Can Scientists Tell Me If I’m a Good Mom? What happened when a team of neuroscientists observed my daughter and me.


By Katherine Reynolds Lewis—The CUT—April 17, 2018—

I sit in a tiny exam room at Columbia University. Underneath my shirt, EKG electrodes tug gently on my skin, one stuck to each shoulder blade and one on my belly. Similar electrodes adhere to my 9-year-old daughter Ava, sitting beside me. As we silently read National Geographic Kids and Highlights magazines, a line tracking our heartbeats rolls across the nearby computer screen for scientists to review later. This is our spring-break activity: having our parent-child bond evaluated by a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study and a battery of psychological and physiological tests.

Columbia professor Nim Tottenham had suggested we try it when I asked to observe Columbia’s Developmental Affective Neuroscience Lab ahead of a book I was writing about the roots of “bad behavior” in children today. I was specifically interested in Tottenham’s research on how children learn emotions from parents and how mothers’ physiology affects their children’s heartbeat and stress levels. Ultimately, her team was seeking a scientific answer to the question: What makes a good parent?

I’d been inspired to write the book after noticing an apparent increase in attention and mood problems among my own children’s peer group. In my research, I’d begun to see that an increase in tantruming toddlers, kicking kindergarteners, and mouthy middle schoolers represents a fundamental shift in the way children grow up nowadays. This apparent bad behavior often stems from an underlying problem with self-regulation, whether an attention disorder (poor impulse control and focus), anxiety (resistance to transitions or activities that spark fear), or depression (refusing to engage in school or chores). A stunning one in two children will develop a mood or behavioral disorder, or substance addiction, by age 18, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Even children who don’t have a diagnosis show less cooperation with other kids or adults than in previous generations, according to hundreds of conversations I’ve had with parents, educators, and scientists.

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