The Science of Child Rearing: Research and Opinion on Parental Involvement


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The authoritative parenting style is most effective. Image by batluck

The comedy magazine The Onion created a minor furor when it posted a faux article, “Study Finds Every Style of Parenting Produces Disturbed, Miserable Adults.”  According to Yahoo! the story created “real confusion” when people in Santa Rosa did not realize the study, supposedly conducted by local researchers,  did not actually exist.  While the mix-up is amusing, real confusion does exist about what is scientifically known about child-rearing.

Early Views on Childhood

Throughout recorded history, children have not fared well. Much written about children was derogatory.  American psycho-historian Lloyd deMause quotes references to children who were called “beasts” or even “demons.”  The importance of childhood as a distinct time in human life became more well-accepted with the advent of psychoanalysis as developed by Sigmund Freud.  Freud emphasised the importance of early experiences, and of stages of child psycho-sexual development. Later, Jean Piaget developed his theory of cognitive stages of child development.  Childhood emerged as a distinct time in human life.  No longer were children treated, or understood, as merely short adults.

As the importance of childhood became understood, different ways to raise children became of interest. The early cross-cultural research of American anthropologist Margaret Mead included comparisons of child-rearing practices in the Samoan islands with those in the United States.  Her advocacy of on-demand breast feeding, supported by her personal pediatrician, Dr. Spock, made waves.  Feeding on schedule was the norm at the time.  The “right” way to raise children became open to debate.

The Four Parenting Styles

Mom and Child: Photo by schwa23

Four basic parenting styles have been identified by mental health researchers: indulgent, uninvolved, authoritarian and authoritative.   Of the four types, only the authoritative parenting style has been found to be without detrimental consequences. Authoritarian parenting can lead to poor social skills and low self-esteem.  Indulgent parents may find children develop behavior problems, while uninvolved parents raise children who grow up to do poorly on all fronts.

According to the Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education, authoritative parenting “balances clear, high parental demands with emotional responsiveness and recognition of child autonomy.”  Authoritative parenting “is one of the most consistent family predictors of competence from early childhood through adolescence.

The “Tiger Mother” and Parental Involvement on the Playground

As  researchers shed light on child-rearing practices, parents took the resulting parenting advice to heart. Much of the fallout from the interest in child-rearing research by parents is positive.  Over time, it appears that serious child abuse has been decreasing.  Even spanking is on the decline.

American parents have come to favor authoritative parenting, which emphasizes balancing parental standards with a child’s autonomy. The traditional Chinese parenting style of Amy Chua as described in her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother led to editorials in in the media, including The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and in  The New York Observer,  where Chua was labeled a “maternal monster.”  The writers found Chua’s rigid insistence that her girls earn all As, and play instruments exceedingly well or face having their toys destroyed, extreme.

Do kids have more fun when parents aren’t watching? Photo by Agrid

In a similar vein, a recent study printed in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine uncovered evidence that parents and other adults on the playground inhibited children’s play, while the presence of other active children stimulated play.  These findings further bolster the argument for balanced parenting that allows children some autonomy.

Family Mealtimes Yield Positive Outcomes

Shared family meals has repeatedly been associated with better school performance, and less delinquency. In fact, University of Minnesota’s William Doherty, professor of family social science,  has stated that shared meals are the strongest predictor of positive behavior in children.  Teens who share meals with their parents five to seven times a week are less likely to use tobacco, alcohol and marijuana.   Shared meals provide parents a place and time to explain expectations, and give children a platform to ask questions and negotiate.

Children who share meals with parents are also more likely to eat fruits and vegetables.  But that probably wouldn’t surprise anyone in Santa Rosa if it were reported by The Onion.


Donahue, D. ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ is Actually Rather Tame. USA Today. (January 19, 2011). Accessed November 13, 2011.

Floyd, MF et. al. Park-based Physical Activity Among Children and Adolescents. American Journal of Preventative Medicine. (September 2011).41(3):258-65.

Francis, E. E. Family Dinners Linked to Less Risky Behavior in Teens.  (September 22, 2011). Accessed November 13, 2011.

AtHealth Parenting Style and Its Correlates. Accessed November 12, 2011.

deMause, L. The Emotional Life of Nations. Accessed November 12, 2011.

The New York Observer. Sigel, L. Declawing the Tiger: A Spankig for Amy Chua. (January 19, 2011). Accessed November 12, 2011.

The Cutline. Stableford, Dylan, Fake Onion Story Causes Real Confusion for California Towns. (November 4, 2011). Accessed November 12, 2011.

The Onion. Study Finds Every Style Of Parenting Produces Disturbed, Miserable Adults. (October 26, 2011). Accessed November 12, 2011.

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