Recently, at a shopping mall, I sat next to a woman who was bouncing her baby on her lap. As mom looked into her baby's eyes, her young daughter gazed back. As mom told stories about all the wonderful things they did that day, her baby responded in coos and smiles.
They were communicating with each other. They were enjoying each other's company. They were in sync.
This wasn't just a feel-good moment for mom and daughter -- and those sitting on nearby benches. It was an opportunity to shape the baby's future.
"When a parent connects with her child and responds to her cues, it lays the foundation for the child's future development,'' said Grazyna Kochanska, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Iowa.
These early connections don't only promote a positive relationship between parent and child, they may actually help improve a child's behavior and yield other important benefits later in life.
In a study published in February in the journal Child Development, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, Kochanska and her colleagues found that preschool-age children who developed a close, positive, reciprocal and mutually responsive relationship with their mothers during the first two years of life were more likely to be cooperative, compliant and patient than children who hadn't developed these strong ties.
"When you develop a mutually responsive relationship, your child becomes eager and willing to respond to your parenting influence. He'll want to comply. Consequently, you greatly reduce the need to use power for controlling and disciplining your child,'' said Kochanska. "Forceful, power-assertive discipline inevitably causes children's anger and resentment; therefore, when you do not need to resort to it, your child will probably be less oppositional and less defiant, and more willing to adopt your requests and prohibitions. And when he does assert his independence, he'll perhaps do it in a more appropriate and less angry way.''
Here are some practical tips to help foster close ties, from infancy through the school age years:
- Be aware. "During infancy, pay attention to your baby's cues and learn about them,'' suggested Kochanska. What comforts your baby? What does each type of cry mean? When you ask yourself these questions, you can begin to recognize the many ways your baby is communicating with you.
- Be responsive. "Respond quickly and consistently to your infant,'' Kochanska said. "This lets your baby know you're there for him and that you want to meet his needs.'' Make your response match what you think your baby is trying to tell you. "As babies grow, the range of signals will increase,'' Kochanska said. If your baby seems scared or upset, provide comfort. If he seems bored, try entertaining him.
- Nurture independence. "Your child will become more and more autonomous,'' said Kochanska. Provide plenty of age-appropriate opportunities to assert his independence, like choosing what shirt to wear or whether to eat oatmeal or eggs for breakfast. Of course, it's critical to set appropriate limits and boundaries.
- Play your child's way. "Designate a special time during the day when your child can take the lead in play,'' said Kochanska. "If he says, 'The toy goes there,' don't correct him or try it a different way. Simply pass him the toy and enthusiastically follow what he is doing.'' This is another opportunity to let your child assert his independence.
- Have fun. "Shared good times are part of the glue that connects parents and children,'' said Kochanska. "When you share good times with someone, it's natural that you'll feel closer to each other.'' She encourages parents to laugh with children, be playful and find things you both like to do.
- Value the everyday moments. "Each opportunity you have to connect with your child is an important one,'' said Kochanska. "It's one of a million little building blocks that you are putting in day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, as you construct your relationship. Each of these interactions turns into thousands and thousands of positive experiences; and these really do matter.''
Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist. She can be reached at Debbie@newsforparents.org.