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Why kids with supportive moms do better in school and in life

Doctors are now devoting part of a child's visit to checking up on mom

The other day, a mother of a 15-month-old walked into Andrew Garner's office, oozing frustration.

"Is it normal for them to never sit still?" she asked.

Garner, a pediatrician in Westlake, Ohio, leapt on the remark as a teachable moment.

"He doesn't sit still?!" he said. "That's a compliment to you! You want him to do that."

At 15 months, he explained, children are itching to explore, and then toddle back, and then wander off again. It's a sign the baby is developing space.

The goal was to make the woman feel confident in her mothering abilities. If he builds up her self-esteem, Garner hopes, she'll be more invested and engaged as a mom, and the child will grow up smarter and healthier as a result. Garner bases this chain of events on a spate of recent studies that have shown that supportive parents breed better-off children.

So, now, on top of taking measurements, asking about sleep and food habits, and giving vaccinations, Garner devotes part of the visit to checking up on mom.

Of course, all the good advice in the world won't help a parent who is scraping by financially, doesn't have a safe home, or is otherwise strained. Denise Dowd, who works at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, mentors mothers who are victims of poverty and domestic violence.

"You can't imagine what they're going through," she told me. "We're talking about not just sexual abuse, but your mother selling you into prostitution, your mother shooting you up for the first time when you're 12 so you can get through your first tricks okay."

In the worlds of these mothers, "you can never give what you never got." Many of them think it's sufficient just to keep their children safe, dry, and fed. One told Dowd she didn't know she was supposed to talk to her baby.

Dowd tries to show moms how resilient they are, or "what's strong about themselves." The hope is they'll want to defy their own bitter upbringings by raising kids who are functional and happy.

Read more via The Atlantic