Why mothers matter
A claim recently made in a premier family science journal
raised a question that likely would have shocked previous generations: “Does
having a mother really matter?” The claim was based on the premise that mothers
do not provide anything particularly unique in children’s development. Rather,
all that children need for healthy development is two caring adults.
Or do they?
British researcher John Bowlby first brought to light the
unique importance of the mother-child relationship after he observed a
consistent pattern of disrupted relationships and later adult psychopathology
(Bowlby, 1944). Children who were deprived of maternal care during extended
periods in their early lives “lacked feeling, had superficial relationships,
and exhibited hostile or antisocial tendencies” as they developed into
adulthood (Kobak, 1999, p. 23). Bowlby concluded that the attachment between
mother and child is critical for a child’s healthy social-emotional
development, and that mother and child are biologically designed to form this
As Margaret Ainsworth continued studying Bowlby’s attachment
ideas, she found that when mothers consistently responded positively to their
child’s needs and autonomy in exploring, the child received the sense of
security needed to thrive (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Wall, 1978). If
that sense of security was threatened by her absence or lack of sensitivity,
fear activated the child to try to restore the mother-child bond. Fear that was
not appropriately addressed resulted in feelings of depression, anxiety, and
aggression, initiating pathways associated with later social-emotional
struggles (Kobak, 1999; Sroufe, Carlson, & Shulman, 1993).
Neuropsychological studies of infant brain development
provided additional evidence showing that mothers have a special ability to
sensitively modify the stimulation they give to their infants. Through
fine-tuned perceptions mothers provide the optimal bits of positive interaction
needed for the child’s brain to develop an appropriate understanding of
emotions and relationships (Schore, 1994, p. 355).
As research continued over the following decades, the
importance of mother-child interactions and bonding became clearer. The
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development’s (NICHD) Study of
Early Child Care concluded that not only was maternal sensitivity and bonding
important, it is the strongest, most consistent predictor of a child’s
cognitive, social, and emotional development (NICHD, 2003).
But it isn’t just in infancy that mother-child bonding and
interactions matter. Mothers consistently show a unique capacity to facilitate
conversations about feelings, listen carefully to feelings, offer
encouragement, and ask questions to elicit sharing of feelings. For many
mothers, this kind of emotion work is integral to their efforts to nurture the
growth and development of children (Erickson 2005). Research findings show that
children seem to do best when mothers express love through listening to and
communicating with them about thoughts and feelings while monitoring their
behavior by setting and enforcing appropriate limits. Adolescents who reported
telling their mothers where they were going to be and what they would be doing
also reported lower rates of alcohol misuse, drug use, sexual activity and
delinquency (Barnes, 2006). In other studies, children’s academic success and
healthy behaviors were tied to their mothers’ involvement in talking with them,
listening to them, and answering their questions (Luster, Bates, Vandenbelt,
& Neivar, 2004).
Mothers also influence development through teaching. During
infancy, the cognitive stimulation and emotional support mothers provide lays
the foundation for intellectual and linguistic functioning throughout
development. Just by talking to their infants, directing their attention to
objects in the environment, and labeling the objects they see, mothers provide
cognitive stimulation that enhances their infant’s language skills and
intellectual abilities (Tamis-LeMonda & Bornstein, 1989). As children grow,
mothers provide essential stimulation when they ask questions or give
suggestions that invite the child’s thinking, or provide conceptual links among
objects, activities, locations, persons, or emotions (Hubbs-Tait, Culp, Culp,
& Miller, 2002).
Mothers continue to provide cognitive stimulation for
pre-school and school-age children when they read to their children and teach
them concepts, encourage them in hobbies, take them to libraries, museums, and
theaters, and expose them to books and other sources of learning in the home
(Votruba-Drzal, 2003). Mothers’ influence on discussions during dinnertime, car
rides, and when working together also engage children in developmental
processes while also inculcating values. Research findings indicate that
children whose mothers openly discuss the risks of behaviors such illicit
sexual activity, alcohol and substance abuse, and smoking, are less likely to
engage in dangerous behaviors (Guilamo-Ramos, et al., 2006). Further, children
whose mothers pass on their religious beliefs and facilitate their children’s
involvement with religion report the lowest levels of delinquency among
adolescents (Pearce & Haynie, 2004). A mother’s teachings become a key
ingredient in preparing her children to live fulfilling and contributing lives.
Finally, mothers influence how fathers provide their
essential contributions to children’s development. Andrea Doucet’s recent
analysis of caregiving found that fathers nurture development in ways that are
unique to mothers by focusing on play to connect, fostering independence,
promoting problem solving, and encouraging risk taking, among other things
(Doucet, 2006). Mothers influence how fathers enact their caregiving through
the quality of their relationship with fathers and in how they view fathers’
contributions. Fathers in turn, enable mothers to provide essential
contributions to their child’s development by caring for mothers emotionally
and physically. A father’s emotional care of his wife strengthens her maternal
sensitivity and reduces her maternal stress, enabling her to nurture more
Perhaps the best answer to the claim that mothers do not
really matter is a statement made by a group of stay-at-home fathers when asked
what resources they would like for single fathers in an “ideal world.” Their
statement provides an insightful commentary from “the trenches” of
parenthood: “An ideal world would be one with a father and a mother. We’d
be lying if we pretended that wasn’t true. How can there be an ideal world
without a mother for the children?” (Doucet, 2006, p. 215).
Jenet Erickson is an Assistant Professor in the School of Family Life, at Brigham Young University, Utah. She is also a member of the National Council on Family Relations and a member and reviewer of the Association for Research on Mothering. This article was first published on the Love and Fidelity Network blog and is reproduced here with permission.
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