For the fortunate, their first teacher is their mother. And the first lesson is love. While it has long been common knowledge that a nurturing mother is the foundation of a healthy person (and ultimately a functioning society), scientific findings in the last century have brought into focus the details of how and why. Here are three of my favorites:
- Mothers as "contact comfort" - As a psychology major, one of the staple experiments you learn about is Harry Harlow’s monkey study. He was interested in the debate over whether or not the mother provided more than simply a source of nutrition to the infant. He took infant rhesus macaques and gave them a choice between a ‘mother’ made of cloth or one made only of wire but which had food. The infant monkeys overwhelmingly chose to cling to the cloth ‘mother’ and only visited the wire ‘mother’ to quickly grab food. A similar study, demonstrated that monkeys with access to a cloth mother had much lower anxiety levels later in life. Dr. Harlow concluded that the cloth mother provided “contact comfort” - a critical component for infant development. (Later studies would suggest that the lack or presence of “contact comfort” could even lead to physiological changes in the brain!)
- Mothers as an engine for language development - Newborns and infants are often referred to as ‘sponges’ for their incredible ability to soak up information. New research has found that it is never too early to start talking to babies. In fact, a study out of Stanford suggests that children whose parents spoke to them least as babies scored worse on language tests - with the negative effects persisting through the next six years. Speaking to babies as much as possible helps them understand the rules and rhythm of language and grasp the relationship objects have to one another even when they can't respond or gesture understanding. Thus, even on the first day of their life, when babies seem oblivious to world around them, speaking to them and reading to them constantly is critically important.
- Mothers as a secure base to explore - Babies are incredibly good at reading facial cues. In one experiment, researchers wanted to find out if assurance from a mother - through facial cues - would cause one year olds to be more daring. In order to do this they convinced babies that they were about to walk (crawl) off a cliff using a visual cliff - essentially a glass floor with a deep bottom. The mothers stationed on the other side would either make encouraging or discouraging facial expressions to their babies who were contemplating crossing the visual cliff. Not one baby tried if the mother was discouraging (0 out of 17). Almost all of the babies (14 out of 19) ventured over the deep end if their mothers were encouraging. This research and other studies like it suggest that babies look to their parents, often mothers, to provide security so that they can explore the world. This suggests that providing security doesn't mean shielding the child but rather providing the support for them to take risks.
And finally a personal anecdote. When I was young child growing up in Toronto, Canada, I was one of those kids that was a bit shy, a bit too comfortable. When my mom would drop me off at my kindergarten I would grow very anxious and hold on to her so that she wouldn’t leave. My mom, being the creative person that she is, grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil and drew me the thing I loved the most - a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. I’m not exactly sure why it worked. It could have been simply because it distracted me from my anxiety but I also believe that it gave me a sense of security, a sense that my mom would still be there when she left. I also think that she was showing me that in this place, my kindergarten classroom, I too could create and share something as amazing as her drawing. It also didn’t hurt that I was the kid with the cool Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles picture.
TL;DR Mothers are important - through providing physical contact, a secure base to explore the world, and language development. Happy Birthday mom!