What do most parents want for their kids as they grow into adults? Successful careers? Happy family lives? Or do they simply want their children to be good people? They probably want all of these things — and a little wealth and fame wouldn’t hurt either. The bigger question parents have is about the right way to inspire, motivate, cajole, or prod their kids in the direction they believe is most likely to yield the desired results.
There’s been a lot of research about good parenting, but much of that research has focused on parenting style: parents’ overall philosophy of childrearing, such as how strict or emotionally expressive they are with kids. When studies have focused on actual parental behavior, they tend to study only discipline: how parents respond when kids misbehave.
But clearly there’s much more to parenting than this — there are lots of ways we try to encourage our kids to become the kind of adults we want them to be. According to a team led by Gustavo Carlo, few studies have addressed parenting practices and moral behavior. They’ve recently completed a survey that they see as the first step to covering this ground.
The researchers asked 233 high school students about both their parents’ childrearing philosophy and the actual ways their parents interacted with them. They compared these results with the teenagers’ attitudes about a variety of situations and reasons they might help others, ranging from altruistic (helping with no regards to personal benefit) to anonymous to public (helping only when others are watching).
For each of these dimensions of helping others, the students were asked to rate their tendencies on a scale of 1 (does not describe me at all) to 5 (describes me greatly). So for example, for “anonymous,” one of the rating statements was “I tend to donate money without anyone knowing.” For “altruistic,” the statements were rated in reverse. Students rated statements like “I tend to help with charity work best when it looks good on my resume” on the same 1 to 5 scale, but when the results were analyzed, the numeric values were reversed: a 1 counts as more altruistic than a 5.
Parenting behaviors and philosophies were rated by the teenagers on similar scales.
So what did Carlo’s team find? First of all, there wasn’t a very strong connection between parenting philosophy and their kids’ self-ratings about helping others. In most cases, there was a stronger relationship between the teenagers’ ratings of their own sympathy and helping others, than between parenting philosophy and helping others. Sympathy self-ratings of the adolescent, the researchers argue, is the most important moderating factor in the relationship between the parents and their kids’ attitudes about helping others.
To take one example, let’s look at “demandingness.” This chart shows the relationship between parental demandingness (strictness) and different types of helping behavior:
The solid lines show significant correlations, while the dashed lines indicate that there is no significant relationship between two factors. In this case, there were small significant correlations between demandingness and emotional and anonymous helping of others, but none of the other four types. There was no correlation between demandingness and sympathy, but sympathy was strongly correlated with four of the six types of helping behavior. Parental demandingness explained just 1 to 3 percent of the helping behavior.
Now look at this chart showing the relationship between conversations with parents and helping behavior:
Now we’re not talking about a parenting philosophy, but an actual parenting behavior. When parents actively discuss helping others with their kids, there are significant correlations between the parental behavior and helping others in four of the six categories. The bold lines show cases where there is a significant indirect effect: conversations correlate with sympathy, which in turn correlates significantly with all six categories of helping others. Conversations explain 5 to 10 percent of the helping behavior.
Overall the researchers found many more significant relationships between parenting behaviors and kids helping others than between parenting philosophies and kids helping others, and while the effects of philosophies were all modest, many of the parenting behaviors had moderate correlations with helping behavior.
In short, if you want your kids to value helping others in a variety of ways, this research suggests that you’re likely to be effective when you actively encourage those behaviors through conversation, experiential learning, and other actions. This approach appears to be more effective than general parenting philosophies such as demandingness or responsiveness to children’s emotional needs. But of course, as a correlational study, these results alone don’t show that these parenting strategies cause the desired results. It’s possible that kids with better attitudes about helping others inspire more action from their parents.
Carlo, G., McGinley, M., Hayes, R., Batenhorst, C., Wilkinson, J. (2007). Parenting styles or practices? Parenting, sympathy, and prosocial behaviors among adolescents. Journal of Genetic Psychology, 168(2), 147-176.