This past Sunday was a celebration of all things motherhood, and rightfully so because research is showing just how important mothers truly are.
As the chair of the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, I — along with my colleagues — have followed parents as they have raised their children. We observed family functioning as children matured from infancy through adolescence. Decades of research have pointed to one important conclusion: The quality of parenting a child receives from his or her mother affects how well he or she is prepared to be a parent.
Spending time interacting with, diapering and feeding the baby is important, but in order for infants to develop a sense of security — a secure attachment — it is essential for a parent to be there to provide comfort. Although it is in the best interest of the child to have many, many caregivers within a family group, our research over many decades reveals that there is, really, just one person who carries the extra burden of a special attachment. That person, the one who bears ultimate responsibility for the health and well being of an infant, is typically the mother.
A young child is biologically wired to choose just one person as the primary attachment figure. We believe this ensures that one person is ultimately responsible for meeting an infant’s needs.
This does not mean that all mothers are good mothers. It doesn’t mean that the most caring and engaged mothers don’t sometimes make mistakes. It also doesn’t mean that fathers’ and adoptive parents’ roles in raising children are less important. From the data we have collected over the decades, following children from infancy through adolescence, we have found that there is a hierarchy of caregiving, with the mother as the “go to” caregiver. When mom is not around, the child will pick the adult (usually the father) who takes on the next most responsibility for the child care.
Our research also indicates that the role of mother is one that changes throughout life but remains important as children grow to adulthood.
We observed new mothers talking with their own mothers. In mother-daughter relationships, when mom is still mom, then adult daughters have someone they can still turn to, and this helps them to be better parents with their own children. That is, stronger mother-daughter relationships predicted better mother-infant relationships for the new mothers we observed. The mom who is still the “go to” caregiver for her adult child gives a tremendous gift to her grandchild.
When those who have been exposed to neglect or abuse in early childhood become parents, we would naturally be concerned that the mechanisms of good parenting would be absent or malfunctioning. Our data point to something different. As long as there is one parent or another caring adult (such a grandma, grandpa, teacher or neighbor) who can stand in as a solid alternative attachment figure, the negative effects of trauma and abuse are less likely to be transmitted to the next generation.
We have looked at how parents support their children. Fathers and other caregivers typically provide instrumental care. Fathers pick up children from soccer practice, demonstrate how to tie shoes, and make sure dinner is on the table. Mothers, we find, more often provide emotional care. Mothers soothe hurt knees and hurt feelings. Mothers forge an emotional bond with children. That emotional bond is critically important in adulthood. And the quality of that bond is what is transmitted to the next generation.
So on this Mother’s Day, honor all of the caregivers who nurture and teach young children. Better parenting is reinforced by stronger relationships with our parents as we become adults. It is never too late to have a good relationship with your mom, and, if you are a mom, don’t forget that our children are the parents of the future.
Deborah Jacobvitz is a professor and chair of the Department of Human Development and Family Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. Her research focuses on parent-child interactions and their transmission from one generation to the next.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.