When I was a child, my mom used to drive 45 minutes every morning to take me to school. We drove another 45 minutes in the evening to go home. Oftentimes, we’d be stuck in traffic, making the commute much longer. I used to dread those long car rides, but they also gave my mother and me the opportunity to talk without any distractions. I now wonder how our daily conversations during those car rides may have not only strengthened our relationship, but also contributed to my development and where I am today.
A growing body of psychological research, including some I’ve worked on, shows that parent-child communication is important for promoting children’s success. Conversations are a fundamental way in which children develop cognitive and language skills. Research finds that children of talkative mothers who use a broad range of words tend to speak more, have more opportunities to practice their verbal skills and, in turn, have faster rates of vocabulary growth in comparison to children who hear a more restricted range of words.
The type and quality of that talk is important for the successful development of children’s academic-related skills, as well. In one study, when mothers reminisced about past events with their children and used questions and statements to focus the child’s attention on particular aspects of an event (e.g., “What did we do at grandma’s house?”), children exhibited better use of memory strategies and recall over time.
Another forthcoming study found that young children of mothers who used more desire-related words, such as “want” or “like,” demonstrated greater perspective-taking abilities, which is an important marker of a child’s social competence. Studies like these show that, through conversations, mothers can scaffold their children’s language and help them to develop skills and knowledge.
In truth, everyday conversations and interactions not only help foster children’s cognitive and social skills, but they can also help maintain and strengthen the emotional ties between parent and child. This connectedness—and warm and positive interactions in particular—lead children to more accurately perceive, accept and internalize their parent’s values and messages. Similarly, a parent’s ability to read her child’s signals and respond appropriately has important implications not only for the quality of the parent-child relationship but also for the child’s long-term development.
Recent research, for example, shows that a mother’s sensitivity and responsiveness in the first few years of a child’s life has lifelong consequences for children’s academic and social competence.
Beyond promoting the development of children’s academic and social skills, there is research to suggest that positive parent-child interactions and relationships can play a role in children’s career development, as well. Close family relationships, for example, not only help children to learn important work-related skills, such as effective communication and conflict resolution, but they also can provide children with the confidence to explore various career options and make successful career transitions.
When I was younger, there were a lot of things I would have rather been doing than sitting in traffic. But the fact that my mother used that time to communicate with me may have ultimately been time well spent.
Sandra Tang is a research investigator in the Survey Research Center at the Institute for Social Research at University of Michigan, where she examines the role of family, school and environment in shaping children’s educational success.