Pregnant moms who have a strong sense of control over their lives — as opposed to feeling like their lives are controlled by luck and external forces — tend to have children who score higher in math and science, according to new research published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.
The study is part of a series from the University of Bristol in the U.K. in which the researchers evaluate a specific personality trait known as “locus of control.” This is a psychological measure of how much someone believes they have control over the outcome of events in their lives or whether they think external forces beyond their control dictate how life turns out.
Importantly, people with an external locus of control believe there is little point in making an effort in life, since what happens to them is due to luck and circumstances. This stands in contrast to those with an internal locus of control, as they are motivated to action because they feel they can influence what is going to happen.
For the study, researchers examined the prenatal locus of control traits in participants by looking at the responses of questionnaires completed by over 1,600 pregnant women enrolled in Bristol’s Children of the 90s study.
Next, the researchers looked at the mathematical and scientific reasoning and problem-solving skills of the participants’ offspring at the ages of 8, 11 and 13. These skills were assessed in school using specially designed tests.
The findings reveal that mothers who had an internal locus of control before their child was born (those who believe in the connection between their actions and what happens to them) were more likely to have a child who is good at math and science.
Compared to their externally controlled peers, internally focused moms also were more likely to provide their children with diets that assist brain development, to more frequently read stories to them and to show an interest in their child’s homework and academic progress.
“It is widely known that the locus of control of a child is strongly associated with their academic achievements, but until now we didn’t know if mothers’ locus of control orientation during pregnancy had a role to play in early childhood. Thanks to the longitudinal data from Children of the 90s study we can now make these associations,” said Professor Jean Golding, lead author and founder of the Children of the 90s study.
“If our findings, that mothers’ attitudes and behaviors can have an effect on their child’s academic abilities, can be replicated it would suggest that more efforts should be made to increase the opportunities for mothers to feel that their behaviors will have a positive outcome for themselves and their children. It would help future generations raise healthy, confident and independent children.”
Golding adds that an intervention study could help determine whether encouraging women to become more internal would improve the academic development of their children.
“Internal parents believe that they have behavioral choices in life,” said coauthor Professor Stephen Nowicki at Emory University in Atlanta and expert on locus of control.
“This and other findings from our child development work with the University of Bristol and expectant parents show that when they expect life outcomes to be linked to what they do, their children eat better, sleep better and are better able to control their emotions.”
“Such children later in childhood are also more likely to have greater academic achievements, fewer school related personal and social difficulties and less likelihood of being obese.
“It is possible for a parent to change their outlook; we’ve demonstrated in the past that parents who become more internal — they learn to see the connections between what they do and what happens to their children— improved their parenting skills, which would have a positive effect on their children’s personal, social and academic lives,” said Nowicki.
Source: University of Bristol