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Health & Parenting

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Good Parenting Ups Kids' Mental Skills

Study Shows Better Parenting Skills Sharpen Minds of Kids in Poverty

Poverty and Brain Development continued...

There are three kinds of stress, Shonkoff says: good stress, which keeps life interesting, "tolerable" stress, which can be very upsetting but which doesn't cause lasting damage, and "toxic" stress. The difference between toxic and tolerable depends on how long the stress lasts and whether or not a person has good social support.

Conditions that produce toxic stress are most common in poverty -- chronic fear and instability together with too little trust in other people -- but it can exist in all income brackets.

The systems in a child's forming brain most vulnerable to toxic stress are those involved with language and attention. These things are not hard-wired by genes. A child develops verbal abilities and concentration in early childhood, and this development is highly influenced by the child's experiences. Bad experiences harm development, but by the same token, "it has potential to be enhanced," Stevens says.

Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, PhD, co-director of the Institute for Child and Family Policy at Columbia University in New York City, says the most helpful ways to even the odds for poor kids are preschool education and efforts to improve parenting practices. She says the policy institute she leads has "very specific recommendations on parenting practices," which agree with what the Oregon researchers taught.

Shonkoff argues that the importance of programs to aid poor children and their parents can't be underestimated because the effects last a lifetime. "The earlier we intervene, the better," Shonkoff says.

"We don't have a simple recipe" for good parenting, Stevens says, but the methods parents learned in the study were well founded in scientific research, and families benefited not long after beginning to try them.

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