What's the best way to help kids become good adults? Some possible answers

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchWhat 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.

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Most of parental behavior toward their kids is dominance, pure and simple -- establishing, enhancing, maintaining, and reinforcing dominance.

Parents say they reward good behavior and punish bad behavior, but watch closely and you will see that they lie. Figure that a kid emits about one behavior per second -- it takes that long for a kid who was doing just fine to dart out into street traffic and need immediate correction from you -- then we count the number of rewards and punishments issued per minute. If the parents are being honest, our number should be about 60. No, not even close: the truth is down by two orders of magnitude. What we actually see is nearly every wrong move being punished, and only the occasional right move being rewarded, if any at all, over the course of a minute. Over an hour, still nearly every wrong gets corrected, while the vast majority of rights wins the kid nothing.

If this policy runs unchecked and unbalanced, it will set the kid on a lifelong course of total submission, where only spot checks will be needed to monitor performance, and rewards can be dispensed with, now that the kid obeys without having to be told. The kid learns to anticipate the parental will whenever the parent isn't there. The program will run on, even after the one, and then the other, parent dies, stopping only when the kid dies.

The kid gets the same treatment at school. His mistakes get red-marked, but all the things he does right get no attention. The absence of error gets attention, but nary a one of his right actions warrants anything. There is no green-marking, only red-marking. Again, what we have here is pure and simple dominance.

If you've been given the care of a puppy or kitten, you (should?) know it's easy to establish dominance, and necessary to do so for the animal's safety. When the little thing is about to run out into traffic or is about to eat something that may be poisoned, you need the animal to submit to your will without question when you yell 'No!'. You need to establish dominance with a toddler very early, so that when the kid starts to run out the door or toward the street, you get the right response when you yell 'No!'

When the little one -- human, canine, or feline -- begins to understand you are the guardian of their safety, they will become eager to please you, and will want to avoid disappointing you. (This statement will extend at least to equine, bovine, and ovine, but that's as far as I personally know.)

In parallel, there is the teaching of skills.

If you have a litter of kittens or puppies on hand, teach the little ones how to play with their siblings. They're not born knowing how, but they can learn quickly, getting faster, smarter, trickier, and wiser, by the day, even by the hour. Taking the runt of the litter aside for training with a leather-gloved hand, by going at three-quarters the runt's speed, and being two or three times as clumsy and weak, by imitating the motions of a dimwitted lame clumsy littermate, you will encourage the runt to try some attack move, in which event the leather-gloved hand immediately falls down, struggling to get up. In a matter of minutes, the runt learns it is more fun to attack than get beat up, way more fun, hands down. In a few days, the runt will be stronger, and hungrier, and piggier, and will start play-fighting its littermates. Soon enough, other littermates will need some remedial training, because the bigger ones will be getting their butts whipped by their former victims. In a couple weeks, the whole litter will be a horde of fearless hellions, playing hard, nursing greedily, grooming each other in piles, and sleeping soundly in a communal pile.

Try teaching a little kid how to teach a puppy or kitty how to play. The kid will catch on fast, quickly getting the whole idea of starting small with something easily attainable, then raising the challenges as the skills catch up. Soon enough, when the kid misses a ball he should have caught, he'll be mad at himself first -- just like a MLB pro -- and only second will come his disappointing you.

That style of skill learning applies just as well to scouting, spelling, or soccer. Or to little league fielding and batting. Or to place kicking. Or arithmetic, algebra, or calculus.

By masking dominance as parental caring, or some such steaming pile of whatnot, parents -- and teachers -- try to blur the distinction between domininance and education. In the real world, we have cops, with their 12 gauge buckshot, their 9mm sidearms, their truncheons, their pepper spray, their CS incendiaries, their fists, their shoes, and their muscles -- all that to dominate us. If we need information, we make phone calls, visit websites, or order books online. Nobody in their right mind, and almost nobody in their wrong mind, would ever confuse the two.

Violence is vital to establishing dominance. If your toddler starts smashing things, you can pin the kid down with your weight and wait him out. When he finally quiets, you can set a kitchen timer for ten minutes, telling the kid if they stay silent and don't struggle, then when the bell rings, you'll let them up. One misstep on their part, and you restart the timer, adding five minutes.

After dominance is established, violence should be obsolete. "I'm the big one, you're the little one, and we both need me to teach you how to survive on your own." Once that's established unequivocally, there is no need to 'reinforce' it.

From there on, the big one clues in the little one. That's the basis for all education.

By RoseColoredGlasses (not verified) on 26 Nov 2007 #permalink

I think that RoseColoredGlasses (unintentionally?) makes an excellent point: the world is full of ... umm ... "controversial" theories about how to raise children. What we need is less theorizing and more empirical testing.

Or maybe parents just need to live by what they say they believe.

How did they control for the possiblty that the causation is genetic and not directly related to parental behaviour?

The study misses the point: parenting, at best, has only "moderate" effects on the attitudes of children. This ground is well covered by Judith Harris in "The Nuture Assumption." In a nutshell, parenting matters, but the primary environmental influence on children is their peer group.

If I may be more direct: the best way to help kids become good adults is to set up the conditions for them to befriend "good" kids while avoiding "bad" kids. Obviously this is easier said then done and near impossible with adolescents.

But, for example, I know that my son's friend Adam is extremely negative toward school. Worse, he tries to recruit my son... "It's stupid...right?" is a common refrain. On the other hand, I know that Bobby, Charles and David are getting excellent grades and are good,caring kids with involved caring parents. So... my spouse and I set up play dates with Bobby, Charles and David. By doing so, we help influence who my son befriends and considers his peers.

In short: parents parent by influencing peer-group formation... the peer-group teaches its members.

I disagree with RoseColoredGlasses. By post #1 I was reminded of Thrasymachus in The Republic and his statement that justice is only the advantage of the strong over the weak, a claim that Plato spends virtually the rest of The Republic refuting. I think there are other, better ways of teaching someone something than by establishing your dominance over them. In some cases, it is necessary that the child respond to you quickly and obediently, as in the case of the child about to run out into the street, but if a child respects you enough, then they will listen to you. And respect is not the same as dominance. Often the two go hand in hand, but they are not intrinsically one in the same. Establishing mutual trust and respect in a relationship can be equally as effective in education as establishing your dominance over someone. I taught small children (ages 3-5) for 2 years and my class productivity increased literally ten fold when I finally accepted my role as student as well as teacher. When I placed myself on the same level as my children and actively attempted to learn from them as well as teach them, it made all the difference in the world. Of course I know more than a 5 year old in terms of hard knowledge of the world, but I tried to never approach the situation as one who is superior. I tried to listen to them and to learn from the kids as well as to teach them. Admittedly, this is much harder to do, I think, than to dominate someone, but one of the things that makes this world so beautiful is that everyone is different and each has something to give to everyone else (even if it isn't done intentionally).

I think Bryan5 has a point there. I always preferred teachings in a more friendly atmosphere with mutual respect than someone towering over me and telling me what I must do.

RoseColoredGlasses, with whom I vehemently disagree, was addressing parenting. Bryan5's response, in which I see merit, is misplaced a response because it addresses teaching. The two are far different. For starters, most teachers have 15-30 kids to deal with; most parents have 1-3 children.

My father, by all accounts, was a masterful teacher. But his pedantic style was intolerable to his children. His students had him for 9 months, 50 minutes a day. I had him as parent on a permanent basis.

The study is careful to distinguish between parents' beliefs (philosophy) and actual behavior--but strangely does not do the same with the teenagers. While it strains credulity to believe that children's behavior would match parental philosophy when their behavior does not, it might not correlate with parental behavior either. In any case, both parental philosophy and behavior are those perceived by the children, not judged by a disinterested outsider (let alone one who might have some objective ways of measuring, say, altruism).

For the record, I love how any post on parenting brings out the crazies with their bitter, angry (crazy) axes to grind.

By Robert Rushing (not verified) on 28 Nov 2007 #permalink

on the bright side, if another 1190 or so people who are still bitterly angry at their fathers leave comments, wouldn't be a statistically significant sample to use in some kind of study?

By greg from daddytypes (not verified) on 28 Nov 2007 #permalink

Wait, the children reported on the parenting they received, then on their own behaviors? This is a highly confounded design - the same participants are reporting on both variables, and any correlation is going to be largely due to shared variance. A better design would look at parent-reported parenting and child-reported helping behaviors (but this is still confounded by the fact parent and child share genes (and therefore share specific personality traits and a predisposition to a certain way of reporting), and a MUCH better design would look at observed parenting behaviors and observed child helping behaviors (observed in structured lab tasks or using a naturalistic design).

Student, how does some observer's results tell you anything about what the child is perceiving? What difference does you 1-10 scale of defined behaviours mean if it oversimplifies the design and doesn't capture the full range of variation.

I think the design was all right for what it was intended, a preliminary study, but worry that these 233 students might be from the same school district or general geographic location. Interpreting the results to generalize across all students isn't correct if you aren't taking into account certain sociological factors surrounding the student (including peer group associations mentioned in posts 6 & 7). It wouldn't surprise me to see different sets of significant correlations for different subsets of society.