Want to Raise Successful Kids? 4 Ways Science Says Moms Help Their Children Be Smarter, More Resilient, and Build Better Relationships

I’ve written a number of columns that share research-based tools, tips, and strategies for raising successful kids. (Why? If for no other reason than eight out of 10 entrepreneurs say they would actively encourage their children to be entrepreneurs.)

This one? It’s mom-specific: How mothers, both purposefully and automatically (more on that in a moment) can help their children grow up to be more positive, more resilient, and even smarter.

1. Moms can help their kids build bigger brains.

Granted, that sounds odd. But work with me.

In a 2012 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers discovered that children whose mothers were positive and nurturing had a larger hippocampus than those whose moms were not.

Why does that matter? The hippocampus plays a significant role in cognition, memory, and learning.

In many ways that finding comes as no surprise. We all perform at a high level when we feel supported. We all perform better when we’re confident and self-assured. 

But when that process begins when we’re young, with positive, nurturing mothers… then our brains actually change, which creates a better foundation for lifelong development. 

Yep: Moms can help kids develop bigger (in some areas) and better brains.

2. Moms can help their kids be smarter — and build better relationships.

Positive interactions last a lifetime; that’s the basic finding of a multi-year longitudinal study published in 2019 in Journal of Marriage and Family.

Positive interactions with a mother up to age 16 were associated with better episode memory (tying an event to a specific event or experience), staying in school longer, and experiencing, um, better marital satisfaction (awkward researcher-speak I couldn’t figure out a better way to rephrase.)

That’s because mothers play a key role in shaping so-called “regulatory behaviors”: How we manage our attention, emotions, and actions. Positive interactions with moms help children learn how to process social information and become more accepted by the people around them.

Or, in non researcher-speak that does make sense, if your mom treats you with kindness, caring, and acceptance, you’re much more likely to treat other people the same way.

And because birds of a feather tend to flock together, surround yourself with people who treat you the same way.

3. Moms can help kids quickly access important brain systems.

In a 2016 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, researchers determined two key things. One, kids can instantly recognize their mother’s voice to a startling degree of accuracy (a finding parents whose kids practice selective hearing might dispute.)

More importantly, a mother’s voice instantly sparks activity in that parts of the brain that process emotions. That make decisions. That prioritize. That sift through information to determine what is valuable and what is not.

Last but not least, that affect how children think and feel about themselves.

In simple terms, when a mom speaks, a child may not appear to be listening… but key parts of his or her brain are definitely listening — and responding.

And, in certain situations, responding in a very important way…

4. Moms can help kids — of any age — find a more positive attitude and perspective.

Here’s where it all comes together.

Something bad has happened. You lost a key customer. You had an argument with an employee. You’re upset. You’re down. So you call your mom. As soon as you hear her voice, critical parts of your brain get activated. Positive regulatory behaviors get activated.

In a 2004 study published Communication Monographs, researchers first had participants share a negative personal experience. Then they had the participants share the same story with their mothers. Then they had the participants come back and share the same story with the researchers again.

What happened? When they shared their story after talking with their moms, they shared a version of the story that was more positive. In yet more awkward research-speak, the researchers call that shift in perspective “communicative narrative sense-making,” a fancy way of describing how talking about things tends to help us make sense of them. 

But with a twist: When participants talked things out with their moms, they “re-authored” the event in a more positive way. The event itself didn’t change; bad experiences are bad experiences.

But how they processed the event, and more importantly how they felt about the event, changed. 

Which meant how they felt about themselves also changed, and for the better.

Something science says moms are uniquely positioned to help their kids do.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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