On Psychology

Jewish World Review Dec. 15, 1999 / 6 Teves, 5760

Dr. Wade Horn

Good News and Bad About Parenting Duties

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- A year has passed since the publication of Judith Rich Harris' book The Nurture Assumption in which she argues that when it comes to child development, genes and peers matter more than parents.

At the time, I was hopeful that the book would be dismissed largely as a not-so-subtle attempt to relieve the guilt of too-busy parents who spend more time at work advancing their career interests than in the home advancing their children's interests. To some extent, my hopes were realized as both the popular and the scientific press offered quite a few negative critiques of Ms. Harris' work.

Econophone Still, from time to time, I continue to see her quoted as if her assertion that peers matter more than parents is well-founded in the scientific literature. The latest example was her inclusion in a list of "experts" asked by a popular family magazine to identify the most significant changes in parenting over the past century. She was put in the company of such bonafide child development specialists as Harvard University professor Jerome Kagan and noted author and psychologist Penelope Leach,

Hence, I feel compelled to take yet another opportunity to offer evidence for why parents do matter. (I can hear my 94-year-old grandmother now: "Wade, dear, they actually pay you money to write this stuff?").

This time, the evidence for the importance of parents was published in a recent issue of the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology by psychologist Dennis Ary and his colleagues at the Oregon Research Institute. These researchers set out to discover why some teens develop antisocial and delinquent behavior and others do not.

To accomplish this, these researchers studied 523 adolescents beginning when they were 14 years of age and following their progress until they were 17. By following these teens over time, these researchers were able to determine what factors at age 14 predicted which teenagers developed antisocial and delinquent behavior by the time they were 17.

Consistent with other studies, these researchers found that associating with deviant peer groups does, in fact, increase the likelihood that adolescents will engage in deviant behavior. That is, when teens run around with delinquents, they are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior themselves.

Trakdata At first blush, this would appear to support Ms. Harris' thesis that it is peers, not parents, who matter. But remember, these researchers studied these teens beginning when they were 14. By doing so, they were able to determine that certain family factors also were strongly associated with later delinquency and why.

Specifically, what these researchers found is that family dysfunction -- and particularly high family conflict, low parent-child involvement, and lack of adequate parental monitoring -- led these adolescents to begin associating with deviant peers in the first place. That is, when teens grew up in high conflict families, they tended to avoid being at home. When this family atmosphere was combined with parents who did not adequately monitor their children's whereabouts outside the home, the teens were more likely to begin associating with deviant peers.

In contrast, teens who had a good relationship with their parents and were closely monitored by their parents outside the home were very unlikely to begin associating with a deviant peer group and hence very unlikely to engage in antisocial or delinquent behavior.

These findings match up quite nicely with other research by noted psychologist Gerald Patterson. According to his research, when parents respond to oppositional, non-compliant and aggressive behavior during their children's preschool years with harsh, ineffective, and inconsistent discipline, their children tend to escalate such behaviors. As their children become more and more oppositional, non-compliant and aggressive, the parents start to withdraw from these children as a means of avoiding unpleasant interactions. This leads to even greater inconsistency in parental discipline, and hence, even more oppositional, non-compliant, and aggressive behavior.

By the time these children enter school, their pattern of non-compliant, oppositional, and aggressive behavior is likely to have become firmly established. When displayed in the school environment as well, these behaviors frequently lead to peer rejection, resulting in a drift toward associating with other rejected, aggressive children. Without adequate parental monitoring, this group of rejected, aggressive kids as teenagers can begin to get into serious trouble.

The mistake that Ms. Harris makes in her book is that she only looks at the end point in this process. Teens who hang out in a deviant peer group are more likely to engage in deviant behavior (duh!). What Ms. Harris overlooks is the longer developmental process leading to hanging out with deviant peers in the first place, a process which begins much earlier in a child's life with ineffective, inconsistent parenting.

Does this mean parents are always to blame for their children's troubles? Of course not. Genes certainly play a role, and so do peers. But research shows over and over again that children's relationship with their parents and parental effectiveness in monitoring their behavior are the most important factors leading to whether or not as adolescents children will engage in high risk behavior.

That's both the good and the bad news. It's good news in the sense that whether or not our kids avoid high risk behaviors in adolescence is, to a very large extent, determined by us, their parents. The bad news is that it also means if we want our kids to avoid these high risk behaviors, we can't leave raising our kids to someone else. That's our job.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn