“Information about the world flooding into a young brain begins to carve out traces, like rushing water over soft limestone. As the outside world sculpts the growing brain, important connections between nerve cells become strong rivers, while smaller unused tributaries quietly disappear.”

– Laura Sanders (2012, p. 19)

Parenting matters. What you do, what you say, how you interact with your children and the type of environment you expose them to on a continual basis matters a great deal. Everything you do serves as a model for your kids, and the way in which you and other adults behave will be incorporated into their own thinking and way of doing. If you and other adults exhibit positive parenting styles and model healthy ways of coping, children will grow up resilient. If you parent in a way that deprives children of growth opportunities while fighting with your spouse and modeling unhealthy ways of coping with stress, they’ll develop a greater vulnerability towards life’s difficult events.

How positive parenting = resilient kids

Child psychologists have long known that proper parenting is crucial for healthy development. But recent research is showing just how profound of a difference parenting can make, especially when it comes to those subtle differences in parenting styles that dictate a child’s day to day experiences.

Take, for example, parents who tend to try and elicit obedience through discipline and admonitions versus those who encourage more exploration and learning by doing. The latter parenting style, referred to by many psychologists as scaffolding, appears to have a direct impact on the way a child’s stress physiology develops.

Developmental scientists have done studies in which they analyzed video recordings of mothers interacting with their babies during free play. In one such analysis in 2008, it was found that infants whose mothers displayed this more positive scaffolding style had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their system and were also calmer and more attentive than infants whose mothers either completed the activity for their baby or impeded his attempts to do so.

Related follow-up studies would reveal that children of mothers who exhibited positive parenting styles had a healthier stress response to both fear and frustration at 7 months of age. At 15 months, these children continued to exhibit lower stress levels and were more likely to respond to emotional challenges in an appropriate way.

As stress researcher Clancy Blair states, evidence from studies such as this show “that parenting style shapes the developing stress response system.” She adds that “we also saw that less positive parenting went hand in hand with poorer executive function in children, indicating that mothers and fathers can directly stimulate the development of important mental skills.” (Blair, 2012)

Findings such as this are a big deal. They demonstrate that the way in which parents interact with children can alter their developing systems for coping with stress, just as abuse and neglect have been shown to do. Positive parenting styles can also have a profound effect on other measures of child welfare; everything from IQ and language skills to psychological and emotional health.

For instance, researchers have found that whereas the children of more affluent families hear about 500,000 “encouragements” (positive-learning statements and words of praise or approval) and around 80,000 “discouragements” (admonitions such as “stop that”) by the age of three, lower income children on welfare hear only about 80,000 encouragements versus 200,000 discouragements from their caretakers. This discrepancy is believed to be a big reason why lower income kids score lower on everything from IQ and academic achievement to levels of emotional health. (Tough, 2009) If you lined up these parents side by side, few laypeople would notice any significant differences leaping out at them. Yet the differences are there, and they are impacting how a child develops.

Children don’t learn much from a coarse “no” other than to discern their parent is cranky and interfering with their desires. So those kids who hear many more admonitions than they receive explanations and direction only learn to feel frustrated, without learning much about how to behave. Because positive motivations are vastly more effective than negative ones, kids who receive more positive instruction and less admonitions are going to be more socially competent. And if kids hear 4 things about what they do wrong for every affirmation about what they do right, it can impact their self-perception, resulting in psychological and emotional problems. Amplified over the course of several years, these subtle differences can amount to a significant difference in a child’s competence in life.

Why Positive Parenting matters

In a different study in Maternal and Child Health Journal, researchers found that Latino toddlers fall up to 6 months behind their white counterparts in basic language and thinking skills by the time they’re two or three years old. A follow up study would find what seems to be the primary culprit: Mexican-American families primarily used “direct verbal commands” in their parenting language with their kids (42% of the time) while only 8% of exchanges included reasoning. White families, on the other hand, tended to use reasoning in their exchanges more than a third of the time, thus “inviting more complex thought and language development,” says study co-author Bruce Fuller. (Dokoupil, 2009)

Other research has found that things like how often parents read to their kids or how many books exist within a home or even a community can have an impact on child literacy rates, determining the difference between success and failure. And while parents may worry about the “big” things that may happen to their child, it’s often the small but consistent stuff that matters far more. For example, most people would imagine that experiencing parental incest would be a horribly destructive thing, and in some instances, it certainly can be. But when researchers studied the subject and included a control scale that measured parental narcissism, they found that having a narcissistic mother was more predictive of harm and more apt to lead to poor outcomes than were the sexual experiences. (Moor, 1993) Deficiencies in parenting, amplified through repetition, can either give your child strength or hinder their functioning in the future.

How parents should react to this knowledge

We don’t want parents to be overly paranoid in reading about this information. Our goal is not to have caretakers walking on pins and needles worried that every subpar interaction they have with their kids could spell doom and gloom. This isn’t helpful, nor is it accurate. Parents are never perfect, and your parenting doesn’t have to be in order to produce wonderful children. We just want you to appreciate how your behavior with and around kids, when amplified over thousands upon thousands of instances, can amount to a big difference in how well children cope with adversity in the future.

In line with the quote given by science writer Laura Sanders at the beginning of this chapter, the things you do and don’t do in your everyday parenting will carve out traces and pathways in a child’s mind. Certain things can build pathways that strengthen a child’s resiliency, whereas other behaviors can leave gaping vulnerabilities that hinder a child’s ability to cope with life. How well you parent in the trenches, so to speak, can mean far more to your child’s future than any specific period of adversity they face or any particular isolated trauma they might endure.

The tips and advice in the upcoming sections are intended to help parents address these core competencies in an un-frantic manner, so that you are building a child’s resiliency in the everyday things you do.