Teachers, parents and policymakers are finally started to realize that academic success depends on more than just “booksmarts,” the kind of fluid intelligence captured by IQ tests and the like. The importance of “soft” or “non-cognitive” skills like grit and emotional intelligence is growing rapidly. But there’s a deeper question here: where do these soft skills come from? According to a new paper in Psychological Science, it’s your mom.
The research team, lead by Lilian Dindo, a clinical psychologist at the Baylor College of Medicine, crossed disciplines and decades to discover what they describe as an “adaptive cascade” that happens in three parts, drawing a line from the relational experiences we have as infants to the academic achievements we have later on. “That having a supportive responsive caregiving environment can actually provide these inner resources that will foster something like effortful control, and that this in turn can actually promote better functioning in school is the new thing here,” she tells Thrive Global.
The first part of that cascade is “secure attachment.” Tots—in this study, one cohort of 9-month olds and another of two-to-three year olds—get strongly influenced by their primary caregivers, implicitly learning how relationships work (often called attachment in the psychology field).
In this study, the mothers rated their children’s security of attachment using a widely used assessment tool. “If a child is distressed and shows distress to a parent and the parent responds to the distress in sensitive and loving and reassuring ways the child then feels secure in their knowledge that they can freely express this negative emotion,” Dindo explained. “Learning in that way is very different than learning that if I express negative emotion then I will be rejected or minimized or ignored or ridiculed. And so the child will learn not to express the negative emotions, to inhibit that negative emotion, or to actually act up even more to try to get that response. Either way they’re learning that expressing this negative emotion will not be responded to in a sensitive or loving way.”
Think of it this way: if you ate at a restaurant and it made you sick, you’d be unlikely to go back; if you expressed hurt and your mom rejected it, you’d minimize that pain next time. Even very early in life, kids are already observing cause and effect.
Step two in the cascade is effortful control, or the ability to delay gratification and inhibit a response to something when it’s in your best interest to do so—it’s the toddler-aged forerunner of things like grit and conscientiousness. In this study, effortful control in toddlers was examined experimentally—for example, in a “snack delay” task where tykes are presented with a cup of Goldfish crackers and instructed to wait to eat them until the experimenter rings a bell—and through parental ratings of how well the kids controlled themselves at home.
Then comes the third part of the cascade: academic achievement. More than a decade after the first experiments, Dindo tracked down the mother-child duos. About two-thirds of each cohort participated in the follow-up, where moms sent in their now 11 to 15-year-old kids’ scores on a couple of academic different standardized tests. The researchers crunched the data from all of the experiments and found quite the developmental chain: secure attachment was associated with effortful control in toddlers, and in turn, effortful control at age 3 predicted better test scores in early adolescence.
While this study doesn’t explain the mechanics of that three-part cascade, Dindo thinks it has to do with how we learn to regard our own inner emotional lives from the way our moms (or primary caregivers) regard us. If mom is soothing and dependable, you learn to consistently do the same for yourself—you learn that you’re going to be okay even if you feel anxious in the moment, like when tackling homework or a test. To Dindo, this shows how coming from a psychologically or emotionally deprived environment can have long-term consequences: if you don’t get the loving attentiveness you need when you’re little, it’s going to be harder to succeed as you grow up.
In very hopeful news though, other studies out this year—like here and here—show that when parents get attachment interventions, or are coached to be more attentive to their toddlers, the kids’ effortful control scores go up, which should, in turn, lead to greater achievement down the line. Because as this line of research is starting to show, just like plants need sunlight to grow into their fullest forms, humans need skillful love to reach their full potential.