What makes a good parent? Really? What can we do to ensure that our children grow up happy, healthy and wise? There is a lot of advice out there – some of which, on the surface seems quite sage. But history is replete with really bad advice – some based in moral authority and some in the ill formed wisdom of so called experts. New advice is commonplace and how often have you been confused by the contradictory nature of yesterday’s and today’s tips? There are enough schools of thought out there to confirm and satisfy almost any advocate of any “reasonably sane” parenting approach and even some not so prudent approaches. There is a pretty good reason for this variability and I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, lets look at a recent article from Scientific American MIND that provides a summary of a scientific analysis resulting in a list of the top ten most effective child rearing practices.
In What Makes a Good Parent? the author, Robert Epstein, shares the results of a study on parenting skills that he carried out at UC San Diego, with a student (Shannon Fox). The results were presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association this past summer. Epstein and Fox looked at parenting techniques advised by experts, strategies commonly employed by parents, and strategies that seemingly had efficacy in the real world. They collected their data online from nearly 2000 parents who volunteered to take a test of parenting skills at Epstein’s website: http://MyParentingSkills.com. The test was devised by Epstein based on the literature, whereby ten parenting techniques that had robust evidence with regard to good outcomes were selected and measured. Epstein had the 10 skills assessed by 11 parenting experts to further evaluate their validity. The participants answered 100 questions pertaining to their agreement (on a 5 point agree to disagree scale) with the ten parenting variables (e.g., “I generally encourage my child to make his or her own choices,” “I try to involve my child in healthful outdoor activities,” “No matter how busy I am, I try to spend quality time with my child.”). In addition to these questions the test asked questions pertaining to important variables such as income and educational levels of the parents, marital status, parenting experience, age, as well as questions regarding the happiness, health and functioning capacity of their child/ren.
The results, coined by the author as The Parent’s Ten, make perfect sense to me as a parent of three reasonably well adjusted, happy and successful college students. They also gel with my exposure to the literature and my experiences guiding parents within my professional capacity as a child psychologist over the last 16 years. Here is an excerpt from the article:
“Here are 10 competencies that predict good parenting outcomes, listed roughly in order from most to least important. The skills – all derived from published studies – were ranked based on how well they predict a strong parent-child bond and children’s happiness, health and success.
- Love and affection. You support and accept the child, are physically affectionate, and spend quality one-on-one time together.
- Stress management. You take steps to reduce stress for yourself and your child, practice relaxations techniques and promote positive interpretations of events.
- Relationship skills. You maintain a healthy relationship with your spouse, significant other or co-parent and model effective relationship skills with other people.
- Autonomy and independence. You treat your child with respect and encourage him or her to become self-sufficient and self-reliant.
- Education and learning. You promote and model learning and provide educational opportunities for your child.
- Life skills. You provide for your child, have a steady income and plan for the future.
- Behavior Management. You make extensive use of positive reinforcement and punish only after other methods of managing behavior have failed.
- Health. You model a healthy lifestyle and good habits, such as regular exercise and proper nutrition, for your child.
- Religion. You support spiritual or religious development and participate in spiritual or religious activities.
- Safety. You take precautions to protect your child and maintain awareness of the child’s activities and friends.“
Although you may not find these results all that surprising, Epstein suggests that they are because if you look closely at the list you’ll see that the vast majority of the skills are parental personality and/or life skill issues. As this study suggests, a child’s well-being, it seems, is most closely associated with how a parent treats oneself (e.g., manages stress and maintains a healthy diet and exercise regimen), how one gets along with the co-parent (e.g., maintains and models important healthy relationships), as well as the efficacy of one’s life skills (e.g., sustains income and plans for the future), and how deeply one values education.
These “skills” constitute a full 50% of the list and when weighted, based on the degree of association, likely account for a huge and disproportionate amount of the influence on child happiness, health, and adaptive functioning outcomes. And several of the other “skills” (e.g., affection, respect for the dignity of children, degree of parental control imposed, and even level of spirituality) really are behaviors that are known to vary associated with one other crucial, yet unmentioned variable.
You see, the presumption here is that children are brought into the world as malleable blank slates that we can mold through the type of parenting we employ. The reality is that parents who employ these skills likely do so as a function of their intelligence and personality, which are heavily influenced by their genes. The truth of the matter is likely that children whose parents care for themselves, have good social skills, and plan for the future will have happier, healthier, and wiser children, but not because of the parenting skills employed during their upbringing, but because of their shared genes. Epstein did not control for the effect of shared genes in this study. And neither have most of the researchers looking at the relationship between parenting behavior and children outcomes (Pinker, 2002). The current research from behavioral genetics suggests that the home environment, as it is influenced by parents, accounts for 0 to 10% of the variance in the wellness outcomes of children! Heredity accounts for about 50% and the child’s peer group accounts for the remainder (40-50%) (Pinker, 2002).
Epstein asks what parental characteristics are associated with good outcomes and finds that women produce only slightly better outcomes then men. Likewise they found that married individuals produce slightly happier children then divorced parents. Gay individuals actually report slightly happier children then do straight individuals. And no differences were noted associated with race or ethnicity, but more educated individuals had the best outcomes. He notes that “Some people just seem to have a knack for parenting, which cannot be easily described in terms of specific skills.” He’s got that right! That knack, although unacknowledged by Epstein, is largely a function of one’s genes. Temperament is a personality trait that we know is hugely influenced by genes and Epstein notes that “Keeping calm is probably step one in good parenting.”
So we have another conundrum. We are lead to believe, based on the results of this study, that we, as parents, can shape our children, and thus by engaging in The Parent’s Ten, produce happier, healthier, and wiser children. But can we really? Is there an illusion of cause here? Are these simply correlations? The findings of behavioral genetics would suggest that this is an illusion – that these variables vary in predictable ways based on the influence of a third variable – genes.
Next week I’ll delve into this notion of whether how one parents really matters. This exploration comes with significant discomfort for me as I am a behavioral child psychologist with 11 years of training and 16 years of practice steeped in the belief that I can help parents make a difference in the lives of their children. I have long accepted the notion that the nature-nurture debate is not an either-or issue. I see in my life and practice that outcomes are clearly the result of the influences of both nature and nurture. Regardless, I have held the notion that it is parenting to a large extent, that accounts for a large portion of the nurturing influence. Now I have to look carefully at the evidence, be willing to shed the ideological notion that we are blank slates, and accept the reality of the situation, no matter how hard and contrary they are to my beliefs. This necessitates true intellectual honesty and deep scientific scrutiny.
Epstein, R. (2010). What Makes a Good Parent? Scientific American MIND. November/December 2010. (pgs 46-51).
Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. New York: Penguin Books.