The Power of Parenting

The Power of Parenting

Karen Henry

Parent with childre

Beginning in 1995 with the seminal study of vocabulary development by Betty Hart and Todd Risley that revealed a 30 million word gap in what children from the least and more advantaged homes heard by age 3, Life Span Institute researchers have investigated the power of parenting. Most recently, researchers Steven Warren and Nancy Brady published the results of another milestone a study: this time a unique longitudinal study of families whose children (and in some cases, the mothers themselves) have Fragile X. They discovered that responsive parenting can change the course of development even for children with a genetically-based, complex disability.

They found that certain specific parenting practices are significantly associated with the development of communication and language skills in children with Fragile X syndrome.

Warren, distinguished professor, and Brady, associate professor of speech-language-hearing: sciences & disorders, found that these same parent behaviors also are associated with the growth of socialization and daily living skills of these children. Parenting even mitigated declines often reported in children with FXS beginning in middle childhood.   

These parenting behaviors were observed in an ongoing study of 55 children and their mothers in their homes, which followed the children from the ages of 2 to 10 years and is continuing into adolescence.

“Our discovery of the impact of contingent maternal responsivity on child adaptive behavior development underscores the fact that the manifestation of FXS is not just the product of biology, but is ultimately attributable to the dynamic interaction of biology, behavior and environment over lengthy periods of time,” said Warren.

The study focused on a set of specific behaviors by the mothers directed to the child such as: commenting on the child’s behavior and/or focus of attention; requesting a verbal response; and verbally “recoding” or restating and/or expanding what a child said.

“Our researchers painstakingly coded each instance of maternal behavior toward their child,” said Nancy Brady, associate professor of speech-language-hearing: science & disorders. “This allowed us to discover that Mom’s behaviors, like responding to all communication, even nonverbal communication, has important implications down the road.”

Previously, the researchers reported that 56 percent of the children in the study showed declines in adaptive behavior at or before the age of 10, with an average age of 7 years for the beginning of the decline, both in relation to their peers and in absolute terms. But the present analysis showed that these declines did not occur or were substantially less for children with highly responsive mothers.

These results may have important clinical and educational implications for children with FXS, said Brady. “We see no downside and potentially a considerable upside in training efforts aimed at enhancing and supporting sustained highly responsive parenting for children with FXS during both early and middle childhood.”

Fragile X occurs when a segment in the FMR1 gene on the X chromosome called the CGG triplet repeat is lengthened from the normal 5 to 40 repeats to 200 repeats in people with full mutation FXS. This inactivates the FMR1 gene and prevents the production of a protein crucial to neural development. But even those with fewer repeats—both males and female carriers—are at risk for certain disorders later in life. Female carriers of the mutation in the FMR1 gene often develop some symptoms of the disorder such as anxiety and depression that sometimes increase over time, said Warren.

In an earlier study, Brady and Warren found that vocabulary growth in children with FXS was linked to mothers who displayed greater early and sustained responsivity up until their children reached the age of 9. Again, this was not dependent on the child’s nonverbal IQ, autism symptoms or the education level of the mother but showed the unique contribution of maternal responsivity.

“There is no doubt that parenting plays a dynamic, cumulative role in human development in concert with biology and other environmental forces,” said Warren. “Our ability to understand these effects is greatly enhanced by long-term longitudinal studies that allow us to observe how these forces interact across development. Ultimately the knowledge gained from these studies should pave the way for increasingly effective interventions and treatments.”

Kandace Fleming, associate scientist at the University of Kansas Life Span Institute, and Laura Hahn, assistant professor of speech & hearing science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, were collaborators on the study, which was published in the Jan. 10 issue of the Journal of Autism and Development Disorders

Examples of maternal responsive behaviors:




 Maintain comments

Behaviors that maintained the child’s focus and verbally commented

Child is making a sandwich and Mom says, “that looks good”

Maintain request verbal complies

Questions or statements intended to elicit a verbal response, while maintaining child focus

Mom says, “Do you want help with that sandwich?”


Verbal interpretation of child’s communication act

Child says “ba” and mom says, “Do you want your ball?”