When keynote presenter Paul Tough became a dad, he never thought he would be using parenting techniques he learned from rats. Tough delivered a compelling keynote address at the 2012 National Forum during the afternoon session. “Parents and other caregivers who are able to form close, nurturing relationships with their children can foster resilience in them that protects them from many of the worst effects of a harsh early environment.”  Amazingly, we see strong evidence of this in the behavior of lab rats. The effect of good parenting is not just emotional or physiological. Neuroscientists say it is biochemical.

A few years ago Tough set out to do research for his new book “How Children Succeed”. During that research, he stumbled upon a compelling study by Michael Meaney at McGill University. Meaney, a neuroscientist, often uses rats to study brain architecture. During one of these studies he noticed an interesting trend. Some lab rats, when returned to their cages, were groomed and nurtured by their mother. Amazingly, in instances where this parental bond was created rats showed huge behavioral differences as they matured into adults. Aggressive behaviors were lowered, subjects were healthier and social skills were more developed.

So where does character come from? How does it develop in children, and what can parents do to help it grow? Paul Tough believes that the research Meaney compiled reveals part of the answer. “When children are able to bond effectively with parents after birth, it significantly reduces toxic stress. Reducing toxic stress impacts a child’s ability to process, and the antidote to toxic stress is parents.”

If you’re not convinced that rats explain the biology of stress, Tough’s book provides countless examples of studies that directly link the role of parenting in early childhood development to a positive impact in adulthood. Regardless of the findings I think we can all agree with Tough, “Regular good parenting can make a profound difference in a child’s life”.