Responsive mothers may have kids with better language skills

Mothers who are more responsive and warmer in their interactions with their kids may have children with better language skills, especially in low-income households, a small study suggests.

Researchers examined data from 37 previous studies that focused on the association between different types of parenting behaviors and early language development in young children.

Children whose caregivers showed higher levels of sensitive responsiveness and warmth were nearly three times more likely to have strong language skills than kids whose parents didn’t display much warmth or responsiveness, the analysis found.

Responsive caregiving is when the adult pays close attention to what the child is signaling and gives a response that meets the child’s needs.

“While it’s helpful for children to be read to and played with, responsive parenting goes one step beyond, by ensuring that exchanges between parents and children are matched to the child’s signals,” said Sheri Madigan, lead author of the study and a researcher at the University of Calgary.

“Responsive parenting and language were more strongly related than were warmth and language,” Madigan said by email. “To us, this speaks to the importance of that serve-and-return relationship between a parent and child, rather than just affection and positivity.”

A range of behaviors can help foster the type of responsive parenting that’s associated with better language skills. This includes things like looking at what kids are focused on, enthusiastically talking about what they see, and using simple phrases to describe what kids are seeing and doing.

In the study, the connection between responsive parenting and language skills was even more pronounced for families with less income or education.

“Our results showed that responsive parenting is helpful for all children, but it may be particularly advantageous to children’s language when they are raised in families experiencing social disadvantage,” Madigan said. “Stimulating parenting can help to offset risks that are associated with social disadvantage.”

The studies in the analysis weren’t controlled experiments designed to test whether any specific parenting behaviors might directly cause better language skills in kids. And the study focused on mothers, so the results might be different with fathers.

Still, the results offer fresh evidence of how positive parenting interactions can help support optimal child development, said Natalie Brito, a psychology researcher at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University in New York City.

“Positive parenting factors have generally been associated with language and literacy, with the idea that these factors help to create an interactive environment for children to engage in stimulating back and forth interactions,” Brito, who wasn’t involved in the study, said by email.

“Negative factors like intrusiveness examine the degree to which the caregiver disrupts or interferes with this reciprocal interaction,” Brito said. “The current findings, which only looked at positive factors, report that across the many studies they examined, sensitive caregiving seems to play a larger role on language skills than caregiver warmth.”