7 research findings that every parent should know

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By Angelica Shiels Psy.D.

There is so much “stuff” out there on parenting; It is sometimes difficult to parse out the latest theoretical fads from the findings that have been actually suggested by research.

To make matters more complicated, every child is different, and there are certainly outliers that don’t fit study conclusions. And even more dizzying is the fact that when it comes to general research conclusions (typically correlation), there are other factors that make “causation” difficult to discern. (Was the child’s positive outcome because the parents parented a specific way or because the child has easy-going genetics that the parents also share, thus allowing them to parent a certain way?)

Anyway, here is a little bit about what we DO know about parenting choices and child outcomes…

1). Parenting style matters.
Authoritative parenting is the most likely to produce happy, confident, and capable children. Authoritative parents have rules and limits, but those rules are not necessarily unwavering as parents are also responsive to their children and willing to consider objections and listen to questions. When rules are disobeyed, authoritative parents focusing on supporting and teaching, even when punishment is necessary.

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2). Marriage stress matters.
Dr. John Gottman’s laboratory found correlations between marital discord, parent-child interaction, and child outcomes. Kids raised by patents who had critical, defensive, contemptuous relationships showed more antisocial and aggressive behaviors, had difficulty regulating emotions, focusing, and self-soothing. These kids also showed higher levels of stress hormones in their urine.

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3). Stability matters.
There have been many studies documenting poorer outcomes for children in single parent homes. But what if stability is controlled-for? In an Ohio State study that separated families in groups of unchanging vs. changing (instead of single-parent vs. married), the kids who were raised in the unchanging environment, regardless of it being single parent or married, fared the best. There were no significant differences in behavior problems if they lived in stable single-parent homes or in stable married households. One researcher urged, “Unless you think that you and your partner can make it for the long haul, I think it would be better for single moms to avoid moving in with romantic partners. Family transitions are hard for kids.”

4). Validation and Empathy Matter.
“Validating” means letting your child know that his feelings are understandable, and “empathizing” means letting your child know that his feelings are relatable. Kids who have parents who validate and empathize instead of ignoring or punishing feelings are better-off in a number of areas. Studies show that children of empathetic parents are better able to manage their own difficult emotions, can soothe themselves and get angry less often. They are also more relaxed. These children have good social skills and are liked by their peers. Overall, they have fewer behavior problems, good attention skills and are more effective learners. Validation and empathy are possible and fitting even when teaching and punishment are called-for. Even if you need to teach your kid that it’s not okay to slam the door when he’s angry, you can first empathize with how frustrated he must be that he failed his driver’s test.

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5). A Fact about dads that I wish wasn’t true, and a note on consistency/follow-through:
Kids of “progressive dads” (very involved dads, adept at parenting on their own) do NOT fare as well as kids of “traditional dads” (dads who are involved, but at his wife’s direction.) In an Ohio State study, kids of “progressive dads” were aggressive and acted out in school nearly as much as the kids whose fathers were disengaged. The study found that the dads were commonly inconsistent with discipline and lacking in awareness of which discipline strategy to use. It was this observed inconsistency which appeared to negatively affect the kids.  I hate that this single measurement of “dad skills” gives dad a bad rap, but is it possible that discipline reactions are less innate to men (as some things are less innate to women?)? Regardless of what is going on here, we know that consistency and follow-through are paramount.

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6). Intentional praise matters.
Praising specific efforts, regardless of whether or not the outcome was successful, helps boost motivation, self esteem, and confidence. However, praising kids constantly, even for things that require little effort on their part, can backfire. Kids who are constantly praised for “nothing” may feel frustrated and unmotivated when faced with tasks that don’t automatically come easily. (This concept is so applicable that it was explained the opening chapter of the book “Nurture Shock”)

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7). Self control and the ability to delay gratification matter.
The most well-known research which demonstrates the lifelong importance of self control and delayed gratification is the Stanford Marshmallow Study. In his study, preschoolers who were able to delay gratification (say no to one treat now in exchange for two treats later) went on to have better academic, vocational, and social outcomes later in life. But even more importantly, we know that that this skill can be taught: By example, by chores and allowance, by required accountability, and by engaging in activities that require sustained attention on something not-constantly rewarding (such as Family Game Night).

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Emotional intelligence, why it matters more than IQ (Daniel Goleman)

Baumrind, D. (1967). Child-care practices anteceding three patterns of preschool behavior. Genetic Psychology Monographs, 75, 43-88.

Baumrind, D. (1991). The influence of parenting style on adolescent competence and substance use. Journal of Early Adolescence, 11(1), 56-95.

Bernstein, D. A. (2011). Essentials of psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Hockenbury, D. H. & Hockenbury, S. E. (2003). Psychology. New York: Worth Publishers.

Maccoby, E. E., & Martin, J. A. (1983). Socialization in the context of the family: Parent–child interaction. In P. H. Mussen & E. M. Hetherington, Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 4. Socialization, personality, and social development (4th ed.). New York: Wiley.

Maccoby, E.E. (1992). The role of parents in the socialization of children: An historical overview. Developmental Psychology, 28, 1006

Ohio StAte University, (2008, june 1) Mom’s involvement key to dad’s involvement in child care. Science Daily.

Gotman & Katz, “Effectiveness of Marital Discord on Young Children’s Peer interaction and Health,” Developmental Psychology, Vol. 57 ( 1989), pp. 47-52.

Gotman, Katz, & Hooven, “How families communicate emotionally, Links to child peer relations and other developmental outcomes (Mahwah, N.J.: Laurence Erlbaum, 1996).

MDRC; The Effects of Marriage and Divorce on Families and Children; Gordon Berlin; May 2004
“Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps”; S. McLanahan, et al.; 1994

Department of Human Services, Victoria, Australia; Guidance on Promoting Children’s Stability; Jenny Papageorgio

News Medical; Family instability and child well being; March 2007
National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth: Facts About Homeless Education

Dush, Claire Kamp. “Child Success Depends On Family Stability.” Medical News Today. MediLexicon, Intl., 1 Sep. 2009. Web.
6 Aug. 2014.

Selby EA, Braithwaite SR, Joiner TE, Fincham FD. “Features of Borderline Personality Disorder, Perceived Childhood Emotional Invalidation, and Dysfunction Within Current Romantic Relationships.” Journal of Family Psychology, 22(6):885-893, 2008.

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2 thoughts on “7 research findings that every parent should know

  1. Point 5 – how well do mums do when the father is the primary care giver? I suspect they will fare just as poorly as the Dads. But the ultimate factor to be considered here is less style and who takes direction from whom, but how well the parents communicate!

    • Totally agree with the parental communication part! So are moms inconsistent when dad is the primary caregiver and mom is the “progressive, involved partner”? Interesting question, and I really have only one data point on that one (and I would say the mom was more “detached” than inconsistent in the case I am thinking of.) Bottom line is, good point and I have no idea!

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