Maternal Relationship Reduces Violence and Improves Intelligence

There is no substitute for a good mother, and a mother’s influence is one of the most powerful forces in the lives of young children. Now, research shows that a healthy, playful relationship between a child and a mother leads to adult children with higher intelligence and less involvement in violence.

Beginning in the 1980s, researchers in Jamaica evaluated 129 toddlers who lived in impoverished areas and were at risk for poor nutrition and lack of stimulation. The children were divided into three intervention groups and one control group. One group received intellectual stimulation and interactive playtime with their mothers, one group was given supplemental baby formula, and one group received both stimulation and nutrition supplementation. A fourth group received no intervention. All interventions lasted 2 years. The follow-up period has now exceeded 2 decades.

As part of the stimulation program, mothers and toddlers received weekly visits from a woman who taught mothers how to play with their children and engage them in stimulating activities. The program also provided books and toys to the families each week. The nutrition supplementation consisted of approximately 2 gallons of milk-based formula.

The latest results of these interventions, published by the journal Pediatrics, reports that children who received intellectual stimulation and had a playful, interactive relationship with their mothers had higher IQs as adults, higher educational attainment, better general knowledge, and fewer symptoms of depression or social inhibition than children who did not receive such stimulation. The same children also were significantly less likely to be involved in fights and violent behavior as adults. The children who received nutritional supplementation showed no improvement among these measurements.

The authors did not examine the cause of the benefits of stimulation and maternal relationships, but it may be due to improvements in children’s self-esteem, which improves academic performance and reduces aggressive behavior. This study does emphasize that activities and relationships early in life can have long-lasting effects. Some child development experts are using this information to promote early childhood interventions that include intellectual stimulation among children at risk of nutrition and stimulation deprivation.

The Jamaican study was small, and only included children already experiencing stunted growth due to poor nutrition. But, it leaves no doubt that the relationship between a mother and a child is significant, and the ability to intellectually stimulate and challenge children is essential to raising healthy, well-adjusted adults.

“Mother” is a word that means the world to children everywhere, and “M” is for the million things mothers give their children, not the least of which is time to play together.


Walker SP, Chang SM, Powell CA, & Grantham-McGregor SM (2005). Effects of early childhood psychosocial stimulation and nutritional supplementation on cognition and education in growth-stunted Jamaican children: prospective cohort study. Lancet, 366 (9499), 1804-7 PMID: 16298218

Walker SP, Chang SM, Powell CA, Simonoff E, & Grantham-McGregor SM (2006). Effects of psychosocial stimulation and dietary supplementation in early childhood on psychosocial functioning in late adolescence: follow-up of randomised controlled trial. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 333 (7566) PMID: 16877454

Walker SP, Chang SM, Powell CA, Simonoff E, & Grantham-McGregor SM (2007). Early childhood stunting is associated with poor psychological functioning in late adolescence and effects are reduced by psychosocial stimulation. The Journal of nutrition, 137 (11), 2464-9 PMID: 17951486

Walker SP, Chang SM, Vera-Hernández M, & Grantham-McGregor S (2011). Early childhood stimulation benefits adult competence and reduces violent behavior. Pediatrics, 127 (5), 849-57 PMID: 21518715

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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