Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Parents' influence on kids' behavior: Not much

How do you raise "good kids"? It's one of the questions that plague parents even before their kids are born. Although everyone's child can't be above average, we all want our kids to be nice to others, to "get along" in the world. But kids don't necessarily cooperate. Babies scream, pull hair, defecate and urinate where they're not supposed to. Toddlers throw fits in the middle of supermarkets, and older children lie to us and steal from each other. How do we keep them from becoming delinquents, convicts, or worse?
     Unfortunately a lot of the research suggests that parents don't actually have much influence on their kids' behavior -- peers, other environmental factors, and genetics seem to have a larger impact. Yet as parents, we can't simply throw up our hands and give up. We exert whatever small influence we do have, and hope it doesn't backfire.
     Some studies have suggested that mothers have a disproportionate influence on kids, and that an authoritative parenting style leads to the best results (more prosocial children, who get along with others better). But according to a research team led by Paul Hastings, many of these studies are flawed because they don't measure masculine prosocial behaviors -- the actions more likely to be seen in boys than girls. Girls, they say, tend to be more helpful, sympathetic, and passionate, while boys are more friendly, engaged, and assertive (without being aggressive). All these behaviors are really prosocial.
    Hastings and his colleagues had the parents of 133 two- to five-year-olds read several stories about interactions between children and asked how they would respond to the situation if their child had been involved in the situation. The parents also filled in a survey to determine how authoritative their parenting style was.
    From five to nine months later, the children themselves were observed playing in a group. After playing for 40 minutes, the experimenter gave them a new toy drum and observed how well they interacted with the new toy. Did they take turns? Did they make sure everyone had a chance to play? In addition, the kids' preschool teachers answered a questionnaire about each child's prosocial behavior.
    Was their a relationship between the parents' earlier responses and the children's behavior later? Here are some of the results:

    This graph shows the relationship between various parental strategies and children's "giving" behavior in the laboratory 5 to 9 months later. The filled data points are the only correlations that are statistically significant -- most strategies have no significant effects. Giving behaviors are those stereotypically considered feminine: giving a toy to another child, accepting an invitation to play, and offering a different activity. "Attributions" corresponds to parents stating that prosocial behaviors were part of their child's disposition. For mothers, there was a significant positive correlation between attribution and girls' later giving behavior. Mothers who discussed positive behavior with their sons had sons who later exhibiting giving. Finally, mothers' indirect praise of their daughters (to teachers, for example) was also correlated significantly with later giving behavior. None of the fathers' strategies correlated significantly with giving.
    But what about more masculine behavior? The researchers also looked at how willing kids were to take turns, share, and be cooperative rather than aggressive. This "turn-taking behavior is charted against parenting strategies below:

    In this graph, only one correlation was significant: when mothers attributed prosocial behavior to their sons, this correlated significantly with later turn-taking. When boys and girls behavior was combined, then an authoritative mother also correlated significantly with later turn-taking.
   The teacher ratings of the children's behavior followed a very similar pattern, confirming the behavior observed in the laboratory. So it seems that some strategies used by mothers have some small effect on children's behavior, but few fathering strategies show any effect at all [and of course, since these are just correlations, the strategies themselves may not be causing the results]. When the researchers statistically corrected to consider the mother's strategy, the fathering effect disappeared entirely.
    The researchers say this could be due to the fact that mothers tend to spend more time with younger children, so fathers need not dismay entirely. Maybe a new study could consider the impact of stay-at-home fathers with working wives.

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