I don’t like rats. I don’t like to see or talk or think about them. I don’t like to acknowledge they exist, even though I am doing just that when I see one on the subway platform and immediately turn around and walk the other way. I can find very few redeeming qualities about them.

But even I, a rat-phobic person, can admit that they have their uses. Mostly as scientific test subjects. Well, entirely as scientific test subjects. I heard about this particular “test” on Radio Lab, and then read about in How Children Succeed by Paul Tough (which I recommend picking up sometime).┬áIt pained me slightly to have to read about the mothering habits of rats, but I did it anyway, in the name of raising healthy, successful children.

So here’s the thing: rat mothers or “dams” lick and groom their little rat pups. Some dams do this more than other dams, and those that do it more tend to raise pups that are better adapted to handle the cruelty of the world.

This makes sense, right? If your mom hugs and kisses you when you’re a baby, you’ll be more emotionally healthy than someone who was neglected. However, there are a few other details that make this more interesting: 1. This licking and grooming actually changes the rat’s DNA. 2. This licking and grooming is most effective not when given all the time, but mostly after the rat pups had experienced some sort of stress.

The rat pups whose mothers were most attentive to them in times of stress were the most adaptable, successful rats.dirty

The real-life application is fairly obvious: Our babies need us to hug and kiss and hold them. They need us to help them calm down after they’ve been through something stressful. They need to know we’ve got their backs and to have that impressed upon them at a very young age.

But there are some other slightly tangential applications as well: the dams were not able to protect their pups from all the stresses they experienced in life. There were things that were beyond their control. The best they could do was lick and groom them afterward. And so it is with humans: we can’t protect our kids from everything. Nor should we. They need to learn to handle things, to fail, to get back up and move on. They need to learn to take risks, and they need to know that if they do take risks, it’s going to be fine. They can do it, they can get through it.

The ability to do that is one of the best predictors of success.

Micah and I really like this idea. It makes things a little easier. Sometimes we get caught up in wanting the best for our kids, in making sure they have as many opportunities as possible so that they can be successful. We wonder if we’re doing enough, if we’re giving them the best we’ve got, if they’ll have reason to blame us if they’re not “successful.”

But it turns out all we really need to do is clean their DNA if it ever gets dirty. Just hugs and kisses and support and love when they fall or fail or get stressed out. And if that’s all we do, we’re giving them a pretty good chance.

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