Why mothers matter

All that children need for healthy development is two caring adults. Really?
Jenet Erickson | May 24 2011 | comment  

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 essential bond.

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 effectively.

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.


Ainsworth, M. D., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Barnes, G. (2006). "Effects of parental monitoring and peer deviance on substance use and delinquency". Journal of Marriage and Family, 68(4), 1084-1104.

Bowlby, J. (1944). "Forty-four juvenile thieves: Their characters and home life". International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 25, 19-52, 107-127.

Doucet, A. (2006). Do men mother? Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Erickson, R. (2005). "Why emotion work matters: Sex, gender, and the division of household labor". Journal of Marriage and Family, 67, 337-351.

Guilamo-Ramos, V., Jaccard, J., Dittus, P., & Bouris, A. M. (2006). "Parental expertise, trustworthiness, and accessibility: Parent–adolescent communication and adolescent risk behavior". Journal of Marriage & Family, 68, 1229–1246.

Hubbs-Tait, L., Culp, A. M., Culp, R. E., & Miller, C. E. (2002). "Relation of maternal cognitive stimulation, emotional support, and intrusive behavior during Head Start to children’s kindergarten cognitive abilities". Child Development, 73 (1), 110–131.

Kobak, R. (1999). "The emotional dynamics of disruptions in attachment relationships: Implications for theory, research, and clinical intervention". In J. Cassidy & P. R. Shaver (Eds.), Handbook of Attachment (pp. 21-43). New York: The Guilford Press.

Luster, T., Bates, L., Vandebelt, M., & Nievar, M. A. (2004). "Family advocates’ perspectives on the early academic success of children born to low-income adolescent mothers". Family Relations, 53(1), 68-77.

NICHD (2003). "Does amount of time spent in child care predict social-emotional adjustment during the transition to kindergarten?" Child Development, 74(4), 976-1005.

Pearce, L. D., & Haynie, D. L. (2004). "Intergenerational religious dynamics and adolescent delinquency". Social Forces, 82 (4),1553–1572.

Schore, A. N. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of emotional development. Hillsdale NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Sroufe, L. A., Carlson, E., & Shulman, S. (1993). "Individuals in relationships: Development from infancy through adolescence". In D. C. Funder, R. D. Parke, C. Tomlinson-Keasey & K.Widaman (Eds.), Studying lives through time: Personality and development (pp. 315- 342). Washington, D. C.: American Psychological Association.

Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., & Bornstein, M. H. (1989). "Habituation and maternal encouragement of attention in infancy as predictors of toddler language, play, and representational competence". Child Development, 60(3), 738-751.

Votruba-Drzal, E. (2003). "Income changes and cognitive stimulation in young children’s home learning environments". Journal of Marriage & Family, 65, 341–355.


Copyright © Jenet Erickson . Published by MercatorNet.com. You may download and print extracts from this article for your own personal and non-commercial use only. Contact us if you wish to discuss republication.

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