Family life

Parenting matters

How parents act toward and respond to their children plays a crucial part in their children's social, emotional and cognitive development. What makes parents parent the way they do? What programs are most effective at enhancing parenting skills?

What are the most effective programs for improving parenting skills?

There is strong consensus that parents matter in how their children develop and function. Yet according to data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, only one-third of Canadian parents use optimal parenting approaches.

“Many of the skills children acquire are fundamentally dependent on their interactions with their, caregivers and the broader social environment”, say Matthew R. Sanders and Alina Morawska, of the University of Queensland, Australia. They identify parenting quality as “the strongest potentially modifiable risk factor” in the development of behavioural and emotional problems in children.

Parent-child interactions affect many different areas of development, including self-esteem, academic achievement, cognitive development and behaviour. Research shows that language stimulation and learning materials in the home are strongly linked to school readiness, vocabulary and early school achievement, while parent discipline strategies and nurturance are most strongly linked to social and emotional outcomes, such as behaviour and impulse control and attention.

But what makes parents parent the way they do? Knowledge of child development, personal beliefs and expectations, their own experiences and the socioeconomic environment are just some influencing factors.

Jay Belsky, from the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues at Birkbeck, University of London, U.K., highlights a number of forces that shape parenting. These include "the attributes of the children, the developmental history of the parents and their own psychological makeup, and the broader social context in which parents and this relationship are embedded.”

“Parents observe their children through a filter of conscious and unconscious thoughts and attitudes and these filters direct the way they perceive their children's actions and how they behave toward them”, explains Joan E. Grusec, of the University of Toronto. Daniel S. Shaw, of the University of Pittsburgh, notes that parental age, well-being, history of antisocial behaviour, social support within and outside the family and neighbourhood quality (particularly in impoverished communities) can also influence child functioning.

Cause and effect

A large body of research on parental behaviour and child-rearing practices indicates that parental warmth combined with reasonable levels of control produces positive child outcomes.

ln a number of investigations, sensitive-responsive parenting was linked to positive emotionality in children, while children who were negative, irritable or aggressive were found to have received “Iess supportive, if not problematic parenting”, reports Belsky. lnconsistent, rigid or irritable explosive discipline, as well as low supervision and involvement, have been closely associated with the development of child conduct problems.

Parental knowledge also plays a key role. Parents who are aware of developmental norms and milestones, understand the processes of child development and are familiar with caregiving skills gain a global cognitive organization for adapting to or anticipating developmental changes in children.

Knowledge can also affect parents' beliefs and expectations, which in turn can have an impact on child outcomes. Parents' inaccurate beliefs or overestimation of their child's performance can actually undermine the child's performance. “For example, adolescent mothers who reported more positive, more realistic and more mature expectations about parenting, children and the parent-child relationship had children with better coping skills”, note Sanders and Morawska.

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