Back when I managed research facilities – about 12 buildings on the Stanford campus – every summer I would hire extra help to do some of the deferred maintenance while folks were away on break. Usually I would select big, strapping high school beef-eaters to help with the heavy lifting. One summer I caught Dan and Chris, who were supposed to be power-washing the building exteriors, goofing off inside one of the offices.

“If I catch you messing around again,” I mock-confronted them, “I’m going to tell your mother on you!” The sudden look of shock, shame and horror on both their burly football faces took me completely by surprise. I had, it seems, unexpectedly tapped into a very vulnerable place.

The First Voice You Hear

Dr. Fred Erickson

Coincidentally that year, one of the visiting scholars in residence at Stanford was Fred Erickson from UCLA. Fred is an expert in prosody which involves speech and its rhythms, intonations and stresses. Each of our brains pays first attention to how things are said, and then secondarily, to whatever the words might mean. Beginning at roughly five weeks in utero, according to Alfred Tomatis,  the so-called, “Einstein of the ear,” embryos begin tuning in to the intermittent reinforcement of mother’s voice. Mother’s voice, it turns out, very likely drives early neural development, and later takes on profound significance that can last a lifetime. It’s not for nothing hearing is the first sense to develop. For good or ill – for impoverished neural development or for enriched development – mother’s voice is closely connected to survival for young children. Thus they learn to pay exquisite attention to it from the get-go. And since words have no meaning yet, what gets paid most of the attention is … prosody.

Children who are separated from mothers at birth generally have difficult times developmentally. This is not unreasonable, since one major energy source driving neural development has been abruptly removed. Tomatis had great success with such children in France by simply recording the voices of birth mothers and playing them in a specifically sequenced manner. (He later obtained good success with recordings by Mozart and Gregorian chanting as well).

Dr. Seth Pollak

If it were up to me, digital video and audio recordings of birth mothers and their voices would be stored on the Internet and would be accessible to all children across their whole lifespan. There’s nothing so soothing as a loving mother’s voice as this research by Leslie Seltzer and Seth Pollak at the University of Wisconsin – Madison demonstrates: a kindly telephone call from mom dramatically lowers cortisol and increases oxytocin. And we know such conditions are excellent for brain development.

The Unkindest Abuse of All

The operative word in the above research, of course, is kindly. Just as mother’s kind voice profoundly and positively affects neurotrophins (proteins that support brain cells’ survival, differentiation and growth), it has an equally disproportionate negative effect when unkindness, criticism or screaming is involved. In these cases, mother’s voice strikes terror in the heart.

Current research suggests that somewhere between 80-90% of American parents scream at their kids (Almost 100% scream at seven-year-olds for some reason). After the first few episodes the initial fear that kids experience eventually gives way and kids’ own neurology conditions them toward tuning out. But what is tuning out? I would argue that tuning out is a form of dissociation. The “Whatever Response” is a forced intellectual and emotional disengagement. Left brain and right brain go bye-bye. And as “recovering neurologist,” Bob Scaer and others point out, dissociation promotes the antithesis of neurogenesis and synaptogenesis – the growing and connecting of new neurons in the network. Tuning out impoverishes neural development.

Guiding The Mouthy Majority

What then are 80-90% of American parents to do? This is where the creative aspects of parenting live. First of all, even if you don’t really believe that screaming at kids is all that damaging, in this instance we, and our kids, are better off by taking Pascal’s Wager. That is, by acting as if screaming actuallyis damaging. If it is damaging, then we’ve taken active steps to address it. If it’s not damaging, then the steps we’ve actively taken result in no harm, no foul.

And the steps to take? Off the top of my head, I can think of two. First is, to make a game or practice to see how often I can catch myself mid-scream. It’s sort of like, “Aha, my limbic system got me again!” Once I’ve caught myself and taken the time to settle down, I can then take on the work of relationship repair. I can offer apologies for losing my cool and explain that I am experimenting with trying to catch myself when I get emotionally out of control. Apologies help kids know that parents are human and that we do things we don’t really want to more often than we might like. Parenting is a practice, and putting the power of mother’s voice to work in it, can produce dramatic results.