Can extra nurturing during infancy make your child kinder and smarter?
Over the last several decades, more and more research has suggested that experiences in early life — even prenatal life — can have a disproportionate influence on the development of personality and physical and mental health. Now another group of studies, led by Notre Dame psychology professor Darcia Narvaez, confirms earlier work suggesting that children who get more positive touch and affection during infancy turn out to be kinder, more intelligent and to care more about others.
Narvaez, who will present her findings at a conference in early October, conducted three separate studies. The first compared parenting practices in the U.S. and China. Another followed a large sample of children of teen mothers who were involved in a child abuse–prevention project, and compared outcomes of various types of early parenting practices. The third examined how parents of 3-year-olds behaved toward their children.
All three studies suggested the same thing: children who are shown more affection early in life reap big benefits. Researchers found that kids who were held more by their parents, whose cries received quick responses in infancy and who were disciplined without corporal punishment were more empathic — that is, they were better able to understand the minds of others — later in life.
Although there were some differences between American and Chinese practices, "we found mostly parallels," Narvaez notes.
Given that highly affectionate parenting practices are similar to the practices anthropologists believe parents used during the thousands of years that humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies, it's likely that they are closely matched with what a developing baby's brain naturally expects.
Consider the way babies instinctively cry when put to sleep alone. In the early human environment, a child would never have slept more than arm's reach from his parents or other caregivers. Lone sleeping may elicit a stress response in the baby because it's not the "safe" environment that the brain is programmed to expect. The fact that most babies can adjust to it anyway shows how flexible and "plastic" brain development is — but Narvaez' research suggests that meeting the brain's early expectations may have added benefits.
"What's been studied most is responsivity," she says, referring to the way parents respond to their babies and act accordingly, for example, noticing when they are about to cry and reacting appropriately to subtle positive and negative signals about what they want. "[Responsivity] is clearly linked with moral development. It helps foster an agreeable personality, early conscience development and greater prosocial behavior."
Even rat research confirms the importance of early nurture. Rat pups born to mothers that lick and nuzzle them — even rats that are put in the "foster" care of such mothers — are healthier, grow faster, and are better able to run mazes and interact socially than pups that are neglected. Rats raised by less affectionate moms have deficits in all these areas — but they do perform better in extremely stressful situations.
I summarize much of the latest research in empathy in the book Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential — and Endangered, co-authored with leading child psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry:
While we are born for love, we need to receive it in certain, specific ways in early life to benefit most from its mercy. We need to practice love as we grow through different social experiences to best be able to give it back in abundance. The brain becomes what it does most frequently. It is shaped every day by what we do — and what we don't do.
If we don't practice empathy, we can't become more empathetic. If we don't interact with people, we can't improve our connections to them. If we don't ease each other's stress through caring contact, we will all be increasingly distressed.
Of course, early life is certainly not the only influence on empathy: some of the most caring, altruistic people have suffered horribly neglectful and abusive childhoods. Children are, thankfully, quite resilient. But if you want to give your child an edge in these areas, lots of cuddles and responsive parenting certainly can't hurt.