Research on parenting

New statistical methods and research designs attempt to capture the complexity of parenting influences on child development. The genetic component, the home environment created by parents, and the larger community context all contribute to a child’s development. Heredity and environment influence development directly, but they also influence each other. For example, researchers consistently find that the parenting received by identical twins is more similar than the parenting received by fraternal twins, and that two biological siblings typically experience more similar parenting than do two adopted children. Research also indicates that the same genetic makeup will function differently in different environments and that the same parenting style will not have the same effect on every child. Different parenting strategies or degrees of effort may be required to bring about the same outcome in different children. Studies now attempt to disentangle the ways genetic and environmental factors influence one another.

How Parenting Affects Development

Researchers are studying the effect of specific parenting practices on the behavior of children with different temperaments. While temperamental characteristics emerge early and are fairly stable over time, research demonstrates they can be modified by experience. A “difficult” temperament, characterized by impulsivity, irritability, distractibility, and resistance to control, often predicts acting-out behavior and social alienation when a child is older. On the other hand, shy, inhibited behavior in young children is associated with anxiety disorders. Children’s temperaments and parental behavior interact and influence each other. Temperamental characteristics may set in motion a chain of reactions from others that either puts a child at risk or protects him from developing behavior and psychological problems.

Findings imply that even though parental behavior is influenced by child behavior, parents’ actions contribute distinctively to a child’s later behavior. Studies show the moderating effects of parenting on later adjustment. Children who had early developmental problems because of birth trauma, for example, showed improved behavior with a firm but loving parenting style. Parenting also seemed to mediate between pathology in parents and symptoms in their children. Children with a mentally ill parent who were not exposed to parental maltreatment, in contrast to those who were, showed very low levels of psychiatric problems. These findings show that a genetic disposition can either manifest itself or not, depending on whether certain triggering environmental conditions are present. Adopted children who had a schizophrenic biological parent were more likely to develop a range of psychiatric disorders, but only if they were adopted into dysfunctional families. Researchers conclude that well-functioning parents can buffer children at genetic risk and circumvent the processes that lead to problems.

Broader cultural and economic contexts influence development as well. The influence of an impoverished environment can be seen in a follow-up study of 20 children who were abandoned in infancy by poor parents and adopted by upper-middle-class families. By middle childhood, the children who were adopted into enriched environments averaged 14 points higher on IQ tests than their siblings who remained with their biological mothers in impoverished circumstances. Poverty has consistently shown negative effects on child development. The economic stress and disadvantage caused by poverty tend to increase parental punitiveness, and living in dangerous neighborhoods makes parents more controlling and restrictive.

Improving parenting

Attempts to change parental behavior for the purpose of influencing child behavior are surprisingly rare. The few studies that exist demonstrate that interventions with parents can create positive changes in the behavioral or personality characteristics of their children. One recent program attempted to foster more effective parenting following divorce. School-age sons of recently divorced single mothers often show increased academic, behavioral, social and emotional problems. Research shows that divorced mothers often behave in a more coercive and less positive manner toward their sons. In this study, 153 divorced mothers were randomly assigned to a treatment or control group; no intervention was provided to the boys themselves. There was no difference in the boys’ behavior between the two groups at the beginning of the study.

At the end of 12 months, mothers in the treatment group showed generally less coercive behavior toward their children and less decline in positive behavior than the control-group mothers. The degree of change in the mothers’ behavior predicted the degree of change in the children’s behavior. Changes in parenting practices were associated with changes in teacher-reported school adjustment and child- and parent-reported maladjustment. Other attempts to change parental behavior have demonstrated long-lasting positive effects on children’s behavior. Findings from studies of parent-focused interventions provide the strongest evidence of the efficacy of parenting behaviors.

Peer versus parental influences

Four general findings have emerged from recent research on parent and peer influences:

  • Adolescents and their friends display similarities across a wide array of variables, including school achievement, aggression, internalized distress and drug use.
  • Peers influence everyday behaviors and transient attitudes, but not enduring personality traits or values.
  • Parent-child relationships significantly influence which peers children select.
  • Adolescents differ considerably in their susceptibility to peer influence.

Individuals are as likely to choose like-minded friends as to be influenced by them. Parental influence on adolescent personality development is deeper and more enduring that that of peers. Parents have more lasting influence on their children’s religiosity, educational plans and occupational choices. However, even transient peer influences over day-to-day behaviors can have significant consequences to a young person’s health and well-being.

Responsive parents can reduce susceptibility to peer influence

Parents influence peer choices by managing the social activities of their children in elementary school. One of the important contributors to the difference in susceptibility to peer influence is the quality of the parent-child relationship. Adolescents whose parents are responsive and demanding are less swayed by peer pressure to misbehave than are adolescent who parents are either permissive or authoritarian.

“Contemporary Research on Parenting: The Case for Nature and Nurture” American Psychologist Volume 55, Number 2, February 2000 pp. 218-232.

Published in ERN April 2000 Volume 13 Number 4

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