What can a rat tell us about good parenting?
Actually, a lot.
New York Times Magazine writer Paul Tough spent the last few years researching rats and humans for his latest book, “How Children Succeed.”
Turns out, research shows that mama rats who lick and groom their babies more frequently produce rats that, as adults, experience less anxiety, more curiosity, and more self-control than rats whose mothers gave them less attention. The licked-and-groomed rats were better at mazes, more socially adept, lived longer and healthier lives, and were less aggressive and combative.
The high-quality mothering had nothing to do with a biological connection; these uber-rats groomed and licked adoptive pups just as much, with the same long-term psychological and physical benefits.
Tough expands on this rodent research, interweaves it with studies of human children and parents conducted at universities in San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore and Minnesota, to produce an amazing finding: even when children experience early childhood traumas and stresses, loving parents and caregivers provide an antidote more powerful than therapy or psychotropic drugs. This seems to explain that rare child who rises above childhood poverty and violence; or how one child in an alcoholic, abusive family might, as an adult, be more emotionally stable that his or her siblings.
“Parents and other caregivers,” Tough explains, “who are able to form close, nurturing relationships with their children can foster resilience in them that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment…The effect of good parenting is not just emotional or psychological, the neuroscientists say; it is biochemical.”
And it doesn’t take an army of loving adults. Tough’s research shows that one single caring adult – a parent, an aunt, a teacher, a camp counselor — can change a child’s life forever, just like one mama rat can lick a terrified, insecure pup into a healthy, well-adjusted rodent.
Reading Paul Tough’s book made me feel GOOD about my similarities to mama rats. Good parents are like powerful super heroes, just because of the love we shower on kids starting from the moment of birth. Now I, in particular, am far from perfect. In some ways, my faults and idiosyncrasies have inflicted a certain level of stress and anxiety on all three of my kids. But I have loved them, openly and crazily, on par with any nutty mama rat.
All the parents I respect, even the ones with wildly different parenting philosophies, have done the same. Even the most overprotective, helicopter parents – if their drama comes from a loving place, it seems to me the kids eventually figure this out, and the love outweighs the suffocation. All that attention might be annoying to some pups, but they benefit regardless.
I’m not going to resort to licking my children. It’s late for that, given they are now 15, 14 and 10. But good to know there’s proof I’ve made a difference.