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Sensitive parenting may boost kids’ later academic, relationship success

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NIH funded study shows benefits well into adulthood

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Listen to this podcast (MP3 - 9.8 MB).

Mother and daughter reading a book.Ms. Christine Guilfoy: Children whose mothers were sensitive to their needs tended to grow up into adults who reached higher levels of academic achievement and to have the most enduring romantic relationships. That’s the conclusion of researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health after analyzing data collected over the course of 30 years.

For the National Institutes of Health, I’m Christine Guilfoy, and this is “Research Developments,” a podcast from the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development—the NICHD.

With me today is the study’s first author, Lee Raby External Web Site Policy, a postdoctoral researcher in the University of Delaware’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. Along with his coauthors, Dr. Raby analyzed data from the Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation External Web Site Policy.

From 1975 through 1977, pregnant women who were living below the poverty line were enrolled in the study. As part of the study, researchers videotaped the mothers interacting with their children when the children were 3 months, 6 months, 24 months, and 42 months old. Along with the funding from the NICHD, the researchers also received support from the NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health.

At first, the researchers videotaped the mothers when they were feeding their children. Later on, the mothers were asked to play with their children and, later still, to work with their children to solve a problem or task. The researchers rated each mother according to her sensitivity.

When they reached adulthood, between ages 23 and 32, 243 of the original study participants were asked about their romantic relationships: how long they lasted, why they might have ended, and whether they involved any physical violence. And, at different points in their adult life, the researchers tracked the participants’ educational achievement: whether they had completed high school, college, or graduate school.

Dr. Raby, thanks very much for joining us today.

Dr. Lee Raby: Oh, it’s my pleasure.

Ms. Guilfoy: So, maternal sensitivity: Can you provide us with a clearer picture of that? What would a mother do when she’s interacting sensitively with her child?

Dr. Raby: So, sensitivity is generally defined as a general style of interacting with one’s child that’s marked by three different characteristics. The first is being involved and attentive to the child during the interaction, and this is contrasted by being aloof or detached or just sort of psychologically unavailable to the child.

The second characteristic is emotionally positive during the interactions, so being warm and showing delight in the child, and this is contrasted with being harsh or angry or at the very extreme, physically abusive towards the child.

And the third characteristic is being responsive to the child’s signals during interacting—while interacting—with the child, and this is contrasted by interacting in a way in which the parent is imposing an agenda on the child rather than adapting flexibly to the needs, wishes, desires and signals of the child.

Ms. Guilfoy: Now as I understand it, before you did this study, researchers weren’t quite sure how long the effect of such positive parenting would last. Many believed that the effects would wear off with time, but your results suggest otherwise, don’t they?

Dr. Raby: Yeah, there are sort of two key findings from this study. The first is that early sensitivity has long-term implications for individuals’ social and academic functioning and success that extend at least into the 30s, at least until people are about 32 years old.

The second is a little more nuanced, and that’s that the effects don’t appear to be getting smaller as individuals get older. So, in other words, sensitivity was as equally as strong a predictor of how well individuals were doing socially and academically during childhood and adolescence as it was during their 20s and 30s. So the effects were not going away as people aged.

Ms. Guilfoy: Hmm, okay. Let me ask you about the participants’ romantic relationships. Can you give me an example of a successful romantic relationship as defined by your study?

Dr. Raby: Yeah. So we were assessing just general competence with the task of forming romantic relationships during young adulthood. So what success would look like would be, the individual was showing an interest in forming these relationships; they valued connection with other people in these close, intimate relationships—being open and vulnerable with others—and they had a track record that kind of demonstrated that, so they had been in a very small number of committed relationships that were marked by compassion, caring, and concern for one another. Oftentimes these would be highly stable and be kind of committed, typically married sorts of relationships.

Ms. Guilfoy: Good. And I’m curious about the effect of maternal sensitivity on academic achievement. Did you have a breakdown on the percentage of kids who had sensitive mothers who went on to college, for example?

Dr. Raby: What we had observed was that early sensitivity—again, this is sensitivity during the first three to three and a half years of life—that that accounted for about 10% of the variation in individuals’ outcomes in their educational attainment. So about 10% of all of the differences of whether people went—dropped out and got their GED versus went on and got a higher education, a four-year degree or so on, 10% of that variability in the sample could be explained by the quality of care they experienced in the first 3 to 4 years of life.

Ms. Guilfoy: That’s interesting; that must be pretty significant, given all the variables that can be involved.

Dr. Raby: Yeah, that’s definitely not a trivial amount. I mean, when we think that the educational attainment of the United States, that’s the backbone of our economic success, so to think that one-tenth of the variability in the educational outcomes of our labor force can be accounted for by something that happened so long ago, that’s really quite significant.

Ms. Guilfoy: Interesting. And were the findings a surprise? Could you say why such early influences have such a long-lasting effect?

Dr. Raby: The fact that there was long-term associations wasn’t necessarily a surprise to us and my co-authors; we observed kind of similar findings in a few other studies and a couple other data sets. What I think really surprised us all was that the point I was making earlier about that the effects were not getting smaller as people got older—we refer to those as enduring effects—that was a bit surprising to us. We had thought that sensitivity would be especially important during childhood and adolescence but potentially would weaken when people, after age 18—when typically individuals move out of the home and they’re forming their own lives—that maybe sensitivity would be less important at those ages. But the fact that it wasn’t was a little unexpected to us.

Ms. Guilfoy: So, is there a takeaway message for our listeners?

Dr. Raby: I think on one hand these findings potentially may mean that the quality of care that individuals experience in their first three-ish years of life has some long-term effects on their success in social and academic areas. And while that may be a little scary or discouraging to some, I find that very encouraging because we know that sensitivity is amendable, that interventions that are—can—parents that get enrolled in programs that are designed to improve sensitivity, they do; they get better at providing this kind of care with some training. And so I find this very optimistic in terms of thinking about how we might be able to optimize each child’s potential.

But I do have to say that this was a correlational design and so although we made—we took a lot of things into account when doing this study, and controlling for other kinds of variables like socioeconomic status of the family, that we can’t definitively say that these represent causal kinds of effects, and so I do think more research is needed in order to—can flesh some of these things out a little more.

Ms. Guilfoy: Yeah, okay, I get it. And one final question, which I think you’ve probably led into already, if you haven’t quite answered it is, based on all this, what advice would you give to parents, based on what your study found?

Dr. Raby: So even though I am sort of, I’m being a bit cautious with making definitive causal statements—there’s absolutely no reason to think that sensitivity has any kind of negative effects on children’s development. So I would highly encourage parents to be striving to provide this sensitive care for their children. Again, so that’s care that’s marked by being involved, engaged, emotionally positive, and responsive to their needs and signals. That is definitely—from this study, it seems to be an asset for their later development.

Ms. Guilfoy: Well, very good. Thank you so much for joining us and explaining the study.

Dr. Raby: Oh, it was my pleasure; thanks for having me.

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About the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD): The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. For more information, visit the Institute's website at http://www.nichd.nih.gov/.​​​​​

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