necessarily a bad thing. These are just the sort of important decisions that mothers make, on a moment to moment basis, many times a day.

In your opinion, what role does inherent biological and personality traits play in the child's development - how much can a mother impact some deleterious seemingly "born that way" temperment?

Developmental scientists used to spend a lot of time debating what things are the result of "nature" and what things are the result of "nurture." It has become clear, however, that everything is a mix of the two. Just how that mix occurs, and how things develop, is the main target of much research on kids.


In terms of temperament, kids are born with certain personality predispositions. The adults they will become, however, only starts from those predispositions. I answered a question about shyness a few minutes ago; that answer applies here as well. Ghandi was so shy as a young man that he was often unable to speak in public situations. He clearly conquered that limitation.


So, to answer your question, there is a LOT that a mom can do.

Knowing how important it is to spend time with my children, I feel guilty that I have to work. Any specific suggestions for ways busy moms can help their children?

I don't think you should feel guilty that you have to work. There is actually some evidence that children of working moms are influenced by them in some very positive ways. If one of a child's primary role models is capable of juggling responsibilities in and out of the home, loving them, spending time with them when she can, that is a good thing.

Do you think that a mother, depressed or very anxious when she is pregnant, can pass that brain chemistry onto her fetus predisposing her child to the same type of symptoms? I am not talking about inherited disorders (e.g. bipolar disorder). Thanks.

There is a genetic component to most mental disorders. For instance, more closely related people (e.g., identical twins) are more likely to suffer (or not suffer) from depression than less closely related people (e.g., fraternal twins). But you made a point of saying that's not what your question was about.


Your question is about whether those symptoms can pass directly to the child during pregnancy. As far as I know, there is no evidence of this. The only thing that comes to mind is that if the mother is depressed to the point of physical decline (for instance, not being physically active at all), then this could compromise the prenatal development of the child. That's not, however, the specific transmission about which you are asking.

Through a rough patch with PPD after my son's birth and general introspection, I've learned that I'm not natually a good parent to infants. My son it a toddler now and I feel like I have more to offer him and am "better" for him now. My husband was very good with our son when he was an infant, so I wouldn't say that my infant son was "abandoned," but do you believe that an infant in the care of a PPD mom is negatively impacted?

I'm sorry to hear about the PPD, but it sounds as if you are coming out of that rough patch. I have two reactions to your question.


The first is to challenge your assertion that you weren't a good parent to your infant. It might have felt uncomfortable at times, or like you weren't doing the right thing, but the relationship that formed with your child during that period of development seems to have developed just fine.


My second thought is that babies are surprisingly resilient creatures, less fragile than many believe. If you haven't seen the movie "Babies," that shows some of the many environments in which kids are raised around the world, then I highly recommend it.


An infant can certainly be impacted by the care of a PPD mom, but I urge you to focus on this exciting toddler age into which you've both "graduated."

I have the same situation but don't really see it as a problem to be solved. When I was childless, I used to wonder, "What on earth am I going to do with a shy child?" because I just didn't get it, at all. But now I know my daughter. Sometimes she feels shy. She warms up to others at her own pace - just like we all do, in fact. I don't expect her to be something she's not. She does not have to talk to anyone, but she is expected to acknowledge another person with a wave, at least. It's okay to feel shy at the moment, but it's not okay to be rude. If others don't read her body language and give her her space, I tell them she is *feeling* shy right now, and when she is not feeling shy (or when she is comfortable) she'll come talk to them. I think it's really important not to label her shy, because there are times she is definitely not shy. I also just started a gymnastics class - she just turned 3 - and I"ve noticed how the more physically able she is, the more self-confidence she has, the more outgoing she becomes. She waves hi to people without prompting now and things like that. Just let your child be who she is and don't suggest she be anything differently. Give her unconditional acceptance and tools to help her get through life.

There isn't really a question here, but I wanted to add a note so that it would get posted. Let me just say, I agree.

My soon to be 3 year old is exhibiting some speaking delays. Other than the fact that he doesn' t respond to discipline at times - which I think many other parents have also experienced at this age - he is perfectly normal. I still feel incrediblya anxious because most of the information on the internet suggests that it may be behavioral development. Do you have any tips for me?

If you open up any book on child development (or web resource) you will find a list of "milestones," things that your children are supposed to be able to do by a particular age. Some are milestones for a particular year, others are so specific as to denote the week of life in which something is supposed to happen.


What those resources rarely tell you is that these are average ages for these milestones and there is TREMENDOUS variability in when any individual child will reach that milestone. It may be that your child has a language delay of some type, and you should continue to monitor and encourage his progress. Maybe spend some extra time reading and talking with him when you can.  BUT... it may also be that everything is just fine, and that all you need to do is wait a little bit longer.


What about those of us who had dysfunctional mothers?

Mothers are people too. Just because you become a mother doesn't magically make you a problem-free person. My only advice here is to wish them a Happy Mother's Day too.

I feel guilty ALL the time about working. Even though I try to maximize my time with my kids--they are not in full time care primarily because I kill myself at work so I can be there a day and a half or so during the week. Is there any evidence that stay-at-home moms tend to raise more well-rounded, confident kids who bond better with their parents? I keep thinking I should quit, even if I love my job, because I want to do the best for my children--but I don't know if there's any scientific evidence to back this up. Thank you for helping. As you can tell, I agonize about this quite a lot.

The research on this topic is complex. The quality of the childcare matters a lot. There are pros and cons to almost every situation. I think the one sentence summary is that it is possible for children to thrive with or without a stay-at-home mother.

If you want to read more, there was a large study run through the National Institute of Child Health and Development with results posted here:

What can a mother do to help a high functioning autistic 8 year old boy? Can a mother prevent or decrease the severity of autism by how she interacts or doesn't interact with her child from infancy on?

My suggestion is to do all of the things that you would with any child. Play and work with him, doing things that you enjoy and care about together. Enriched interaction can help with the development of any child, autistic or not.

So far, I'm not seeing anything here that directly speaks to "moms" but more generally to "parents." As a soon-to-be first time "mom", I'm curious whether there is any advice that truly is "mom"-specific, rather than generally appliable to parents.

You are right that I have directed almost all of my answers to "parents." That said, moms still do the great majority of child care work in our society.


I believe that fathers can and often do play an active role in their child's development. I think my first piece of advice to moms is to make sure that the dads know that. A new baby in the house should be a responsibility that is shared as much as possible--hopefully a joy that is shared, as well. Getting dad more involved can be a nice thing for mom in terms of allowing her some rest, and to maintain contact with the rest of her life. It can also be a really important thing for the dad, who might otherwise miss out on some really amazing and important experiences.


I do have one other piece of mom-specific advice. If you can, breast milk is best. There is a great amount of evidence that babies' immune systems and even brains develop better with this naturally produced source of nutrition. It's not the end of the world if breastfeeding doesn't work out, which it sometimes doesn't. Plenty of kids do just fine with formula. (You are reading the writing of one of them!) But I urge all moms to at least give it a try.

I'm sorry to do this, but I need to sign off. I've really enjoyed reading all of your questions. I hope you all have a Happy Mother's Day!

P.S. I also meant to wish my sister, Paige, an early Happy Mother's Day too.

In This Chat
Dr. Peter Vishton
Peter M. Vishton, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the College of William & Mary, in Williamsburg, Virginia, where he lives with his wife and two children. He is currently serving as the Program Director for Developmental and Learning Sciences at the National Science Foundation. He studies the perception and action control of both infants and adults. He received his B.A. in Psychology and Computer Science from Swarthmore College in 1991 and his Ph.D. in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University in 1996. He has published articles in many of the top journals in his field, including Psychological Science, Science, Experimental Brain Research, Teaching of Psychology, and the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. He is also the creator of the DVD What Babies Can Do: An Activity-Based Guide to Infant Development.

Vishton has found a variety of evidence, with both children and adults, that the nature of sensory processing is altered by the actions that we choose to perform. As we reach, walk, drive, or perform any familiar task, our sensory systems alter themselves, often in fundamental ways, becoming more sensitive to the sources of information that are important for the task, and insensitive to sources of information that are irrelevant. We don't usually realize it, but an intention to act on something changes how we perceive it.
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