How important are parents really? Two opposing views

Opinion 1. Peer Group and Teachers are more important.

The role of parents in a child’s development has long been seen as crucial. Great minds like Freud and Peck, among many others have highlighted generations of parents’ inadequacies and the effect this has on the subsequent adult. This idea is borne out every day in my practice where clients seem to be held to the past by tentacles of guilt and obligation. Living dysfunctional lives and making the same mistakes with their own children, some seem unable to break the chains of parental influence, even later in life.

It appears to be a universal thought that we are a result of what our parents made us, good or bad and not many people would argue with that. However, not everyone has the same idea. In a highly controversial book published in 1998 and highlighted in a Scientific American article ten years later, Judith Rich Harris did her best to blow this theory to pieces. In her book, The Nature Assumption, (just reissued) she claimed boldly that :

“parents matter much less, at least when it comes to determining the behaviour of their children, than is typically assumed. Instead, a child’s peer group (and the teachers they come across) are far more important”

Harris bases her ideas on her own research and other studies that she claims prove the more common theories of parental influence as “deeply flawed”. Her main motive for writing the book was to show parents that parenting didn’t have to be such a difficult, anxiety-producing job, that there are many different ways to rear a child, and no convincing evidence that one way produces better results than another. She also claims that the idea that parents have a major influence on the behaviour of their children is also quite a new concept and states that in the past fathers, in particular, had little to do with child-rearing apart from disciplining children when they came home. In this time, praise and affection were limited so as not to spoil the child, physical punishment was used to keep children in line and the children were expected to conform strictly to the rules of the house. Harris counters all arguments that today is better by saying that even though children are treated better today, people are the same and “children today are just as aggressive as their grandparents”

Harris’s alternative theory is based on the greater influence of peers, teachers and genetics in the development of child behaviour. She says that children quickly learn to behave one way in the house and another outside when with other people. During the socialisation of children, they are more likely to be influenced by same-sex peers than parents, says Harris. Equally, rules set by teachers (and indeed their personality ) also determines how a child will behave. Due to the socialisation theory, children will often break up into groups in school causing certain behaviour traits as they try to comply with the social rules set by peers. Harris claims that too often in the case of bad behaviour in school, parents try to deal with a solution at home rather than pushing for the school to help where the root of the problem lies.

Opinion 2. Parents are the biggest influence.

There is a fine line between good and bad parenting styles but one thing is for sure..get it wrong and your child will suffer in adulthood! The difficult thing is to work out what is the best style and to consistently apply it. Not an easy job under the best of circumstances and we mostly all get it wrong. However, the consequences of inadequate parenting can be seen everywhere. Adults who suffer from depression, perfectionism, lack of self-esteem can all pinpoint the start of this to upbringing and parenting styles.

As parents, we feel our job is give our children more than we had, to make them the best they possibly can be. We work hard, we push them, we love them,  we sacrifice ourselves, maybe our career and relationships for the “sake of the kids”. And yet it never seems enough and something always seems to be missing. It seems that children generally tend to succeed despite the parents rather than because of them and spend their adult lives trying to make sense of what went before. So how can all this good intention go so horribly wrong sometimes? Firstly, parents had parents too and are also a product of a “parenting style”. They often carry this forward as an example and a model of how it should be done (or not).  Secondly, even with the best of intentions, it is sometimes hard to push through optimum  parenting styles when dealing with everyday stress, especially when there is more than one child. So, we muddle through, do the best we can under the circumstances without realising we are sowing the seeds of dysfunction in the next generation.

In our attempts as parents to show the right amount of discipline or protection, we are often too strict with our children. Most parents believe, wrongly, I might add, that children dealt with strictly go on to become balanced, polite adults. Setting harsh limits may certainly temporarily control behaviour and a parent may feel that the job is done but it takes away a child’s ability to self-regulate behaviour, one of the best tools a parent can give a child. Instead harsh limits will more often than not trigger resistance. They also see themselves being controlled from outside.  Get it right and they will self-internalise their own limits of behaviour brought about by loving, emphatic limits. The ability as a parent to listen as well as talk is absent in this style and research has shown that children from authoritarian parents tend to more rebellious, bully more, learn that only “power” works and suffer more from depression and low self-esteem. On the other hand, authoritative parents set boundaries but are much more democratic, assertive but not over hard. Is then the alternative permissive parenting where few demands and boundaries are set?  Permissive parents set few limits on their children’s behaviour and while showing love and empathy act more as a friend than a parent. The parents have low expectations of self-control and subsequently, rarely discipline their children. They are generally more nurturing and loving with their offspring but boundaries are often grey and when done wrong, can lead to poor social skills, children who are self-centred and demanding or lack self-esteem due to not recognising borders.

During the early 1960s, psychologist Diana Baumrind conducted a study on more than 100 preschool-age children (Baumrind, 1967). She identified four important dimensions of parenting:

Disciplinary strategies

Warmth and nurture

Communication styles

Expectations of maturity and control

Using this as a guideline, she came up with four distinct parenting styles, authoritarian, authoritative, permissive and uninvolved.  In addition to Baumrind’s initial study of 100 preschool children, researchers have conducted numerous other studies than have led to a number of conclusions about the impact of parenting styles on children.

Authoritarian parenting styles generally lead to children who are obedient and proficient, but they rank lower in happiness, social competence and self-esteem.

Authoritative parenting styles tend to result in children who are happy, capable and successful (Maccoby, 1992).Permissive parenting often results in children who rank low in happiness and self-regulation.

These children are more likely to experience problems with authority and tend to perform poorly in school.

Uninvolved parenting styles rank lowest across all life domains. These children tend to lack self-control, have low self-esteem and are less competent than their peers.

It would be easy to suggest that all parents should adopt an authoritative style as that has shown the best results. However, this disregards the many factors that go into to creating a parenting style in the first place such as education, culture, parental influence and social situation. The answer lies in the co-operation between two different individuals working together for the good of their children.

4 Thoughts

  1. Interesting information. I regretfully say I have put a lot of blame on the “parental” figures in my life for how I have turned out. I showed signs of unusual behavior since I was around 5. Regardless, as I’ve grown I made a lot of decisions on my own. I’ll always wonder if the way I was brought up had significant damage to my mental health. Still, sometimes I think I blame everyone else because I don’t want to accept reality.

  2. I feel there is no wrong answer here. Some kids (myself included) have been influenced by their parents. I grew up in a single parent household (with my mom) and now that she’s passed I’ve come to see how she clearly had me under the influence of her manipulative teachings.

    Don’t get me wrong, I loved her (and still do), however a lot of my OCD behaviour and my anxiety comes from years of her telling me how to act and how things should be. On the other hand I believe it’s also who we hang around with as children. Our peer groups growing up.

    As a kid, other children had their effect on me, good and bad, and it’s made me who I am today.

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