Newborn babies turn towards their mother's scent or voice, preferring her to everyone else. This strong biological bond continues throughout life but is most powerful during the early years. Although children are born with basic temperament characteristics, mothers -- and fathers -- help mold those characteristics through example, daily interactions and direct teaching.
Children must feel safe and secure to develop normally. A warm, nurturing mother provides this sense of security. When a child is hurt, for example, he usually goes to his mother for comfort, even if other people are nearby. These early feelings of trust and safety give children the freedom to explore, learn and develop. When children lack these early experiences, normal development is thwarted. During the 1980s and 1990s, abandoned children in Romania were sent to orphanages, rather than placed in foster care. These children's basic needs were met, but the children received little individual care or attention. Most of the children displayed abnormal personality development, including lack of language development, head banging, aggression and the inability to form attachments, notes Charles A. Nelson of Harvard University. Brain scans found that the children's brains were actually smaller than normal.
Children rely on the feedback they get from the adults around them to learn appropriate behaviors and character development. Mothers encourage persistence, independence and confidence through gentle encouragement. Young children also learn norms for acceptable behaviors through their mothers. A disapproving look lets a child know when she's crossed a line. A warm embrace rewards positive behavior. Mothers transmit character and values by their own behavior, as well.
Young children are born with an innate temperament and interests, but mothers do play a role in shaping these characteristics. A rough and tumble toddler may prefer blocks, trucks and active play to all else. But this same toddler might sit on mom's lap enjoying a quiet story before bedtime. Mothers can encourage and support natural interests while introducing children to other hobbies and activities. This doesn't mean you have to rush out to buy the latest educational toy or stock up on the flash cards, according to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, authors of "NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children." Simply spend time working and learning together. Rake the leaves, work on a puzzle, listen to music and have family dinners together.
A mother's social and emotional well-being can have profound effects on a child's early development. A child whose mother suffers from untreated depression, for example, is three to five times more likely to have some form of mental illness than other children, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists. On the other hand, emotionally healthy moms can teach young children important social and emotional skills, such as sharing and taking turns, communicating and expressing emotions appropriately. While mothering styles vary, depending on cultural norms, personality and individual circumstances, the most effective mothering style is one of nurturing warmth and strong leadership, according to Stephan B. Poulter, author of "The Mother Factor."
- Time: Measures of a Mother's Love: How Early Neglect Derails Child Development
- The Harvard Crimson: HMS Professor Studies Orphanage Impact on Brain Development
- Royal College of Psychiatrists: Maternal Mental Illness and Mother-Child Relations
- The Mother Factor; Stephan B. Poulter
- NatureShock: New Thinking About Children; Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
- Jupiterimages/Comstock/Getty Images